Wednesday, April 18, 2018

Poem: Carmen Giménez Smith

Carmen Giménez Smith

One of my first posts this month featured a poem by Valerie Martínez, and in introducing that poem, I shared links to Carmen Giménez Smith' s (1971-) Harriet blog post, "Latino Art and Ekphrasis," which she posted back in 2013 in conjunction with a project organized by poet Francisco Aragón, also featured this month on J's Theater, entitled PINTURA: PALABRA, a project in ekphrasis." To summarize, the multi-year project brought together some of the leading Latinx poets writing today, to view artworks at the Smithsonian American Art Museum and participate in workshops in ekphrasis around the US.

In her post, Carmen noted that she had already been exploring an engagement with artists and art work in her poetry, citing the late Cuban-American artist Ana Mendieta (1948-1985), whose presence appears several times in Carmen's highly acclaimed fourth collection, Milk and Filth (Camino del Sol/University of Arizona Press, 2013), which was a finalist for the National Book Critics Circle Award. I thought about selecting one of these poems or excerpting them, but then figured it might be illuminating to see what she had created as part of her participation in PINTURA: PALABRA.

The poem below is one she wrote in response to Asco collective member and photographer Harry Gamboa Jr.'s photograph, "Decoy Gang War Victim." As you can see, Carmen dives deep into the scene the photograph portrays, into the mise en scène the image presents and conveys to the viewer. It is a scene of violence, but also a performance; it is a spectacle, in more ways than one, but serving the purposes of art, in part "to overturn the city," requiring that one "must / surrender body/belongings to the one explosive / spectacle of truth, making it ongoing," much as the static photograph conversely does through the open-endedness of its image. Asco, it turns out, sought to explore the socioeconomic conditions and challenges in which its members, Chicano artists, and those around them, were living and working during the 1970s and 1980s.

Photography, like all visual art, often poses a basic question to the viewer: what is going on? What story or stories does the image tell? What do the flares, a "departure" that "[pink] both ends of  him" really signify? What is the relationship between the truth of the image--this "decoy," and the truth of the world, the society, the neighborhood in which this photo was shot, where this scene might occur in real life (IRL)? Carmen raises all these questions with a lyric verve that zips through the stanza, requiring the reader (or listener) to double back at times so as not to lose the thread. As with all of her poems, the verbal play is impressive, the references and allusions demonstrating not just her wit, but also bringing a great deal into the poem in a way that only poetry can.

I noted in Rita Dove's poem, as with others, how one dictum was to "pay attention," and here Carmen makes it explicit at the end of line 11. Not just poetry, but so much art of all genres and kinds, as we've seen, especially when at its best, takes this as one of its guiding principles. Pay attention. You never know what you might learn, about the artwork, the world around you, and yourself.


For Harry Gamboa,   Jr.

Just a tick ago, the actor was a Roman candle
shot to the sky, smudged by rain’s helter-
skelter. His motivation was: he’s a stooge
on L.A.’s sodden turnpike, so we have “to make” art. Got
to rezone and react. The world the bare wall to
his bullet. Got to rile up the populace, to fortify
the arsenal. Once in a while, repopulate and penetrate,
paint a list of incitement onto the walls.
An elder told him that to overturn the city, one must
surrender body/belongings to the one explosive
spectacle of truth, making it ongoing. Pay attention.
To overturn the city, not just the scraps but fervor itself.
Not just the wan broadcast of indignation but
IRL incursions into the workhouses and
poorhouses to inflame the thousand points of  light.
A lean surge, departure pinks both ends of  him.
He’s the nth layer folded into the stand’s nerve.

You can read the rest of the PINTURA : PALABRA portfolio in the March 2016 issue of Poetry. All images in this portfolio are courtesy of and with permission from the Smithsonian American Art Museum.

And the image:

Asco, "Decoy Gang War Victim" (photographer: Harry Gamboa, Jr.), museum purchase through the Luisita L. and Franz H. Denghausen Endowment © 1974, Harry Gamboa, Jr.

Source: Poetry (March 2016)

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