I received Carmen Gimenez-Smith’s fourth book of poetry, Milk and Filth, now out from the University of Arizona’s Comino del Sol series, at the beginning of Fall last year and it quickly became my constant companion through a multitude of train and subway rides. During the many miles I traveled with this book, I fell in love with the raw, scabbiness of the author’s words and how they boldly oscillated from surreal beauty, not unlike a Dali painting, to the messy and the bodily. The richness of her lines and her ability to draw from a vast array of references ranging from the Virgin of Guadalupe to Joan Rivers requires the reader to understand and ruminate upon each line in relation to the poem, as well as how each line of each poem interacts with the book as a whole. Each time I revisited and reread Gimenez-Smith’s fierce and unapologetic creation of a collective voice, it became more and more apparent that she has crafted a scathing social critique of gender roles and a personal manifesto that is ineffably feminist in nature.
Throughout the collection, the arsenal of poetic devices that Gimenez-Smith unleashes within the book includes a wit that is razor sharp while maintaining a sense of self-deprecation, lines that are syntactically complex and heightened by assonance and dissonance while an innate sense of music propels the reader down the page, and a postmodern usage of irony and pastiche. Arranged in three sections that stack and expand upon each other, the first, entitled Gender Fables, creates the collective voice while destabilizing the feminine narrative; the second, Small Deaths, explores the self in relation to rejected societal norms and feminism while maintaining more of a confessional variant; and the third, Beginnings, containing just two poems, one of which is an eight part sequence poem, is the shortest section and attempts to establish a new narrative.
Gimenez-Smith steals stories from history, myth, folk-lore, and pop-culture, among other sources, and redefines them in order to interrogate the preconceptions of gender and the feminine. In the poem “(Baba Yaga,)” named after a Slavic folk-tale which tells a story of a deformed and ferocious elderly witch, Gimenez-Smith writes:
Because she’s better suited for unsolvable
Old World type villainy, I venerate/her in a story. (22)
The subversion of the historical notions of the feminine narrative forces the reader to view gender identity through a different lens. This idea of venerating known female figures that have been distorted into a negative representation by societal norms is at the heart of her book and she does not hesitate in attacking the biases that are the product of social stereotyping. While the speakers work at destabilizing the learned narratives, the images turn toward the material, the bodily, which are often fraught with violence and the grotesque, and thereby continue the delineation away from the more socially polite forms of feminism that are also being questioned throughout the book. For example, take this passage from “(Fragments from the Confessions)”:
Decoupage the jar with mouths
cut from Cosmo, mister death,
fill it with our menstrual blood
or the placenta from our collective lacunae. (8)
By using images such as menstrual blood and the placenta, which are inherently feminine and bodily, to desecrate a jug that tends to represent both civilization and domesticity, Gimenez-Smith brings the reader back to the root of the feminine, a separate and complete entity. She uses this return to the elemental, to the natural and purely feminine, to exhume the self in the face of the intellectual, the artistic, and the familial forces at play. Thus, the combination of the grotesque image of child-birth with the natural and superficial in the ending lines of “Labor Day”:
From closed bud
to gaping, dying rose, petal by petal.
Layers of pearl built around a granule
of waste, the diamond ring clanging
in the pipes, the plunge of meconium
and blood, I shat and bled. (53)
The combination of the natural with the profane and grotesque as well as the natural with the manufactured is a dichotomy repeated throughout the book and mirrors the exploration of gender roles. Just as feminism and the feminist narrative falls into these roles, Gimenez-Smith also uses this juxtaposition to mirror the self in relation to society and social norms.
Once she has reduced the existing infrastructure to ruins, she rebuilds and creates a new narrative. Consequently, in the last poem in the collection, “When God was a Woman,” there is a notable change in the diction as it switches to a lighter sonic pattern and, in conversation with the proceeding pieces, the woman, the heroine, is venerated.
If nothing else, I implore you to pick up this collection for yourself so you can see exactly how Gimenez-Smith produces a feminist manifesto without losing the ability to remind the reader of our humanness:
You’d like to downgrade
into human. Then what? Amorality, osteoporosis
and not even a marble estuary for the ages. (15)
Caitlin Ferguson is in the MFA program at Rutgers-Newark