The poetics of patience and mutiny

A review of Carmen Giménez Smith's 'The City She Was'

Carmen Giménez Smith (left) and Julia Cohen (right).

The City She Was

The City She Was

by Carmen Giménez Smith

University Press of Colorado 2011, 64 pages, $16.95 ISBN 978-1-885635-19-8

We have the terror of collectivity. And then we have the joy of collectivity. Carmen Giménez Smith reminds me that frenemies lurk around the Hard Rock Cafés of any city. But she also reminds me that we don’t have to go to the mall alone to pierce our ears and I’m relieved. And when we return to our homes and look at our freshly pierced ears in our solitary mirrors, Giménez Smith’s poetry forces me to confront the fallibility of the self, how “the houses project their occupants.” Her poems are riddled with both acerbic acceptance and sincere longing for transformation, so they live in a constant or conflicted state of attentive revision. She writes: “We’ll live off the grid. We’ll live sort of off the grid and spend too much money on organic marmalade.” She writes: “Some of it will be true and some of it will test what we know.” Giménez Smith’s newly released fourth collection of poetry, The City She Was, tests what we consider comfort, how we approach or appreciate disguises, how we recognize forgiveness, and whether smugness is our nation state.

Comfort: If we’re comfortable with the familiar, the expected, then what happens when we become aware of the staid quality of existence? Giménez Smith examines this strange purgatory and illuminates the various voices struggling to decide, on a very basic level, how to live. In the titular poem, she writes:

The day is bare as white,
so I stay inside
lest the wind change me.
I sort my miniskirts to trade
with skinny girls at Buffalo Exchange.

Here, the speaker retracts from an outside that might inflict unwanted “change.” This possible, uncontrolled transformation contrasts the safe alternative of considering what clothing items might be out of fashion and ripe for exchange. Irony and sadness emanate from the recognition that trading attire could be considered “change,” but not one that welcomes the unexpected or is removed from the dictation of current trends. The decision is safe and it’s hard to resist safety. “This could get serial,” Giménez Smith threatens.

If we choose to read the collection as housing multiple voices, then Giménez Smith never fully sides with any particular speaker. If we choose to read it as one voice, layered through the complexities of human inconsistency, then we’re given a candid battle between will and awareness, need and excesses of desire, compliancy and risk. The poems that grow from discomfort abandon the familiar for a more startling adventure. In the first poem, “For About Five Minutes in the Aughts,” the speaker is defiant, confrontational, and explains, “Pills / made me shaky, but I filled myself with pills because they made me shaky.” In contrast to the prior excerpt, this narrator does not avoid a level of potential distress. The altering experience is worth the adventure, and the exposure to newness, to this modification, becomes the primary reason for engagement.

Disguises: Puppets, apartment ghosts, hair, and costumes embody and animate the emotional landscape of The City She Was. Giménez Smith investigates how much of the daily is artifice and whether deception and authenticity can simultaneously share space within this city. In “The Walk,” the female character recognizes the fakery but then becomes complicit to its puppetry:

That’s the way a walk renews —
she makes her way through
the imperfect city and discovers
how the world is people
with hand puppets. People who shiver
metal sheets for thunder,
and then she squints her eyes
to fuzz it more, to prettify.

She notes the people creating false interaction with hand puppets and the unnatural thunder booming from ground level. Yet, the discovery stagnates when she chooses to squint “her eyes / to fuzz it more, to prettify.” Disguise instigates denial.

In “Under a Wan Sun” and “The Grand Tour,” however, disguise is the springboard that enables invention. The first stanza of “Under the Wan Sun” begins:

Blue gets plucked from the dresser for today’s
costume. I’m feeling demure, so I want
the faux-priss of the opera-princess-drag queen.

If we’re dissatisfied with or feel trapped in a particular behavioral pattern, costumes offer a device to extricate ourselves from a pervasive mood. The speaker shifts from being reserved and shy to embracing a flamboyantly gender-bending stance. Freedom from expectation. “The Grand Tour” considers how artifice could actually evolve authentic love:

I want to be the thinking I invented last night,
but I’ve already run out of disguise.
Instead it’s some amour, plush velvet,
some pretending to read Proust. We’re propping
up the corpse of romantic love.

In this instance, disguise allows the rethinking of non-romantic love. After it “runs out,” the corpse comes back. When available, disguise offers the space for experimenting with a new, undefined kind of love, possibly one that can flourish when the energy of “propping up” the old is redirected. Giménez Smith asserts, “my costume, my itinerary,” and thus, the clothing’s performance transforms into a journey of unexplored territory.

