Cruel Futures
Carmen Giménez Smith
City Lights Publishers, $15.95 (paper)

Cruel Futures, Carmen Giménez Smith’s fifth collection of poetry, presents a nimble mind navigating a ruptured world where “Workplace shows tout hypercompetence and workaholism!” and the “strategy is grabbing pussies.” With humor and outrage, Giménez Smith reflects upon capitalist, misogynist, media-obsessed cultural conditions and how this environment molded the “I” in this collection. She investigates the scars that have become armor for “the girl writing / her idyll, staring out the window, the one / who fantasized she’d live in the wealth-porn lifestyle of MTV in the 80s.” The young poet whose idyll was interwoven with 1980s television has grown into the adult poet who has (mostly) thrown over “wealth-porn” for the truly valuable: chosen family and resilience. The music here alternates between rapid-fire exhortation, buzzing like un-muted cell phone alerts, and ruminative reflection, the tugging anxieties of the parental brain. In this high-adrenaline collection, Giménez Smith assures us she is ready to hurtle into difficulty headfirst—“I’ll paint my face, take off my earrings, do the inevitable”—and do so with equal parts ferocity and grace.

The all-seeing eye of media is announced in the opening poem “Love Actually,” whose title nods toward the 2003 rom-com in which unlikely pairs fall in love.

When mumblecore
gets eaten by television,
I will understand it better,
then I’ll write about it
to create an object that
belongs to no committee,
so it doesn’t exist, like
unicorns and democracy.

For Giménez Smith, television becomes the translator, making society legible to the artist. The poem is itself a translation of what has already been consumed: in this case, mumblecore, a low budget, low gloss, dialogue-heavy genre that is meant to feel closer to “real life.” For a moment, the speaker asserts she will create something real and independent, but the object of creation turns out like “unicorns or democracy”—a juxtaposition that is emblematic of the ironic humor Giménez Smith uses—and, alas, those things do not exist. Instead, the speaker asserts that art needs to become “real” through explication—perhaps anticipating this very review. In an atypical move, she directly addresses the reader: “so you / should write about / my writing about it.” The artist comments upon another’s commentary, the reviewer comments on the artist’s comments, and this creates a Twitter-worthy public infinite feedback loop that Giménez Smith encapsulates in the poem’s final image: “[T]hen we’ll be the infinity / symbol together projected / against the littered sky.” This poem offers no intimate communication between speaker and reader. Rather, it suggests its meanings will blaze like the Bat Signal, crowded out by other competing Bat Signals. Giménez Smith begs the question: is this “Love Actually”?

The love/hate relationship with media these poems evince turns more personal in “TV, Mon Amour” when the speaker admits: “Because of television / my material desire / spreads out over the week / I want to buy storage units / tear down walls in my house / birth quintuplets / operate on my face.” Television drives her consumerism and self-destruction; it also becomes a way for the speaker to see herself: “My sister likes to tell me / I’m like Monica from Friends / And like Niles on Frasier / and like all the other tightly wound / narcissist neurotics on television / I think she’s trying to / tell me something.” Notably, the “something” that’s being communicated is not that the speaker has been colonized by television; rather, it is that the speaker has personality flaws. It is only when the poem ends with “Did they just put a Latina maid in / a giant gift box on Suburgatory? Yes / Yes they did” that the speaker seems to pause and critique what she is consuming.

One of the most satisfying moves in Cruel Futures is its refusal to become a simple narrative about the ways technology and media make people ignorant and isolated. On top of demonstrating the ways media fills us with trash, the collection shows media to be a way of organizing the mind. The speaker in “Oakland Float,” experiencing time in a sensory deprivation tank, finds her mind has “five distinct channels.” Reminiscent of cable TV “favorites,” the channels can also be read as the preoccupations of this book. Among them are “the voice of contempt I buried,” “an 80s new wave channel,” “an easily distractible narrator” and a channel of:

            pure language, like a floating alphabet where I was able
            to turn words into three-dimensional objects, paragraphs into rooms,
            books into palaces, so this was my poetry channel, I guess where I get
            images from and memories linked to smells, the convergence of all
            my capturing.

The speaker has distilled her mind, adopting a metaphor from television to demonstrate the registers that create her particular music. By the end of the poem, she also becomes electric: “I was just sparks flying, but still / the sparks were connected to things that made me extra and awake.” The image is one of danger (A/C voltage meets the bathtub!) yet, instead of igniting an electrical fire, the speaker illuminates her essential self.

