Carmen Giménez Smith’s newest collection of poems, Be Recorder (Graywolf Press), is an ambitious and direct questioning of our socio-political lives as Americans and as people. It is anchored by a 37-section titular poem that vividly displays Smith’s masterful poetic craftsmanship, as well as her ability to keep readers engaged through tonal and formal surprise across vast expanses of subject matter, showcasing her ability to emphasize the necessity of that subject matter.
Although it might be tempting to allow the title poem, “Be Recorder,” to take center stage in this collection by the sheer virtue of its length and enterprise, it is important not to overlook Smith’s calculated framing of this long poem by two other titled sections: “Creation Myth” and “Birthright.” In narrative terms, these sections can be seen as operating as the rising action and the denouement to the titular poem’s climax. However, it is important not to diminish the powerful content of these poems through attempts at purely technical categorization.
In the “Creation Myth” section of the collection, through a series of highly personal poems that address the formation of identity in relationship to the people and the experiences that one is exposed to in their most formative years, Smith is able challenge her readers to face difficult truths about the formation of their own identities by exposing her own. In this confessional tradition, if the personal is also political, as the old poetic adage goes, the moments of confession contained in this section allow Smith to voice the larger social consciousness simmering under the surface of Be Recorder. Whether it is the confession of capitalistic desires or “bad” feminism exemplified in relationship to reality television, à la Real Housewives—
Meanwhile, we aspire to live in houses that mansiony
and to live through our daughters and we
tear down other women’s faces and husbands
and poor choices, quietly because we’re not paid
or rewarded to and could face criminal or civil action
—or the confession of how she “got over” being called by the wrong name, another “brown name,” in the context of repeated racial micro aggressions, Smith’s formation of identity is also the formation of the American identity. This identity is one that contains complex and often beautiful multitudes of individuality that are simultaneously connected to and at odds with their place in the larger framework of American society. Understanding the formation of an American identity is a daunting endeavor. A culture that promotes individuality within a societal system that begs for the assurance of normality through sameness presents an overwhelming paradoxical quandary. By acknowledging the problems with identity on a personal, individual level, Smith’s poems shine a light on the ways in which we are all set up to be complicit with the worst elements of our society (racism, sexism, homophobia, etc.). Smith’s example challenges her readers to recognize and interrogate their own formative experiences in relationship to these issues.
“Be Recorder” expands on the themes of identity formation, community, complicity, and awareness introduced in the first section of the collection. “Be Recorder” is a much more formally experimental poem than the poems that surround it, which allows Smith to move beyond the individuality that is present in the voice of the first section of the book, and explore a more universal voice of witness that is ultimately bent on a “necessary revolution” against the monolithic power of the American socio-state. Throughout the poem Smith uses her status as an immigrant to contextualize the tension in her relationship with America. In one sense, the themes introduced in the opening section continue as the speaker once again questions identity. However, within the more experimental context of “Be Recorder,” Smith is able to take unexpected risks with the way she frames identity by imagining “what life is in her fiefdom.” In many parts of the poem the speaker, as immigrant, is reimagined and broken down to their most base status so that their identity becomes that of the “animal” subsumed by the worst elements of American society.
The voice of the scared and subservient “American animal” runs throughout “Be Recorder.” However, its effectiveness relies on the way in which Smith places this voice in opposition to the much more traditional “I” or universal “we” that is foundation of the book’s first section. The speaker in “Be Recorder” is speaking from the perspective of someone who is an entire generation away from the immigrant experience, and in some ways, the speaker is very much a part of the America that is being interrogated. Still, through their proximity to the immigrant experience, as someone who has lived with one foot in both worlds, the narrator maintains a kind of “outsider” status that allows for a narrative perspective, and a powerful omniscience, she writes:
So the question where are you from means I was born
foreign in America but not their America
I mean the chain of the land called America connected
by chains of mountains where minute thread of
the first people who lived that America live in me
where there was the earth giving only over
what she wanted that before she became American
The third section of the collection, “Birthright,” continues the interrogation of the first two sections, but it contextualizes the identity of the speaker in relationship to family, both biological and cultural. In one of the strongest poems of the section, “In Remembrance of Their Labors,” Smith looks to her identity in the context of the writers, thinkers, and people who have supported her and motivated her to write. In many ways, this is the legacy that is at the center of the third section. The call for community in spite of the difficulties one faces, coupled with the desire to foster the identity of future generations through parenting and through teaching, brings readers face to face not only with what is at stake in our society, but also with the work that we must all participate in to create the American identity that we would like to be a part of.
Be Recorder is Smith’s most important and stunning collection to date. She is truly one of our contemporary masters, and her drive to write poems that she feels are essential to the understanding of who we are in times of change, crises, or social evolution is clear from the breadth and scope of this collection. “Ars Poetica,” the final poem of the collection, is filled with Smith’s trademark irony and cultural pith. The narrator takes one last hard look at herself to confess what she has become in the face of the American machine. Yet, the poem ends in an expression of gratitude through direct address to the reader. Smith writes: “That was my confessional Thank you very much.” By ending the collection with an ironic acknowledgement of gratitude, Smith is able to connect all of the complex and contradictory themes that run throughout Be Recorder, a collection that, at its core, asks its readers to examine who they have become and encourages them to be kind to themselves and to one another.