Carmen Giménez Smith’s sixth collection of poetry, Cruel Futures, is comprised of forty-two sleek and cogent poems. Like that of the mollusk who sucks an irritant and spits out a pearl, so too has Smith sucked the trending irritants of past and present-day America, her own life—the language of academia, and of academics, the stale bourgeoisie, the voices biting back—and she’s crafted opalescent poems. Poems, though elegant, are anything but delicate. Some strike like curses witchly cast on domineering attitudes and figures in power, while others twist with introspection. Her speaker examines herself with wonder and admiration for her body, but never in a vacuum: “So luxe, my belly. I can think of about five non-related people I would let lick my belly all over. My / belly is not political resistance—Alas,” and then with imagination, with what-if hanging in the air for a body without determining desires and histories leached to its ground floor: “the way my body should feel in the world / if it wasn’t shaped by external forces.” In turning inward, Smith elucidates a complicated, messy identity that both demystifies and parallels the self to legend, as in her poems “Dear Medusa” and “Oakland Float.” From the latter, “I was just sparks flying,” her speaker tells us, “but still the sparks were connected and made me extra and awake.” Here we see that it’s through the loudness, the chaos, the mongrelness—similar to what Smith has named, her extrapoetics—that her speaker becomes extra, spectacular, Medusa’s “devoted disciple.”

But it’s Smith’s control of the line, the lyric, her use of compression, wry humor, and pointed candor that makes the book’s captivation one that truly endures. She delves into familial issues: child-rearing; sick, aging parents; and mental health with care and magnanimous transparency. Cruel Futures is an insurmountable labor that Smith has carved from a world of grief, but retains love and humor that renders her devotion a masterpiece.

City Lights.

—Review by Madeline Vardell