Technology also becomes a repository for love in “Vow Renewal,” where after meditating on overcoming fear within marriage, the speaker admits to the beloved, “I’d been waiting for you since I was primordial, / so here’s to 100 years, my love, and / to our upload onto the same big network.” She speaks of an everlasting connection, spanning from the “primordial” time prior to technology to a future in which bodies become bytecodes, preserved on a network. Technology holds the new happily ever after.

But media and technology are only one means of making sense of the world in Cruel Futures. Beneath the flash of electric light, the emotional core of this collection occurs in poems about how childhood translates into parenthood. In “My Brother is a Savior,” a brother and sister team practice self-preservation: “a bewitching hybrid of / broken coat trees and orbiting / blame and flung doors… / maybe       that elemental / gift of fading into     the wallpaper.” They learn to protect themselves from domestic distress. In “Dementia Elegy,” a child survives multiple evictions as her mother declines:

                                                          She is all
shipwreck and wind. Her decline is the house
on Field Court where moths got trapped in light
sconces and battered their bodies in hope
until death. I am inside those abandoned
rooms, swimming in pitch.

These echoes from the past undergird the anxiety in the present, and perhaps shed light on why television became a steadfast companion to this speaker.

Reflections on childhood lead to “Ravers Having Babies,” an anxiety journal in which the speaker chronicles her own identity formation and the ways she has both made and unmade her children. At six pages, it is the longest piece in the collection, appearing at the end of section one, midway between the book’s two parts. Its opening stanzas read:

I tried to make my babies fall in love with
the surrealists but they only want the acid pastels
of the graphic age so the aesthetic pleasuredome
I had planned for them when I was
just an immigrant’s daughter corralling future
reinvention from every TV set is dead
Long live my bohemian fantasy of children lolling
over Proust in hammocks they wove themselves
I’ll try to let their freak flags fly unencumbered
by my own fantastical wants but pronounce
their slang with the accent of a foreigner
to remind them of their source material

The opening of the poem broadcasts the anxieties of the parent who wants her children to signal they have risen above her through their sophistication (surrealists! Proust!) and combination of practicality and leisure (hammock weaving!), while at the same time remembering where they’ve come from.

The poem brings together Giménez Smith’s two registers. It opens with dense music (the title’s assonance and triple trochee: “Ravers Having Babies”) and a marriage of high and low diction (“freak flags fly unencumbered”), but its density and diction loosen as the poem unfurls. The tension moves out of the language and into the speaker’s unflinching gaze. She acknowledges her failures, yet her tone is one of self-acceptance more than self-flagellation.

            All this life later through therapy and
            also failure I learned that I only ever wanted
            the long devotion of family. . . .
            I wish we were layers
            we could unfurl as object lesson
            maybe that’s what a poem is
            a flayed skin I can turn into a map

The poem—and in this case, the collection—is a reckoning; the battles it grows from leave tracks that point toward a future.

The speaker recognizes that the children are becoming their own beings—“their personalities are starting to be / unchanging like a tattoo”—and that they have their own thoughts about her. They’ve learned “their fortunes are pinned to someone / who’s a little messy a little loud / someone who isn’t going to be a rock but more / of a sloop made of mahogany . . . / I didn’t make them organic or French yet / I think it’s too late but we’ll live.” In the closing stanza, the poem returns to the image of the map of skin, and the realization that the speaker’s skin is nearly filled with what inheritance and life experience have wrought—“so much to do so little skin / left for transformation.” Nevertheless, the children have their own skins, their own maps, leaving the speaker to accept what she has achieved as enough.

In what feels like a postscript, the book’s penultimate poem “Rare Privilege,” returns to the children: “What my children do not know fills volumes. / It’s the least I could do.” The speaker’s gift to them is ease; she wishes that their Pandora’s boxes be filled with “smiles and low interest rates.” The poem turns at the end:

I still can’t wait to hear about their failures,
though, I’ll lean in to their face and eat
every word as if they were my last breaths.

She cannot protect her children from failures, as she could not protect herself, but she acknowledges the sustenance of those failures.

Giménez Smith’s poems in Cruel Futures continue the work of truth telling that she established in her previous collections. She reminds us that our cruel pasts will lead to cruel futures, that the garbage we’ve consumed from television and the non-stop media cycle will color and pollute our perceptions. But in looking unflinchingly at the broken remains of the public and the personal, she also assures us that there is something to be built from the rubble. Whether she is speaking as the quick-witted badass who has “a machete and a hot head” or the thoughtful “friend who has walked / alongside your life without judgment,” you want her in your corner.