Monday, March 21, 2016

An Appreciation of TONGUE SCREW by Heather Derr-Smith

Today continues a new series of posts offering appreciations for recent books of poetry. These posts are not reviews, per se; instead, my purpose in approaching these works is to savor this poetry while finding inspiration and lessons for my own. Thus, my goal is not to critique, primarily, but to celebrate.

Time and place are not constants in Tongue Screw (Omaha: Spark Wheel Press, 2016), the third book of poetry from Heather Derr-Smith. Rather, the reader is disoriented and reoriented, with poems that shift location and perspective to offer a new way of seeing.

In this accomplished collection, the poet abuts California and rural America with Sarajevo, and the former two sites are no less harrowing for not being Sarajevo. In fact, in their suggestion of child sexual abuse and their depictions of homeless teen life, they depict an inner war zone, also bloody and fraught with danger. Tongue Screw is a difficult and immensely rewarding read.

California fires and memories of war-torn places intermingle early in the book, and we sense a post-traumatic stress in the voice of the poems, as in “Advent”: “In the middle of the night, a child screams awake. / But it’s only the engine of the refrigerator, faintly.” Home is a difficult construct in Tongue Screw. Some poems depict home as a place where a young teen faces threat from a man, and others show the physical territory of homeless teens in hiding, seeking refuge together. In those poems that are rooted in the adult world, it becomes clear that it is possible to have an idea of home so wadded-up that it never quite smoothes out again.

But for me, the most remarkable thing about this collection is Derr-Smith’s deft handling of the poetic image. She is observant about the natural world, and she frequently provides the odd and wonderful names of things (not a bird, but a nightjar), and her descriptions of the natural environment can be real stunners within this emotionally charged book.

Consider this set of images:
A red fox, like a blood smear
in the wild lilac of my mother’s abandoned homestead,
and black-blotch shadows of hawks and ravens,
                                                                  sweeping rorschachs—

Or there is this one, an observation about a dead wolf:
When he hunted, radiance exhaled from his mouth
like waters breaking from a new mother’s legs.

Or I offer my own most memorable image from the book, from the poem “Tremble”:

Here, pry open this chest:
for you I would give
the juncos with their bellies full of mistletoe
and the long-legged bat, three embryos curled in her womb.

You can see the strangeness, and positioned, as it is, amid the suffering in war-riddled Sarajevo or of a traumatic childhood, it is all the more odd and kind of wondrous. It suggests to me that suffering can allow us to see things more keenly. The world is weirder, perhaps, when it’s trying to eat you up.

I am so glad to have encountered this difficult collection. Though the things it has to tell us can be painful to encounter, I feel deeply rewarded for experiencing Derr-Smith’s keen and incisiveness form of witness.

The lesson to this poet: To lean on the image; to trust it to hold my weight.

Heather Derr-Smith was born in Dallas, Texas in 1971. She spent most of her childhood in Fredericksburg, Virginia. She earned her B.A. in Art History from the University of Virginia, where she also took poetry workshops with Gregory Orr, Rita Dove, and Charles Wright. She went on to earn her MFA from the Iowa Writers' Workshop and has published two previous books of poems, Each End of the World (Main Street Rag Press, 2005) and The Bride Minaret (University of Akron Press, 2008). 

A brief interview with Heather Derr-Smith …

1.     What did you want to be when you grew up, and why?
I really wanted to be a ghost from the Haunted House in Disneyland in Anaheim, California. Those hologram spirits dancing in the cemetery looked so joyful and free, wandering out under the live oaks hung with Spanish moss. When I was an adolescent I would lie in my bed and try to will myself to float out the window and into the landscape to roam.

2.     What is the very best word in this collection? Explain.
My favorite word in Tongue Screw is from my first poem, "Heathens," clairaudience, which means to hear clearly from the spirit world. It reminds me also of my favorite quote from my first poetry teacher, Charles Wright. He says, "Give me the names for things, just give me their real names / not what we call them, but what / they call themselves when no one's listening." 

3.     Describe your worst poetic habit.
My worst poetic habit is sending out manuscripts that aren't done yet, and in the magical act of submitting and paying the $30 fee, I can suddenly see clearly where I need do massive revisions. It's kind of an expensive way to revise.

4.     It’s time someone put out an anthology of poems about ___. Explain your reasoning.
I would like to see an anthology of refugee/migrant poetry. Spark Wheel Press was kicking that idea around recently. Those are voices that need to be heard.

5.     It’s your poetic obituary! Sum up your writing life with an essential (past-tense) statement about your poetry.
Heather Derr-Smith was a poet who wrote out of a deep and honest love for the world, in all its beauty and terror, and a love for others, both friends and strangers. 

Would you like to have your book considered for an Appreciation feature? It is eligible if it is no more than two years old or, better yet, forthcoming. You may send finished books or advanced reader copies to me at Karen Craigo, 723 S. McCann Ave., Springfield MO 65804. You may query at

No comments:

Post a Comment