Review: Carmen Giménez Smith’s Goodbye, Flicker
See Carmen Gimenez Smith Read Her Work:
27 September 2012 12:00 PM – 1:30 PM Sandy Spring Bank Tent George Mason University, 4400 University Drive, Fairfax, VA
I was introduced to the work of Carmen Giménez Smith by friend and poet Molly Gaudry over at The Lit Pub, for which I am very grateful. Giménez Smith is the author of 3 collections of poetry, as well as a memoir, Bring Down the Little Birds. She is the publisher of Noemi Press, editor-in-chief of Puerto del Sol, and an assistant professor in the MFA program at New Mexico State University. I am thrilled that So to Speak will be hosting her for a reading during GMU’s Fall for the Book Festival this year on Thursday, 9/27, at noon.
I recently read Giménez Smith’s most recent book of poems, Goodbye, Flicker, winner of the Juniper Prize in Poetry, and was immediately drawn in by the book’s imaginative scenario: a girl escapes into her dreams. As with all good dreams, the girl’s movement in and out of the dreams and characters like Owl Girl is always at stake; the dreams reel from the absurd to the realistic, creating a surreal world in which people may dissolve at will or split in two. Within them, Giménez Smith also pushes on the boundaries of language, condensing her lines too tightly for articles and considering issues of translation. Her poems contain both the lyric and the narrative, bound by abrupt turns that require the confidence of a fairy-tale listener: anything can happen. For instance, she writes in “Thorny”:
A release of birds signals a grand mal
of fireworks because the prince
has come and touched my face.
Face: I mean mask.
Giménez Smith sets the first section of the book as a “pushpull,” a descriptor which could accurately be applied to the tension which she creates throughout the entire collection. She alludes to texts as diverse as the work of Shakespeare, the Brothers Grimm, and José Marmol, all the while involving the reader in a struggle with the nature of storytelling and modes of transmission. For example, anachronisms appear present from the blurring of dream and reality, and the use of persona draws our attention to reinterpretations of archetypes, like the figure of the prince as a deadbeat dad. The poem “The Tales She Wrote” evokes a number of such possibilities with a list of the girl’s works, like “Bugs Bunny Kisses the Saint Mary” and “Interior Paint Troll and the Bridge of Unemployment.” This mixing can also be painful, though, as when Bluebeard invites Owl Girl to his home, then serves “voodoo potion” to his guest. The reader observes the rape from a distance, with the poet, through a shadow: “a Punch and Judy fracas etched of clattering hips…/A sickening torque in her narrative, the theft of her late.” These observations of power and the conservative values of fairy tales remind me in many ways of Sexton’s Transformations-era work (see Alicia Ostriker’s excellent article on this, “That Story: Anne Sexton and Her Transformations” from The American Poetry Review).
The poet presents interesting questions about the motivations for lore, as well. The book is often invested in resistance, whether through pointing out the actions of the father whose stories define the girl’s identity or giving voice to the mother whose lore is tied into her occupational experience. In “The Beast,” she writes:
The father told it so good
I wanted to carry the edges
of his robe, he and I.
We ruminated over thick books on
psychology and Japan and Marxism,
made his opinion aphorism,
turned personal affronts
into scripture, got derailed by visions
of golden paved roads
told just like I needed.
He invented my girlhood
With this poem, Giménez Smith highlights the ways in which the kind of allusions her poetry engages in can be used, in fact, as a tool of external definition, placing the speaker as part of a canon formed by others. However, the observant girl notes that her mother offers her a fairy-tale, “sweet’n low packet of mothers” in exchange for her own presence when “the tick/ mark is too urgent.” When the mother speaks, she responds to Owl Girl’s shame about her mother’s work by connecting her to an oral myth that upends the expected hierarchy:
that entire cities really got managed
by cleaning ladies coming in night after night
to correct executive mishap in the moonlight.
Giménez Smith often offers us this kind of sly social commentary, or varies the tone to a more pressing entreaty: “unhand me from certain doom at the hands of my educators.”
Through the girl’s navigation of these different systems of narrative and experience, the book centers on acts of self-definition and location. It is an act of independence for the girl to declare herself a fairy-tale character, and we witness the speaker in moments of re-imagining the self:
natasha on a black horse in the forest’s
cloak. purple-brocade saddle.
The book also places the girl in dialogue with the process of creating a new self: acting or engaged in a Q&A with “the sliver poet.” Within the framework of the tales, we witness the girl increasingly taking on poignant decisions:
natasha has a choice. boy or liberty.
he always cries when she chooses the horse.
By inviting readers to observe these magical reinventions of myth, Goodbye, Flicker considers myth, memory, stories, and family from surprising angles. As a reader, I feel privileged to observe the moments when these perspectives allow the speaker to move from the existing narratives to the creation of her own:
I’m torch for the kelp,
for seagulls, for the one ancient
with hair who felt my legs
as a favor, he said. I don’t settle