Carmen Giménez Smith’s sixth collection, Cruel Futures (No. 17 in the City Lights Books Spotlight Series) is an astonishingly present imagistic exploration of aging, familial bonds, and mothering in the context of late capitalism. Giménez Smith’s poems, sparkling with pop culture and gleaming with intelligence, unpretentiously welcome the reader into mortality, grief, and nurturing, while deftly highlighting how these human conditions are shaped by the race, gender, and class of those who experience them.
Giménez Smith demonstrates how the understanding of childhood shifts and evolves when someone begins to parent, addressing her “terrible childhood” in “Ravers Having Babies,” and wondering at “what tatters you made of me / though you made me a scrappy little watcher / the breaks are there and vibrate.” And, the further Giménez Smith travels from that cosseted realm, the clearer its contours become, as in “A Cascade of Feeling,” where she confides, “I was recipient of only thirty percent / of my father’s wrath, and that slice / is key to my composition.” Since this collection is concerned with mothering and being mothered, Giménez Smith’s poems continually return to childhood, dipping in and out of its environs like loons on the surface of a lake.
Some of the collection’s most affecting poems grapple with the tectonic plates of middle age: children growing up as parents grow older, one generation entering the world as the other exits. In poems like “Dementia As About Me,” Giménez Smith’s language is almost painfully intimate, giving the reader the feeling of hard-won, exhausted truth: “I write / things like carved out or like guts spooned out / with a rusty spoon: my guts, her spoon.” Time is ever-present in this collection, as in “Dementia Elegy,” where “Dreaming about mothers means mortality is / bristling the hair on your neck.”
When looking at her daughter, Giménez Smith sees the predicament of possessing a female body—especially a brown one—from the clear vantage point of having inhabited it for so many decades, and this knowledge worries her in poems like “Dispatch From Midlife,” where “Past fertility, insomnia / is the new membrane / around my nights.” Her daughter is stepping into a fraught, gendered and racialized physicality, just as Giménez Smith’s speaker struggles, ambivalently, to remain within it—although she eyes that struggle with humor and self-awareness, as in “Careworn Tale,” where “I pluck stray hairs from my beauty / to assert control over my beauty. / I measure out what I have left.”
Giménez Smith also knows the price society exacts on women for their physicality; in “The Hero’s Journey,” she relates that, “I had learned / at a young age how mutable the female body / was, everything almost snaps back.” In “Ethos,” Giménez Smith confides that “I want to clear the dross / of misogyny, so she won’t suffer under its yoke.” However, she’s not sure that’s possible, even as she prepares to fight for it, saying, “I’ll paint my face, take off my earrings, do the inevitable.”
The common thread here is the speaker’s aging—her intimate relationship to her body’s movement through time, which “shortens our telomeres without mercy” (“Ravers Having Babies”). There’s synthesis in this collection, a clarity of vision that manages to coexist within the overwhelm of consumerism, television, and pop culture. This slim book is astonishing in scope and ambition, managing to depict society’s constant babbling chatter, while continually asserting the individual dignity of her speaker and those she loves, and leaving room for breathtaking moments of revelation, like when “a lark / breaks through my skin” (“Bipolar Objective Correlative”).