Winner of the 2021 May Sarton New Hampshire Poetry Prize!
In mid-fourteenth century Yorkshire, the plague pandemic wipes out half the inhabitants of a remote village. Left behind is a twelve-year-old shepherd boy, who with the help of his dog survives near-starvation and a brutal winter and keeps his flock alive. In the months and years that follow, he struggles to reconnect with the life around him. He tells his story in a sequence of eighty-four sonnets.
From the judge:
When faced with the daunting task of choosing one winner out of more than 430 manuscripts submitted for the May Sarton New Hampshire Poetry Prize, what does one look for? A first poem that hooks you and pulls you in—and then poem after poem that refuse to let you stop reading. A mastery of craft. Music. An undulating urgency of tone that leaves no doubt about the emotional impulse that drives the work. A voice that you trust, even when the syntax or the material is difficult. And that material needs to feel relevant, of substance, necessary. Not a Soul But Us is an achievement on every front. Set in rural England during and after the bubonic plague pandemic of 1348-49, this verse novel drives to the heart of what we humans are capable of when boiled down to our very core in the struggle to survive—and how, in more ways than one, it’s not our intelligence or our resiliency, but love and the non-human animals that save us. Timely, remarkable, and unforgettable, these eighty-four sonnets are so well crafted that we cease to notice the form, swept away as we are by the current of the story and its song.
—Meg Kearney, author of All Morning the Crows and The Ice Storm
and judge of the 2021 May Sarton New Hampshire Poetry Prize
Advanced Praise for Not a Soul But Us
Not a Soul but Us is a beautiful, fluently accomplished, and poignant story that vividly plunges us into the confounding, swelling horror of a medieval English plague—even as it celebrates its young hero’s commitment to living. Richard Smith is true to the voice of his shepherd protagonist and the rigors and pleasures of the sonnet form he so stunningly employs, combining a gripping story with the power of the poem to give us a narrative that is at once natural and artful, authentic to its time and immediate to our own. Not a Soul but Us is a tour de force tale of a boy—and his canine companion—who amid isolation, loss, and fear, turns the labor of surviving into an unexpected thriving. It is a tale in poems that delights the mind and rouses the heart.
Not since A. E. Housman’s 1896 The Shropshire Lad has a poet produced such an endearing classic as Richard Smith’s verse novel Not a Soul but Us in eighty-four rhyming sonnets. Told in spare, authentic language reflecting the Anglo-Saxon world of its medieval Yorkshire village, the sequence describes how an orphaned boy and his dog bond to survive, along with their sheep, during and following the bubonic plague. As each episodic sonnet flows into the next with a natural cadence, readers will pause on the masterful couplets. Recounted over a decade, with occasional flashbacks, the story unfolds to reveal the two alone in a landscape of rich pastures, often in perilous weather, guiding their flock. Emerging into manhood, he recalls his early days with the pup, and his father’s words: “‘Good Lord above,’ / he said, ‘dogs always save the boys they love.’”
Paula Deitz, Editor of The Hudson Review
Richard Smith began life as an English major. After graduating from Princeton, he worked in publishing for twelve years, including stints as managing editor of The Hudson Review and World Policy Journal. In his thirties, he retooled as a clinical psychologist, earning his Ph.D. from the University of Maryland, College Park, and now maintains a private practice in Washington, D.C. He is on the core faculty of the Center for Existential Studies and Psychotherapy, for which he gives presentations on plays and novels, ranging from Sophocles to Toni Morrison, exploring how an existential sensibility can lend these voices fresh urgency. He and his partner live with their two dogs, who inspired the sonnet-writing that led to this book.