Shannon K. Winston
The City She Was, by Carmen Giménez Smith
The Center for Literary Publishing, $16.95.
It’s hard to neatly summarize Carmen Giménez Smith’s The City She Was, which speaks to the collection’s greatest strengths: its capaciousness and attempt to write human experience in the wake of war, cultural decay, and illness. This collection, however, is neither apocalyptic nor melodramatic; with rare skill, it straddles the line between despair on one hand, and beauty and grace on the other. The act of walking, searching, and observing urban life—or “the city she was”—are central to this collection in which the many speakers describe what it means to desire and imagine. In “The Walk,” one of the first poems in the collection, the speaker begins: “Like a wino I trolled the streets/in search of an elixir for my/melancholy” (6). Rather than dwelling in this melancholy, the speaker learns “the way a walk renews—/the way she makes her way through/the imperfect city and discovers/how the world is people/with hand puppets” (ibid). While celebrating the precariousness of life and its possibility for regeneration, these lines also suggest the darker, more threatening ways in which our lives are manipulated beyond our control.
Motley, surreal figures come to life in Giménez Smith’s poems: a Virgo with gold teeth, addicts, sisters, and a lunatic’s voice to name but a few. Reminiscent of Baudelaire or Allen Ginsburg, this collection is a haunting portrait and critique of modernization, capitalism, and urban life. Yet, Giménez Smith’s poems, unlike Baudelaire or Ginsburg’s, are explicitly interested in gender, especially sexism and societal pressures on women. In “Vita,” the speaker describes her life in prose form: “I professionally wrestled men and my ring name was Kristeva/ the Krusher because I was brutal and post-feminist” (7) Later, in the same poem, she confesses: “I invested too much in the thing itself. I should have divested./I fell into every role offered to me” (8). While the speaker in “Vita” acknowledges her anger, in “Beauty Regimen” the speaker expresses defeat and feelings of inadequacy in the face of gender norms:
The TV casts its viridian glare, makes me
a tepid silhouette against a mouse hole.
The hole’s a shadow tunnel into my chest,
One-way ticket. If only diligence were love. (15-18)
Through a wide range of poetic styles and forms, Giménez Smith’s poems explore the relationship of the human body to its environment through estranged and surprising images that challenge readers’ sense of the quotidian, like “the shadow tunnel” in the speaker’s chest” above. In “The City She Was,” the speaker’s “head is the sound/of a body’s erosion” (12) and “After a speck of morning light,/[her] amnesia thicken, then rises like bile” (ibid). Like many of her images, this one asks readers to confront both the beauty of morning light alongside abjection, i.e. bodily atrophy. The underside of moments of joy is sorrow, and sorrow always brings a kind of jaded, disillusioned beauty.
Giménez Smith also writes about illness, addiction, and fear. In “For About Five Minutes in the Aughts,” the “I” is sick and “healed from pneumonia, from broken bones, from agoraphobia. Drinking bear gave me panic, so whisky” (3). Teetering on a fine line between recovery and ruin, the speaker’s body and personal life maps onto the larger problems of our current historical moment. For, by later alluding specifically to New York City and to 9/11, she is talking about the “Beginning of the Decline of Our Smug Empire” (3).
Deftly showing rather than telling, this collection moves between the personal and the collective. It uses images that ask readers to see their world more closely and, above all, differently; and seeing differently opens up the possibility and hope for beauty and change. In “In-Between Elegy,” for example, the “we” describes making “eddies we could not see/to see” (24). In the prose poem “Pageant of Scrutiny,” the speaker describes watching women at the laundromat as they return her gaze: “I’m their spectator framed in my window…They sit outside of their labors to watch me watching them” (22). Sight becomes an opportunity for self-reflection as the poet moves through the collection and grapples with otherness, memory, and the interrelationship between self and city. There is no subject matter that is too mundane for The City She Was; Craigslist, vacuum cleaners, pills, and salesgirls all make their appearances in what becomes a rich, teeming landscape of human emotion and a vibrant, sometimes desperate “dream life” (12).
Goodbye, Flicker, by Carmen Giménez Smith
University of Massachusetts Press, $15.95
Winner of the Juniper Prize for Poetry, Goodbye, Flicker is a lyrical collection that narrates the story of Natasha, a girl who turns to fairy tales and fantasy in order to escape the trauma and disappointments of her childhood—one defined by poverty, an absent father, and abandonment. Giménez Smith’s collection interweaves the young girl’s story with rich intertextual allusions, including the Grimm Fairy Tales, Hans Christian Anderson, Shakespeare, and Yeats. In a playful but also painful way, these fantastical worlds create a place for Natasha, “the owl-faced girl with a loud family” (6) to hear her own voice, and to escape into a place where the world appears easier to navigate. In “What In Was,” the speaker who we might assume is Natasha begins:
Easier as an alternative
to poke around the forest’s theatrics
in books and in bones,
the saturation of wolves and elves
witches and wishes. Dark and light.” (1-5)
While these lines initially suggest a passiveness to fairy tales—the ability to follow predetermined paths— Giménez Smith ‘s poems upend this assumption by urging a more critical engagement with the racial, gender, and class dynamics of these tales. This same poem ends with the exclamation “Reinvention!” (9), which one could say is this collection’s larger project as it examines the problematic ideology of master narratives or canonical texts. In “What Out,” Natasha undoes the idealism of Snow White when she says “like snow white./wasn’t cared for by dwarves. no prince” (22). Alienation is a central theme in Goodbye, Flicker, whose very title suggests transience and loneliness, which is made explicit when the speaker declares amidst numerous invocations of broken family ties and strained relationships, “[m]y isolation, now there’s a theme” (15).
Natasha’s relationship with her mother is one of the most compelling and complex relationships in the collection; it is filled with tenderness, rage, and shame. “In What Rage Was,” the speaker inscribes her relationship with her mother in the story of Snow White. Throughout, the mother speaks only Spanish, for example, “Dicho” or “Come se dice” (23). As the only words in Italics, these words stand out on the page, highlighting the linguistic divide between the mother and daughter’s cultural and class context versus the regal world of snow white. These dynamics are made even clearer at the poem’s end:
Someday my day will come
when she learns to say it right,
when she learns not to be all peasant,
just queen. For now,
she stumbles over it, leaves me
to this foreigner’s world. (11-16)
While these poems often communicate a sense of helplessness, melancholy, and an “undoing” of the speaker (12), Goodbye, Flicker is nonetheless about the power of rewriting narratives, which in turn shape new histories. For Giménez Smith, the tale is an especially fertile genre—with foxes, ghosts, dwarfs, and fairies—for reclaiming experience, opening up new possibilities, and igniting the imagination. In the final poem, “No More Dying Then,” the speaker defines the tale as “a world/of condition:/hazy stirrings,/nascent threats/in the air and/the cutup body/reconstructed by wish” (64). This collection is itself a beautifully yet raw reconstructed wish, not of nascent threats, but nascent threads that reclaim and reanimate the lost voices of the world.
Carmen Giménez Smith is the editor-in-chief of Puerto del Sol and the publisher of Noemi Press. She is the author of multiple publications, including but not limited to Odalisque in Pieces (University of Arizona, 2009), Reason's Monsters (Dusie Kollectiv, 2011), Can We Talk Here (Belladonna Books, 2011) and Glitch (Dusie Kollectiv, 2009). Giménez Smith teaches creative writing at New Mexico State University and Ashland University.