Kenyon Review, Thrust, by Eileen G’Sell



Eileen G’Sell

Thrust. Heather Derr-Smith. New York, NY: Persea, 2017. 96 pages. $15.95.

The woman levitated over Barcelona.
She had a rifle for a clavicle.
Her eyes were two black star dogs
bruising up the light.
—“The Insurgent,” Heather Derr-Smith

“The true fight is with the duende . . . but there are neither maps nor disciplines to help us find it.”
—“Play and Theory of the Duende,” Federico García-Lorca

On a first read, the latest collection from Heather Derr-Smith, Thrust, could be read as a feminist battle cry against a history of brutalization: brothers protect sisters from angry fathers, only to become assailants themselves. Brothers turn into lovers who turn into fallen Confederate soldiers turn into a “boy back from the Troubles” who grabs the speaker by the hair. But the carnage wrought across time and space defies easy classification, so fraught it is not only with violence but with defiantly female lust and grit, a devotion to “bloodthirsty joy” that stamps the ground like a matador. Separated into three sections shifting from the trenches of the Southern Gothic to the likes of Camus, Bowie, Nabokov, Antonioni, Guns N’ Roses, and the Velvet Underground, Thrust measures the violence wrought by men against the ethos of men renowned for their artistic output. How to reckon with a masculine power both toxic and intoxicating?

“No dichotomy in them,” starts a line in “Quarry,” reflecting on the daringness of teenage boys jumping from a cliff, “more than lust, / an inhabitation that is perfectly at home / in its leap and thrust.” “Thrust” describes both the force of their desire and the lack of conflict in its exertion. “At fifteen I wanted to be them. I want to be them now,” the speaker confides. Throughout the collection, the “I” both fears and longs to be like men insofar as they unapologetically move—and move through—the world. “I’m a woman // who wanted to be a man, loved male bonding, / John the Beloved, head in Jesus’ lap,” declares the speaker in “Dear Apocalypse.” “I don’t believe in magic but I do,” she admits, sending her beloved “a spell from a pharmacia in L.A.,” seeing every trace of him—from his handwriting to old Polaroids—as talismanic.

In the title of the collection, “thrust” transforms into an imperative verb, and it seems no coincidence that a generous handful of the poems—“Hide Out,” “Gouge,” “Flash,” and “Stitch” among them—implores us to either aggress or heal from the wounds of others doing so. In another—“Girls, Guard Your Hearts, Cover Your Heads”— the devastations of violence are experienced from the first sign of becoming a woman. Clouds snag on “the hooks of tree limbs” as a coyote “the size of a myth” crosses paths with the speaker walking with her brother’s daughter. Singing “a hymn of awe from our shut mouths,” the pair spills berries over the “red dust . . . like blood in . . . surprise,” a metaphorical menses triggered by both menace and wonder. For this poet, Nature plays more sorceress than mother.

At the same time, magic—both spiritually sanctioned and wonderfully witchy—endows the women in this book with the power to confront, disrupt, and transfigure. Ouija boards make several cameos, a postcard becomes a “paper charm,” and a Eucharist host is compared to a man “ached and open” before sex. Derr-Smith translates Christian mythology—from the swagger of Satan to the miracle of Christ made living bread—into her own idiom of woe and redemption. “The edge of our claws, scratching in the dust / some message the scripture left out of the canon,” she writes in “I Come to the Garden”. In a later poem, she sings of the “gospel of the woods . . . the caterpillar . . . the ground squirrel . . . the bloodroot and jack in the pulpit.”

If for Derr-Smith the Divine is everywhere, so too is darkness. “My fingers read the braille / of the dead, their messages / rolled like scrolls into glass bottles, / letters to someone on the other side,” she writes in “Eat,” her role as medium a means of sustenance. “Some dead in a pit, / and you don’t know their names, just a jolt of recognition,” considers a speaker pages on. These poems are not only attuned to the forces of mortality, but attain their life force from them. “The duende does not come at all unless he sees that death is possible,” said Lorca; for Derr-Smith, it is, and must be, always.

Echoing the Spaniard’s dictum that “the duende’s arrival always means a radical change in forms,” the stanzas of Thrust have a fractured quality—as though the many bones the poems name (“mandible,” “clavicle,” “cervical vertebrae”) are mirrored in the cracked couplets and staggered lines forming the body of the verse. Lifting a few lines from A. J. Liebling’s 1949 boxing treatise—“there are hundreds / of delicate articulated bones / in the human head. So don’t get punched”—Derr-Smith’s speaker does get punched, but swings back just as hard. “No need to be scared, Bang, boy,” she says in “Sweet Spot.” “I’ve got you, won’t let go.” Two poems later, she professes, “I am unregenerate. / I will not take any of it back,” owning both her own hurt and power to hurt as crucial to being alive.

“One Last Thing,” the collection’s final poem, nearly breaks from lineation as one long stanza that spills across the page with Whitmanian abandon. Addressing its auditor directly, the poem launches, “I have to tell you the story of the night you didn’t want to see me / and I was alone. Muhammad Ali died and all I wanted was to tell you / what you already knew . . . how love can get up on the count of nine.” The “you” is clearly a love who has done just that, after years as witness to the speaker’s worst suffering, but also to her most luminous self. “When you kissed me on the side of my face,” she says, “did that mean you were giving me your blessing, just to be in your life, / which somehow translated for me into being alive?” Here we have echoes of a poem in the first section—“To Keep Alive with You”—in which the speaker goes “back to Virginia to dig up what was lost, / out of the vomit-scented clay,” the earth of puke and blood and guts an endless source of regeneration.

And this regeneration recalls Lorca’s concept of “duende,” the “roots fastened in the mire that we all know and all ignore . . . that gives us the very substance of art.” Thrust pulls us into the mire to bring life out of death, glory from the gallows, as though the endurance of abuse might endow women with a creative energy as momentous, as heavy, and as dangerous as duende itself. By the conclusion of Thrust, we find ourselves in the most honored of positions: a front row seat to what Lorca deemed “the quality of something newly created, a miracle,” a voice stumbling to its nimble feet after nine seconds on the canvas. Thrust explores a mindscape both painfully personal and sweeping in scope, as if the poet’s lived and imaginative experience is at one with the legacy of loss at the core of being female. “[T]ell me you’ll see me soon—tonight,” she entreats. “Tell me you’ll meet me ringside inside the fight.” With these final lines of heft and blow, the poet leaves us shadowboxing our own duendes as though no one—and everyone—can touch us.