To Reclaim the Body: Thrust by Heather Derr-Smith (Persea, 2017)
I once heard the poet Jane Hirshfield say that all true poems are compassionate at heart. To test her theory, she explained, she thought of the least compassionate-seeming poem she knew: Philip Larkin’s “This Be The Verse.” It passed her test, she said —not because the poem is forgiving or tender, but because of its knowledge of karma, of how suffering is transmitted between generations.
I thought of Hirshfield’s compassion test over and over while reading Thrust. Heather Derr-Smith’s clear-seeing, courageous poems, though unlike Larkin’s work in many ways, understand karma just as deeply. Thrust confronts childhood abuse and its legacy; the poems never flinch from their tracking of physical and emotional violence. At the same time, they glow with the compassionate knowledge of how that violence is handed down.Many of the poems—particularly those in the book’s first section, which focuses on the speaker’s childhood—are set in Virginia, where the long-ago horrors of the Civil War still suffuse the landscape. “Hazel Run” describes the speaker playing in a creek where once, during the Battle of the Wilderness, “the swollen banks burst” from “carrying so much blood”:
The children knew this history by instinct,
war between brothers. Your body
just obeyed, crouch and clinch, the reflex against another body
in its strike.
Before the violence of adulthood was the violence of childhood
and before that a whole history of bloodshed as inheritance.
We were always injured down there in our woods, in the waters
of our creek,
ankles serrated, braceleted in barbed wire, our fingers stippled
from the pincers of the crawdads we caught and released,
drops of our cells like blotches of ink
on the wet pebbles,
seeping into the sparkling sand.
Bodies of water recur throughout the book, serving as sites of beauty and danger, ties to the land and means of escape. In “The Pond,” a boy’s drowned body is “surrounded…with yellow caution tape,” while in “Gouge,” the Rappahannock River becomes simultaneously a grave for “all you drowned girls” and the means by which one girl—the girl who survives—can flee: “Look, the girl’s hands turn to oars / and there she goes / far beyond the skies.” “Mercy Seat” begins with water as mystery, power, and primitive life force: “River at night, carbon black, half-open door, a valve. / The fountains of the great deep burst apart.” This bursting apart of the “great deep” feels like the perfect metaphor for Derr-Smith’s poems, which move with fluidity and force, pouring their hard-won knowledge into long, rangy lines, often spilling and zig-zagging across the entire width of the page, as if struggling to contain their own energy.The second and third sections of Thrust map the speaker’s journey into a sometimes radiant, sometimes terrifying world of adult sexuality and desire. “Violence lives in close proximity to love,” writes the poet and critic Claire Schwartz in a review of Ocean Vuong’s Night Sky with Exit Wounds. “Violence and desire are both shades of intimacy.” Thrust bears out this truth. As the poems tangle longing, ecstasy, obsession, damage, and grief, they trace the constantly shifting terrain between connection and estrangement, nourishment and hurt. “Julian Schnabel in His Studio on West 111th Street,” which I read over and over, beautifully exemplifies the rapid-fire movement in Thrust between the seemingly opposite states of being that can—that so often do—make up human love. Meditating on a picture and then on the letters she exchanges with her lover, the speaker muses: “…this is just a photograph, // the trace of light on a lens. And these are just words, the trace of your hand.” And then, with barely a breath in between, “In the postcard I write back to you // I am pressing my hand to your chest. I am touching you, full stop.”
Even a rape the speaker experiences is given to us as multifaceted, never fully what we might expect: “He entered through the doorway, / pushed me into the room. I comforted him, spoke // to him like a mother to her son.” (“Mercy Seat”) I love the capacity of these poems to hold tensions and extremes, their relentless seeing-into of the body and heart.
At every turn, the poems in Thrust refuse easy dichotomies. The natural world is both luminous refuge, in which rain is “handwritten in the leaves of the silverbell” and migrating monarchs become “a maple tree flaring its fires,” and the scene of pain and danger. The contradictions are clear in this single line from “Catherine’s Furnace”: “My home was No Man’s Land, perfume of magnolias in the dusk.” As hungry as the speaker is to escape Virginia and her past, she’s equally hungry to return. “I went back and mapped it out // with GPS,” she says in “Hazel Run.” “Nothing had changed.” And “To Keep Alive With You” opens, “I came back to Virginia to dig up what was lost / out of the vomit-scented clay.” The speaker longs to witness and transform. As “Zugenruhe” insists, “Reclaim the body, its pain / even, ours to thrill and tremble…Trust me.”
It feels easy to trust this poet’s capacious vision, her refusal to turn away or settle. Thrust draws the reader deep into its world; its poems pull as fiercely as home and history and sex tug at the speaker. And, in their open-heartedness and hunger for what’s real, they invite our participation, as in the final lines of “Zugenruhe”: “Time to get going. / Friend, accompany me.”
Originally published Salamander Mag