by CARMEN GIMÉNEZ SMITH
Reviewed by MARIETTA BRILL
City Lights Books, 2018
Media distortion, mental illness, trauma, and oppression are among the fixations of this splendid, fierce, and essential new book by Carmen Giménez Smith, who shrewdly documents a woman’s passage into and through these crucibles. Late in the book, the speaker declares from an isolation tank, “I wanted to know/what I was without the noise of the world buzzing in me” (“Oakland Float”), a phrase that encapsulates the book’s intent. This poem, like most in Cruel Futures, is written in the first person, and seems to arise from the same snappish, passionate, and wry voice of a woman of many dimensions—a person of color, a wife, mother, an artist, aging, young. In this way, the collection has a universality—furious, blisteringly critical of “the noise”, glaring at the future—while retaining the specific and personal. Giménez Smith’s self-inquiry drills down relentlessly until it reaches central, molten truths.
In service to truth, the speakers in Cruel Futures are self-critical, confessing it all: their anger, envy, vanity, and desperate love. In “Careworn Tale,” an aging woman asks, “What is beauty” and admits, ‘…beauty is the top five obsession/even late in my day.” But there’s a vital reality folded into this confession that’s less about vanity than the struggle against oppressive standards of beauty women often fail to live up to, especially if they are older and have darker skin:
... I mean
physical beauty, and not of the soul
and I also mean movie ideals
that exempt me for my darkness.
Traces of rage fill my face, then
become my truth borne out as
a category of beauty.
This ferocity penetrates many of Giménez Smith’s poems. No one is spared her levelling scrutiny, least of all the first-person self of the poems, some of which are equal parts self-deprecation and social criticism. But Giménez Smith is at her best when mining psychological and emotional truths. The speaker describes herself in “Dispatch from Midlife” as “a monster/of my own making who quit/one guile for this new one/wanton with indifference.”
Some of the finest poems in Cruel Futures are the long ones, including “Ravers Having Babies.” in which the speaker seeks to define her place in the knotted intertwining roles of mother and daughter. As the mother of teens, she observes, “Each gesture and turn of phrase/ is under scrutiny and I’m hopelessly set/which means I puzzle I perplex I embarrass.” At the same time, she muses about her own mother and childhood:
I wish I knew what her story had been
Now I’m trying to undo it
though I haven’t worked it all out
I’m sure there will be pain
Oh terrible childhood
what tatters you made of me
though you made me a scrappy little watcher…
In a different segment of this poem about false labor and her now older son, the language dissembles, and the lines elide to create the feeling of time collapsing: “though I felt my child becoming/an insistent storm/like the now-boy in the room/down the hall and then I felt when it /would really happen a pull different/than before an into the relationship/we would have…”
Another long poem, “My Brother Is a Savior,” is also exemplary for its insights into the speaker’s childhood persona, and for the beauty of the language and mastery of form:
we walked the edges of our houses
to find a warm window
Was it there
the self-preservation that hunger
and fear made me
a bewitching hybrid of
broken coat trees and orbiting
blame and flung doors king doctrine
maybe that elemental
gift of fading into the wallpaper
The poem’s word spacing and line breaks work so well to heighten the child’s stumbling search for comfort, and illustrate the gaps in her spirit. Equally deft is the gorgeous and devastating poem, “Bipolar Objective Correlative,” where the indented lines help to visually and musically create the feeling of a divided and disconnected self:
Not to die, but to erase
the self from the mind, if it
weren’t for the corporeal
muck. Other days a lark
breaks through my skin
with chatter and flutter
and turmoil then—
though my mouth is
no villain—I get twisted
into a monster. I chatter
with my lizard brain.
These are among Giménez Smith’s less conventional poems in a book that ranges from straight narrative (“Oakland Float,” mentioned above) to experimental, notably “Migraine Code Switch,” a stoned-out stream of consciousness poem about pain and memory that braids Spanish, English and Latin. At their finest, Giménez Smith’s poems nudge at the boundaries of conventional narrative with a decisive tautness that vitalizes her thematic intent: to pare down to essential truths—as can be seen in this meta segment of the book’s last poem, “Lullaby,” a quotable epigram worthy of any book on craft, but essential to the persona and artistic themes in Cruel Futures.
How precise the nerves
that bear the toll of language.
MARIETTA BRILL's poetry, reviews, and essays have appeared or are forthcoming in Thrush Poetry Journal, hyperallergic.com, About Place Journal/Rewilding Issue, The Brooklyn Rail, The Rumpus, and others, as well as collections created by the Brooklyn-based Sweet Action Poetry Collective, of which she is a member. She and her husband split their time between the Catskill Mountains, Brooklyn, and the West coast where their son and other dear ones live.