Carmen Giménez Smith’s Be Recorder, a National Book Award Finalist and LA Times Book of the Year, is a collection of poetry covering myriad topics from racial identity to indictments of capitalism and Trump. Three sections unify the compilation: “Creation Myth” marks major passages such as ethnic identity, class origins, childhood, and family; “Be Recorder” forms the bulk of the collection with caustic critiques of the exploitation of natural resources, tokenism in academe, otherness, and Trump politics; and “Birthright” centers on Giménez Smith’s legacy as queer Latinx artist, writer, poet, mother, and daughter. In short, this book is a tour de force.
In all honesty writing this review makes me slightly gun shy because I read poetry infrequently and may lack the context necessary to do it justice. Nevertheless, this is one of the first books of poetry in which I have felt understood. I knew that this book was going to resonate deeply from the first poem titled “Origins.” The poem depicts what some of us as Latinx persons—and POC in general—encounter when we are mistaken for another brown person striving in a professional world, or in this case, academia. These words came at me like a ton of bricks:
“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.
The gift was passed on to me from my mother who learned it from
solid and socially constructed doors whooshing inches from her face.”
The act of others seeing you but not actually being seen is akin to being put inside a glass-enclosed box where people (society) can perceive you but not engage with you to truly know you. The process of what is known as a socially constructed identity occurs when we are boxed in by stereotypes with little or no understanding of our realities. It also refers to the shared histories a certain group may experience and though there is some validity to shared histories, we all live individual, unique lives.
In this strident poem, we learn that the narrator has been misinterpreted as a student with another Latinx-sounding name in a graduate school seminar by a professor who has not taken the time to become acquainted with either student with “what you might call a brown name.” In graduate school, some of us Latinx students work twice or three times as hard as others to stay on top of the heap alongside ‘trust fund babies’ at elite institutions. While at the same time, we may be misconstrued as campus dining workers—our brown compatriots—or are told by our landlady not to ‘invite all of our relatives to monopolize the apartment complex.’ These incidents all happened to me in my first year of grad school. The poems written by Giménez Smith are far too relatable. We often experience routine micro aggression that make us either sink into quicksand (my feelings during my first year) or become the most resilient Teflon (my feelings year two and three). Toward the end of the poem, Giménez Smith concedes that she has forged a unique identity working her lifetime to make her singularity known.
The middle section with which the book derives its title includes scathing indictments of a world gone wrong. Perhaps this is where Giménez Smith is intent to “be [the] recorder.” There are critiques of the exploitation of natural resources and a retrograde vantage point which is described as “shitting on the giant tapestry of the nation.” There are poems capturing the “otherness” of what seems to be the academy or the publishing industry designated as “the august king” wherein a sense of otherness is tokenized as a “gesture phoned-in.” Tokenism is far too prevalent in the hallowed corridors of academe and the conference rooms of the publishing industry. Though it is not with absolute certainty that the “gesture phoned-in” may refer to publishing; however, it does seem fitting given the brouhaha over Jeanine Cummin’s American Dirt. If publishers only make shallow attempts at diversifying their acquisitions, then they manifest this sort of tokenism to which Giménez Smith uncannily depicts.
In another stellar poem, in the section “Be Recorder,” she eviscerates the Trump supporters who buy in bulk not of necessity but out of a zero-sum game modus operandi:
“They built the US bunker in heaven
for the citizens who filled shelves
with formula guns toilet paper plates
and pallets of cans from Costco not just
for themselves but away from us”
This poem has become even more on point in this last week of frenetic behavior owing to the coronavirus. The zealous response to these bio pathogens continues to bifurcate society. Who actually needs 100 rolls of toilet paper or 20 cases of water? But this is just Giménez-Smith’s point.
Later, she expresses how those same Trumpians hold many in contempt for being,
“too marimacha but not macho enuf. . . too Black. . .too uppity . . .or the saucy Univision talking head
who roasts oligarchs while the big network reports on repeat that alien brown bodies
killed a woman in that haven San Francisco.”
Throughout, she calls out these gross exaggerations and the harm that they cause those hemmed in by them. The poem ends in angry defiance of the world in which this discordant era of politics have engendered. In the end, the narrator is a woman on the rise.
The final section of the book titled “Birthright” seems to speak to the author’s legacy. She places herself on a continuum of life inhabiting myriad roles as a worker, a poet, a lover, a queer, a mother, a daughter, an aging woman, and all of those sources of inspiration coming to a head in the final poem, which serves as a ‘confessional,’ “Ars Poetica.”
The book sings with meaning for Latinx, POCs, queer, and others who have been traditionally marginalized. To hear the angry indictments of so much that is wrong with society allows space to be carved out for voices of Latinx and other POC artists who may be either feel invisible or boxed in alternately. I felt like that giant glass box had been utterly shattered in these poems. Read this work. Devour this work. It is highly recommended for those interested in poetry and works on the intersections of race and identity.
By Carmen Giménez Smith
88 pages. 2019.
For our US readers, if you can, please visit our Bookshop to support your local independent bookstores!