Forgiveness: If we are to be forgiven, if we are to boldly ask for forgiveness, then to what are we admitting guilt? And do we need to distinguish the self from the other in order to ask this of someone else? Forgiveness is concerned with the boundaries of identity and how it permeates the edges of our temporal location to transform notions of the self. The poems of The City She Was confront the reader with the voice(s) of someone who recognizes and relishes a distinct selfhood, yet finds culpability in its behavior. Giménez Smith contradictorily admits:

I am blameless but not blameless.
I am pristine but not pristine.
I am hugged but not hugged,
all of us not hugged. All of us teem
with shame but most of all me …
These halting plaints remain basis
for the teeming discord I am,
a patient with a gram of mutiny.

If you’re changing the disposable diaper of your child then you might be an attentive mother but a bad environmentalist. If you’re helping a student with a paper after class, you might be a diligent and supportive professor but at the same time, completely forget that it’s your brother’s birthday and be a neglectful sister. We might be distinct, but we’re also inconsistent, complex, and ultimately many things at any moment, rendering us “a teeming discord,” “blameless but not blameless.” And importantly, we’re not alone in these contradictions. Yet, we have a limited perspective in that we do tend to prioritize the self both in negative and positive terms. As Giménez Smith writes, “All of us teem with shame but most of all me,” and in another poem, “Turn me in, offer me coffee, take me soup, and privilege my opinion.” Here, she captures what we are always asking forgiveness for: the desire to have our opinions privileged, to seek out and love those who show us this favor.

And through our love and kinship we inculcate others. Giménez Smith commands, “Whisper that secret name we learned from the movies. I’ll forgive you. / We’ll puppet voices and mug shots, and you can forgive and forget. We’ll bury our past.” In these suggestions, the language of pop culture creates bonds that either lead to forgiveness or the need to be forgiven. Costumes are the shovels that bury memory’s corpse. But then what happens in the present and the future?

Last night,
I couldn’t stop describing my flaws to you as serious
and possibly fatal, but you darned every incision.
Which is to say

I can tell you everything that ever happened
because it’s already done. What about
what I am capable of? I’m afraid of the next day.

Candid fear and the possibility for revision mark the shift between the city she was and the landscape she can become. The speaker must figure out how to draw the blueprints for this new city with some, all, or none of the “darned” flaws. Capability is patience with “a gram of mutiny”; it reads as both/either a threat of continued failure and/or a fresh prospect waiting to be lived out through interaction.

Smugness: I’m not sure if I mean self-satisfied, in that these poems know the audience, wink at the reader. Or if they embrace the humor of pointing at the mirror. Or ironic insouciance that actually reveals a deep concern for how our language connects us. The City She Was constructs a skyscraper of tragicomic stanzas that towers over us:

“I stuffed his inbox with amendments and bloated metonymy.”

“I collected fancy pens / and yeah, I’m working on an article
about animé and Marxism

“We deforest, we slay with biting humor, and wait for what is
offered in return. / It’s what we vow because we’re caught in
each other’s complex web.”

“You refer to everything through cinema, say, this is so Before Sunrise
or I had a Last Tango in Paris yesterday. You’ll blush. You’ll twist away.
Oh, the trash you’ll read in magazines as scripture!”

Is it more understandable to name the emotion you experience or name the movie that embodies a similar emotional atmosphere? Giménez Smith plays with mixing highbrow and lowbrow language to remind us how concentric circles of cultural referents shape identities and systems of communication. Maybe these are the modern versions of O’Hara’s “I do this I do that” poems. They don’t exclude in order to show a picturesque world nor do they preach. Instead, they revel in all aspects of the contemporary, even the spirit-crushers: “the tiny babies and the IED-blown / leg” or “because of baby bear not finding mama bear.” O’Hara writes, “and my heart — / you can’t plan on the heart, but / the better part of it, my poetry, is open.” Giménez Smith echoes this sentiment when she claims, “my sloppy heart a sponge filled with blood to squeeze onto / any circumstance. Because it is mine it will always bleed … / I’ve got so much blood to give inside and outside of any milieu.”

When I finished this collection, I realized that I wasn’t a tourist in this city, but a citizen (for better or worse or blood). Giménez Smith does not rely on us to discover the city she is now, but I think she asks us to consider our culpability and interconnection as we glide into the next moment. We must sit ourselves “alone / under the single bulb of self-interrogation.” And from this solitary place we can open: “You start as strangers with each one and they become a compartment in you with her habits and her sweaters, with all his stray bits: a Cornell box in you, the wreckage, each of the hims, the hers, the them.” Toward the end of the book Giménez Smith asks, “Is it okay to say Bible in here?” There is no answer. Does God offer an alternative to the self’s privileged opinion? This is one possibility. Regardless of where you place your faith, and how faith might center or decenter the self as a gesture to the Other, Giménez Smith encourages us to question the responsibility of location and where we’re situated in relation to others: the human voice, touch, literature, cinema, our wreckage, and the love habituating within.