It’s inevitable that social media’s ubiquitous presence in most of our lives has changed not just the way we interact with and see each other but the way we read as well; we read to seek out a fuller understanding of ourselves and others, and social media fulfills this need, but in bursts and often without context—the windows without the house.
Much of social media focuses on references to action rather than becoming action—we see this in the rise of Instapoetry, which relies heavily on abstractions, as if the less said, the more of our own meaning we can pour in. None of this is to indict either social media or how some are using it to create and promote a new strain of writing, but it does help us see Heather Derr-Smith’s newest collection, Thrust, as a kind of antidote to the abstract. Through its poems concerning the intersection of violence, sex, and place, Thrust is a collection that verbs.
Winner of the 2016 Lexi Rudnitsky Editor’s Choice Award from Persea Books, Thrust is not content to allude to action when it can instead become it. The poems are firmly rooted in a physical space, the dirt and rust of the South, while also considering human experience as perceived through first the body then the brain and heart, finding this to be a place of infinite danger and surprising delight.
It is sound and often verbs which engine this book through its poems and realizations. We see this even in the collection’s smart title, which carries with it connotations of need, desire, and sex, and the latter as experienced by women cannot be assumed to always be consensual. Several of the poems have titles which follow this impulse, including “Stitch,” “Flash,” “Gouge,” and “Eat.” Through all of the poems, our reading of these titles shifts—sometimes they are commands, sometimes they are nouns—just as the violence at the heart of so many of these pieces both circles and is circled, pushed both away and through.
In “Stitch,” the tension between this shifting (verb as action, noun as acted-upon) highlights the collection’s desire to work through body trauma while according agency to the “she”:
In the house of her childhood, now empty,
rage like chain-lightning threw its fists,
the count in seconds quivering against her pubis. She outlasted them all,
her own cloud of witness. She rubbed her language against the skin of theirs,
the sobbing in the closet behind the silk nightgowns
and the AR-15’s,
a force that had seemed upstoppable, nitroglycerin in her veins,
threatening to blow them all to smithereens. She was untouchable,
outside the reach of God, Heathen.
Passages such as this display Derr-Smith’s tightly tuned attention to our sonic expectations, turning “cloud of whiteness” to “witness,” this poem’s marching song, and the poet’s name Heather turned “Heathen.” We see in here also stitching as an act, piercing, leaving behind it a hole. But a stitch is also a way to heal, and in the traditional craft work of women, stitching can be used to thread to life a story, a document of survival, as it is here when later in the poem she writes: “they had all been frightened of her, how she rose from the blows, / like the ring of a bell, unbreakable.”
The poems in Thrust consciously avoid euphemism or gauzy filters, instead affecting the sensation of action through language and sound, such as in “I-95” with its “labia parted like specimen, like snarl.” The sexual and physical violence these poems depict are offered with precision, a hard-won clarity, born of a desire to understand how assault can feel like attention, which when we are beat-down can feel like love. “I know one thing,” Derr-Smith writes in the poem “Catherine’s Furnace”:
I was worth beating down, a pulp. Someone wanted me so damn bad,
like a desire that was desperate, hogtied.
Didn’t it feel like some kind of love, baby girl, rabbit-punched?
The same poem ends with the lessons its speaker has learned, offered without euphemism: “Make love out of the kick and the punch. / Make beauty out of the cunt, a glowing ember.”
The play with verbs and nouns here is central—the only verb offered is make, a command, with words like love, kick, and punch offered in their noun state, as if to say when we cannot change the nouns we’re given, our only choice is in our verbs.
Thrust also considers the relationship between place and acts, how story becomes history and eventually a legacy. Many of the pieces are rooted in rural Virginia and carry in them an iron smell of soil. Perhaps this is due in part to the poems’ directives to uncover, unearth what is under, as in “Eat”:
Go back to Virginia.
Go down under the earth, where the soldiers
lie tangled together in their roots
Go back to Virginia.
Go down by the river, where the boys of summer
undo their belts. I’ll be waiting there for you.
What emerges here is a concern for the submerged, the hushed-over and glossed up. The roots of Virginia cannot be separated from slavery, from sedition and war, and we’re asked to consider what has come from this, what violence has leached through the earth. Offered as example is this poem’s speaker: “I’m sawn in half, girl in a box. / Split me apart and divide. / Rusty dress, the color of clots.”
Thrust has come to us just when we need it—to listen to the full complexity of women’s experiences. As readers, we are asked not to simply consider a curated photo, posted and liked, but the blood and dirt from which the smile in the frame sprang.
It is a collection that would have us answer the question in the poem “The Virginia Museum of the Confederacy,” “This moment exists, / what are you going to do with it?”
Erin Adair-Hodges is the author of Let’s All Die Happy, winner of the 2016 Agnes Lynch Starrett Poetry Prize. Beginning this fall, she will be a visiting professor of poetry at the University of Central Missouri and the poetry editor for Pleiades.