Review of Tongue Screw by Heather Derr-Smith



Tongue Screw by Heather Derr-Smith

Spark Wheel Press



Review by Nicelle Davis


Tongue Screw opens with an epigraph from Rilke’s Letter to a Young Poet. Normally, I would read this as a kind tribute to a great poet, however there is something pivotal about Heather Derr-Smith’s inclusion of the quote. Rilke advises a young poet that, “Perhaps everything that frightens us is, in its deepest essence, something helpless that wants our love.” Derr-Smith goes after countless monsters in her latest collection—from missing family to loneliness, poverty to perversion, desire to shame. These are the monsters she helps us love and love harder with every surprising line. Beyond the content of the poems, there is another monster lurking—something undefinable—something beyond language.


What speechless stories reside in the daily odysseys of the ordinary? Can a poet push past the limitation of language to capture the pulse of life? How can a feeling be contained? How can a feeling become contagious? Is there meaning? Can we can make meaning? These questions outline the real monster Tongue Screw asks us to love. In the opening poem, “Heathens,” Tongue Screw is conjured-up with the lines,


 I stood at the edge of the world, tongue screwed shut.

 But words came from all four corners—

 even speechless, that power was unstoppable.


From the very beginning of the collection the poet asks us to look beyond the page. It isn’t enough to read the poems; we must examine the images to discover the unsaid stories contained in their juxtapositions. This “speechless” and “unstoppable” tension give the collection a pulse. There is something alive about this book.


Many of the poems read like collages. The poem “Advent” looks at the arrival of a brother’s postcard and the appearance of disturbing neighbor, all alongside the coming of bird pulse and hoarfrost. So much good and bad happens simultaneously in every poem that an acute melancholy is generated. Nothing is easy, yet all is beautify in the world of Tongue Screw.


I would warn readers that there is an intimacy to this collection that requires submission. There is something uncomfortable about the poems; after all, unseen monsters linger between familiar images. It is easy to get lost in the fear and violence here, the same fear and violence found in this world, but these monsters take up residence in the domestic. To love a “monster,” Derr-Smith has us live with it. In the poem, “Thrown, Sarajevo” the persona (who seems to be the same voice throughout the collection) is able to understand her own suffering by witnessing it in others. Derr-Smith writes:


 I saw a house being carried down river.

 It started in one place and ended in another.


 Wild dogs, nipples black with new birth,

 shuffle back at the edge of the wood.


 From the bridge in view of the house, I threw

 every gift you ever gave me: …


This account of a war torn country, compared to the poems about home, is comparatively approachable. In the poem, “Gnats,” the “monster” is close enough to sink its invisible teeth into the persona:


 from the Mennonite farm next door.

 I can’t get rid of you, ghost, Mother


 banging on the door. Your harm

 over my head, threatening to descend


 into my breath and shut it. The lambs

 are frantic now, the clouds hemorrhaging


 with blue tongues.


In these lines, something within the mother is able to terrorize. By this logic, mothers are to be loved and feared. From this perspective, it seems plausible that every macro act of violence finds its genesis in the micro.


The genius of this collection seems to be Rilke’s ideas about monsters. In his first letter to a young poet, Rilke claims, “Nobody can advise you and help you, nobody. There is only one way. Go into yourself.” It’s clear to me that Tongue Screw is a collection that ventures into the “self.” The rooms are dark and the persona is scrambling to make sense of the edges. This is a book Rilke would love, just as he loved all monsters.




Nicelle Davis is a California poet, collaborator, and performance artist who walks the desert with her son J.J. in search of owl pellets and rattlesnake skins. Her poetry collections include The Walled Wife (Red Hen Press, 2016), In the Circus of You (Rose Metal Press, 2015), Becoming Judas (Red Hen Press, 2013), and Circe (Lowbrow Press, 2011). Her poetry film collaborations with Cheryl Gross have been shown across the world. She has taught poetry at Youth for Positive Change, an organization that promotes success for youth in secondary schools, MHA, Volunteers of America in their Homeless Youth Center, and with Red Hen’s WITS program. She is the creator of The Poetry Circus and collaborator on the Nevermore Poetry Festival. She currently teaches at Paraclete High School.