Carmen Giménez Smith

2 posts

Doors as Metaphors


Yesterday I shared a poem from one of this year’s National Book Finalists,  Be Recorder, a collection written by Carmen Giménez Smith and published by Graywolf Press. For those who might be interested in pursuing Smith’s work, here is another taste of her talents, the opening poem to the collection:

Carmen Giménez Smith

People sometimes confuse me for someone else they know
because they’ve projected an idea onto me. I’ve developed
a second sense for this—some call it paranoia, but I call it
the profoundest consciousness on the face of the earth.
This gift was passed on to me from my mother who learned it from
solid and socially constructed doors whooshing inches from her face.
It may seem like a lie to anyone who has not felt the whoosh, but
a door swinging inches from your face is no joke. It feels like being
invisible, which is also what it feels like when someone looks
at your face and thinks you’re someone else. In graduate school
a teacher called me by another woman’s name with not even
brown skin, but what you might call a brown name. That sting
took years to overcome, but I got over it and here
I am with a name that’s at the front of this object, a name
I’ve made singular, that I spent my whole life making.


It’s a good opener in that it plants the flag of identity, pronouncing one of the themes of the book. It also digs into the concept of names and their importance to their owners because names are more than just letters. Names become everything about you, from Biblical times (think of Esau, who sold his birthright in Genesis) to modern times.

Everyone seeks to “protect their good name,” because names are their calling card, their reputation, their individuality struggling not to be typecast in any way. It seems simple, but is complex. Here, Smith tries to capture it in a brief anecdote about her mother’s encounter with “solid and socially constructed doors whooshing inches from her face.”

Those aren’t just any doors, obviously. They are metaphors. And what’s on the other side of them, when opened, depends on the beholder.

Judging the National Book Awards for Poetry? Good Luck.


It’s not often I read all five finalists for a major literary award, but this year I’ve pocketed three of five among poetry’s National Book Award Finalists: Jericho Brown’s The Tradition, Ilya Kaminsky’s Deaf Republic, and now Carmen Giménez Smith’s Be Recorder.

I’d make a lousy judge on one of these panels. Probably I’d pull a stunt like the judges did for this year’s Booker Award winner: choose two winners when I’m under strict orders to whittle it down to one. But hey, both Margaret Atwood (The Testaments) and Bernardine Evaristo (Girl, Woman, Other) are happy, and I would be, too.

Reason? The old Apples and Oranges predicament. Books are often good in different ways, so sometimes differentiating means asserting that one way is better than another rather than one book is better than another.

Giménez Smith’s Be Recorder is good in a different way than the first two I read. It’s more of a hodgepodge of themes, from the scorched-earth political scene of our times to memory to family to popular culture to identity to race. Hell, even Star Wars sneaks in for a cameo.

So let me choose one of the more conventional poems from the first of three parts in her book. The section is called Creation Myth and the poem is called…


“Boy Crazy”
Carmen Giménez Smith

The echoes of sirens and cicadas,
and the drunk boys who howl
into the trees at 2 a.m. infect
my window while I sleep,
and I’m pulled into a girl I once was,
calling for love into a sky transected
by power lines until sunrise when the town
tightened into itself. I prayed for a boy’s
wolf life, the dream of skulking along
streets with hunger and immunity.
I wanted to cup the moon’s curve
in my hand like it belonged to me,
that was how young I was.


It’s a straight-up identity poem mined from the speaker’s past, and it reminds me mightily of Sandra Cisneros’s The House on Mango Street, where the protagonist, Esperanza, struggles with issues of self and sexism.

Yes. The boys seem to enjoy a longer leash (or none at all) compared to the girls, especially in the city, but why? And the better question is, what does the young girl in the poem love more—the boys or their freedom?

That’s a good question to ask. The type of question screaming to out in a poem.