But even here, vertigo and ambivalence dominate, and I find myself searching the poems for the kinetic energy of a walker in the city; heel marks and muddy droplets. I want to overhear conversations on the streets.
Ponder the title of this book for a moment, or longer: The City She Was. Is the city gone? Is she gone? What or who is she now that she isn’t a city? Who is or was she? Is “she” the arbitrary pronoun for cities as well as ships? Is this a good time to deliberate over pronouns, when gender is gloriously and perplexingly fluid?
Turn to the title poem for clues and a sense of the poet’s anticipated destinations and landmarks. But even here, vertigo and ambivalence dominate, and I find myself searching the poems for the kinetic energy of a walker in the city; heel marks and muddy droplets. I want to overhear conversations on the streets. Give me someone who lights a cigarette so the bus can come. Or the smell of corn tortillas and garlic hanging in the air. I realize, though, this isn’t my
city—it’s The City She Was.
Section 1 opens with “Longing brings me to the bar. /Smoke swirling brings me in.”
Mind if I join you?
In Section 2: “the city depends on being the most something.” The city strives for over-the-topness, confident that a poet naturally gets that. What makes the city’s heart swell with pride? Is it something like Buffalo’s chicken wings? A smattering of brewpubs? The streets historically convoluted, so unplanned that visitors are ejected by the carload?
In section 3: “The city’s eye / revises my face, /so that fluorescence / makes an illegal, a yuppie, / a salesgirl or an angel / of the hole I make in the fog.” The city has an eye; it transforms the speaker and blurs her identity, freeing her to explore multiple personae. Throughout this volume, you will find engaging and lively persona poems.
The final section of the poem reveals the poet’s wish to tone down and transform the raucous urban/inner landscape:
pushes through the traffic, so
I don’t see right
in this Babel.
If I owned the city,
so little of it would be.
I pass over the avenue,
assemble some ending of mine
as a vision or a refusal.
And yet, what really could be subtracted from any city? Melancholy is immutable amongst commuters alone in their cars, listening to grim news or singing along anemically with Aretha Franklin or Gerry and the Pacemakers. You can’t extract the mentally ill, addicts or homeless people. They have to live. City smells and disturbing images hover with a vengeance.
Nevertheless, the poems have city energy; they’re driven fast and madcap. You’ll encounter white space about as often as a parking space in this city, where “Yellow streetlights bristle against the grid” and “Once the city was a he, his arms around / our congress with enough alchemy to narcotize, eyes rolled back.” Feast on poems with long lines and fantastical imagery; you want to get a second look but you’re at the next corner, and there’s more and more to see and hear. From what I imagine to be a studio apartment the size of a dime on the 47th floor, here’s a thoroughly city-afflicted speaker in “For About Five Minutes in the Aughts”:
And then, and then, and then. Met a lunatic on Craigslist.
Concerned about starts, I stuffed his inbox with amendments and bloated metonymy.
This happened for months. This happened while I healed from pneumonia,
from broken bones, from agoraphobia. Drinking beer gave me a panic, so whiskey.
Divorce ephemera, safe doors and pre-midlife. I collected fancy pens
and yeah, I’m working on an article about animé and Marxism. Pills
make me shaky, but I filled myself with pills because they made me shaky.
The poet’s got adrenaline but she also bleeds “because of a city in ruins”:
My heart bled today. It bled onto the streets
and the steps of city hall. It bled in the pizza parlor with the useless jukebox.
I’ve got so much blood to give inside and outside of any milieu.
Even for a bad zoning decision, I’ll bleed so much you’ll be bleeding,
all of us bleeding in and out like it’s breathing,
or kissing, and because it is righteous and terrible and red.
Who among has not wanted to play with those fantastic lines, “Because it is bitter, / and because it is my heart’” from Stephen Crane’s “In the Desert?” I’m struck, though, not by the volume of blood spilled but by the fact the heart itself bleeds. Who are you calling a bleeding heart, I want to ask. Are you a member of the Order of the Bleeding Heart, from the middle-ages, worshiping the Virgin Mary? If not, be prepared to bleed like a liberal.
Naturally, the city’s got “Lunatics on my Avenue”, one of Giménez Smith’s expertly crafted prose poems. They shine the brightest in The City She Was. The penultimate paragraph:
All of the lunatics’ variations share equity of scale. At night they’ll live in the warehouse, bunked up in tiny rows like the reflections of windows in apartments. My lunatic’s the king. He gives the others maps and directions for making their way through the city, like where to lurch and what corners are good for cigarettes.
Lunatics, and “Sometimes There’s a Virgin”, delivering dark humor:
I brush past her to feel her virginity. There’s a big
difference between virgin and non-virgin, aura-wise.
Someone drives her home before eleven o’clock.
The virgin has a long driveway
at her house; a parent waits for her.
The virgin leaves her vibe behind, so we wait
for it to dissipate. Then we get nasty and high since
the virgin made us feel bad because we gave it up
in high school. That’s just her course. It’s not our fault.
The big yellow taxi driving this volume is “Rival”, a beautifully built machine of a prose poem. Here’s precisely where the osmotic wall between the speaker and her city dissolve in its surreal tale (Do I detect a nod to Russell Edson?), and in the book overall, the pleasure of reading a very talented young poet.