The City She Was

By Carmen Giménez Smith

The Center for Literary Publishing at Colorado State University
November 2011

Reviewed by Jacey Blue Renner


The immediacy of sensory exploration is evident from the first poem in Carmen Giménez Smith's The City She Was, "For About Five Minutes in the Aughts":

I put up notice on the Internet where missplellers wrote the
     most compelling notes.
They wore industrial eyeglasses and ironic T-shirts and trucker
and often forgot their wallets. One taught me about science
     fiction porn

Leaving me with the overwhelming feeling of being given an almost voyeuristic look into the central character's routines and thought process, this poem and many others also manage to hold me at a distance. And to do both, provide intimacy and distance within a singular piece, is something that sets Gimémez Smith apart from other contemporary poets. Her precise and unique details reward the reader with ledge after ledge to stand on above the labyrinth of the text. Her sure-footed and confident control of language and the line sharply contrast with the often deviating behavior exhibited by the central character, who frequently seems a verse away from personal chaos. "For About Five Minutes in the Aughts":

And then, and then, and then. Met a lunatic on Craigslist.
Concerned about starts, I stuffed his inbox with amendments
     and bloated metonmymy.
This happened for months. This happened while I healed from
from broken bones, from agoraphobia. Drinking beer gave me a
     panic, so whiskey.
Divorce ephemera, safe doors and pre-midlife. I collected fancy
and yeah, I'm working on an article about animé and Marxism.
made me shaky, but I filled myself with pills because they made
     me shaky.

The details of this poem—the lunatic, the pneumonia, the whiskey and pills, as well as every other nonchalant specificity from poem start to poem finish—introduce us to a speaker who creates an endless momentum from line to line. The speaker is unabashed, not ashamed to reveal these details. The grit of these lines—of the speaker's experience—is bold, especially in a contemporary society that is always trying to seem pulled together and on point. The real honesty lies behind the reveal: this speaker shows us what is behind the curtain in great detail, without remorse. She is uninterested in who sees this reveal, her personal life clutter. That alone is refreshing, because it is relatable.

These poems do not posture, they do not grieve for what they are not; rather, each asserts and assembles itself on the page with polychromatic expertise. Each poem exemplifies the absolute life experience (experiment), what it is to live—which daily elements are working, which are not, how we gradually start to winnow away at life to reach the reality we actually want, how we separate it from the reality we no longer desire. In "Pills":

This one makes me near-dead but still pretty.
This one makes my friends hate me.
This one makes my friends hating me
a dull sting, calamine lotion for the brain.
If I take this one, then I can bury
the undead with a spoon. This one
belongs in a hall of fame. The last one
not really the last one,
the one I want to relish, my first Casanova.

And while the first section of the collection has a more "I-centric" feel, the poems in the second section touch on both unity and its lack. Through the simple introduction of a "you", the reader is given a closer entrance into what lies behind the speaker's words. There is also a more concrete (and gorgeous) demonstration of emotion in this second section, as in its first poem, "The Science of Parting":

I am branch. You're the knitting of scars, that miracle.
I sit in the kitchen, and you're the compound of rain and wind
on our windows. I pin myself to your axis, sure and solid
gradient. You're the Cartesian pause in my basis,
the cog sound of mechanical doors aching
with exit. Then later, you're my recurrence,
the integer that began us, the formula, its solution.

Here, the "I" has a softer image: a branch, one who pins herself to another's axis, which is quite a contrast from the "I" who met with lunatics and addiction in the collection's first section. This passage not only illuminates the beauty in the language and utility of the singular line, but also highlights the evolution of the collection. Each line of each poem does the job of sifting, showcasing the life-parts that need oil and rinse to work properly, both individually and apart, and those that need to be set aside to be ferried away for disposal. The "I" and "you" above are finding their way together to solution.

Likewise, the third and final section of The City She Was seems to merge the elements of distance and intimacy captured within the first two sections. This connection is extremely important because it ties together the main facets of the text: heightened language and the tangibility of specific sensory details. In one of the third section's final poems, 'Redaction', the speaker ruminates beautifully:

We make dogma out of letter writing: the apocryphal story
of Lincoln who wrote angry letters he never sent. We wait for
for days and days. Someone tells me, I'll write you a letter
and I felt he's saying, you're so different from anyone else.
Distance's buzz gets louder and louder. It gets to be a blackest
I want the letter about the time we cross the avenue, and you
for my hand without looking—I am afraid I am not what you

Is that not somehow the crux of what each of these poems is addressing? That through our search for parcels of happiness, tunneling past moments of turbulence, we might not always be rewarded. We hope to God we will be, but the reality of this poem is that while reward is not always a constant, the ability to write about the in-between times makes us better, and more honest.