“My adolescence floats between us too”: A Review of Carmen Giménez Smith’s Cruel Futures
By David Nilsen
“I live on the corner of identity / and shadow” writes Carmen Giménez Smith in “As Body.” The poem comes early in Cruel Futures, her new collection that explores the intersections of her various identities and the contrasts between the roles she plays and has played at stages in her life. These poems are rooted in the daily details of her life, and hold a tangible immediacy and frankness that departs from the abstractions of her 2013 collection Milk & Filth.
She begins the same poem—a piece that serves as a statement of purpose for the collection—by announcing she comes “From a succession of queens.” While finishing the same poem, after lamenting the financial volatility of her vocation, she writes, “Instead I’m still caught up / with the lyric, that working class / bauble anyone can foment.” Queens and laborers share space in her mind and in the lineage of her identity, a “heteroglossia” she addresses throughout the collection.
Cruel Futures continually revisits the contrast between Giménez Smith’s roles as child and mother, showing snapshots of the poet as both daughter and parent. These come fragmented and out of order: abusive father in her childhood, mother with dementia in her adulthood, the desire for children, the transition from being her children’s entire world to a supporting actor in their world.
This is explored most fully in the collection’s most significant poem, “Ravers Having Babies.” The six-page poem explores the angst of moving from being part of the generation of the moment to raising the generation of the next. The poem’s opening stanza looks at the artist’s parental ideals meeting reality:
I tried to make my babies fall in love with
the surrealists but they only want the acid pastels
of the graphic age so the aesthetic pleasuredome
I had planned for them when I was
just an immigrant’s daughter corralling future
reinvention from every TV set is dead
As the poem progresses, she expresses one of the creeping fears of most parents—that we’ll revisit the grimmest aspects of our upbringings on our own children:
My adolescence floats between us too
and that’s the most terrifying specter
that they’ll become the worst of me
Giménez Smith steps back to consider the coalescing identities of her children, balancing both hope and dread around the adult lives they’re stepping into. She wrestles, as most parents do, with the tension between allowing them to develop as their own unique humans but also imprinting part of herself onto them:
I’ll try to let their freak flags fly unencumbered
by my own fantastical wants but pronounce
their slang with the accent of a foreigner
to remind them of their source material.
One can hear the sly humor in these lines, but it melts into the legitimate fears she harbors for children as she sees them preparing to leave her and make their way in what she knows is a brutal, if beautiful, world.
Their personalities are starting to be
unchanging like a tattoo and
I remember what that was to feel
doomed in the boundary of self
how little mercy lies ahead
Just as often, that lack of mercy lies in the past, threatening the optimism any parent must at least keep a finger’s grasp on:
Oh terrible childhood
What tatters you made of me
Though you made me a scrappy little watcher
It is in the past that we visit the grimmest rooms in Giménez Smith’s mind, with glimpses of the hurts endured from her father and a world unwelcoming to the daughter of an immigrant. These come as snapshots, rarely offered context, and the more troubling for it: In “The Hero’s Journey,” she writes, “I had learned / at a young age how mutable the female body / was, everything almost snaps back,” and in “As Body,” she tells us “I became t-minus / nihilism.” Still, she fought on, as the hero must. “I want to survive my story,” she utters in “Dear Medusa,” a poem that plays with the idea of Medusa as heroine, as survivor.
Toward the book’s conclusion, Giménez Smith begins to unfold the political details of the cruel futures her children are inheriting. In the book’s title poem, she writes, “they’d Botox us with a penalty grin / to show the children what obedience looks like.” The alternative to pantomiming satisfaction to appease a political and economic system that shames dissent might just be to become a Medusa-like monster, a creature shamed for the greatest crime mythology could assign a woman to commit: being unavailable to be freely gazed upon and enjoyed. In “Dear Medusa,” the she writes,
Was it loneliness?
A miracle? You had enormous power, which people
called a curse, but it made you one of the first witches.
There is tremendous power in Cruel Futures, a collection both supple in its vulnerabilities and firm in its defenses. Carmen Giménez Smith has survived her own story, and she has ensured her children have survived their own thus far. The book’s tension comes from her awareness that her power to continue to ensure that survival is evaporating from her hands, reconstituting in their own.
David Nilsen is a freelance writer living in Ohio. He is a National Book Critics Circle member, and his literary reviews and interviews have appeared or are forthcoming in The Rumpus, Gulf Coast, The Millions, The Georgia Review, and numerous other respected publications. You can find more of his writing at davidnilsenwriter.com.