A review of Tongue Screw by Heather Derr-Smith

Reviewed by Brian Burmeister

Tongue Screw
by Heather Derr-Smith
Spark Wheel Press
Paperback: 68 pages, April 6, 2016, ISBN-13: 978-0989783743

In Tongue Screw, the third poetry collection from Iowa Writers’ Workshop graduate Heather Derr-Smith, life is displayed as a gorgeous struggle. Throughout the entirety of these 42 expertly crafted poems, Derr-Smith paints complicated situations and emotions, but brush-strokes nothing more so than love, even in the face of darkness or despair.

The recurring themes of this brilliantly haunting collection run a powerful range, from tragedy and trauma to innocence and carnal desire. Derr-Smith offers an intimate, unyieldingly honest account of her life and experiences. The subjects, the lines, the words all scream truth. Often brutally. Often beautifully. Her themes and approach leave a lasting impression.

In “Abduction,” which begins, “I don’t know who kidnapped who,” we see love intermixed with violence, a concoction equal parts need and want. Perhaps the aching culmination of which reaches its pitch in the lines: “I just wanted to belong to you, weave your veins through the loom / of my bones.”

In “Family Dinner,” a series of comments and brief actions around the supper table reveal the tensions in the house. Among them, the desire of the teenage daughter for her step-father. The fantasy of “some promise land of love” persists despite the step-father’s outward, kneejerk anger towards her and her mother.

Elsewhere in the collection, innocence manifests itself in many lights. “Rhododendron” showcases innocence as danger:

…another man
pulled up beside the truck of a Mennonite girl
and mouthed into the speeding wind:
Your tire is flat and she read his lips and believed.

This poem, and so many others in the collection, speaks of the sexual and other violence that exists in the world, that which Derr-Smith names “the power of darkness.” It’s subject matter some readers might not want to explore. For those that do, a stunning balance can also be found in poems like “Hound of Love” which explores the wonder of innocence:

I watched my oldest daughter lying on her bed beside her sleeping little sister.
The oldest caressed the naked arm of the youngest
and then reached out to smooth her hair.

She thought they were alone.
She did not see me, watching from behind the cracked door.

I was surprised she could love her
without knowing I was there.

The impressions from Derr-Smith’s motifs alternate between haunting and comforting. The images she utilizes are as well. Her skill as a poet is perhaps at its finest when painting descriptions. Effective snapshots such as “The air, like rough, white parchment” from “Backfire” and ethereal lines like “Stem rises from them, mists like feathers in ascent, / hundreds of ghosts unwrapped from their packages” from “Impartation, Sarajevo, Bosnia” are striking, and serve to plant to reader firmly in the respective moments, sensing them the way Derr-Smith herself does.

Tongue Screw challenges the reader, forces one to feel. There is a lot of despair in this world, but so too is there hope and joy. Physical affection is often lovely in these poems. Intimacy is a spiritual act: Praise the body. Your body. And mine” (“Plymouth Fury, 1988-2015”). And perhaps nothing is more useful in combatting life’s difficult moments than recognitions like “Grief adjoining joy. I fall in love like this, / swallows careening out of the bruised / bluffs of me” from “Adonai.” Derr-Smith might break us down at times with tales of destruction and loss, but only to make us appreciate the good, that thing called love all the more.

About the reviewer: Brian Burmeister teaches writing and communication at Iowa State University. His writing can be found in such publications as The Feminist Wire and Thin Air Magazine, and he can be followed on Twitter @bdburmeister.