A Poem by Carmen Giménez Smith

Ravers Having Babies

I tried to make my babies fall in love with
the surrealists but they only want the acid pastels
of the graphic age and in so many words so
the aesthetic pleasuredome I had planned
for them when I was just an immigrant’s daughter
corralling future reinvention from every TV set is dead
long live my bohemian fantasy of children lolling
over Proust in hammocks they wove themselves

I’ll try to let their freak flags fly unencumbered
by my own fantastical wants and gather their texts
in my viscous cloud pronounce their slang
with the accent of a foreigner
to remind them of their source material instead

We’re at the place where I’m a social hazard
because of everyone suddenly seeing them thru me
I’m still their psychic umbilicus
their status perpetually in flux
Each depiction and turn of a phrase
is under scrutiny and I’m hopelessly hard to change
which means I puzzle I perplex I embarrass
and the whole world sees

I’ve always hated inspection myself
and their personalities are starting to be
unchanging and set like a tattoo
and I remember what that was to feel
doomed in the boundary of self
alongside the crucible of being almost adult
how little mercy lies ahead

My adolescence floats between us too
and that’s the most terrifying specter
that they’ll become the worst of me
I was a frantic and edgy teen
who constructed so many urgencies
so many darknesses and revenge fantasies
like the dream of being the only girl
in the world to set it right
Deep in her own grief my mother cured
me with bowls of rice shiny with butter
or shopping sprees for things we couldn’t
afford she taught me to fill to sate
which must have been from her own early undoing

I wish I had known the story of her pain
as it was she stood unflinching against all the blows
life threw at her and maybe that made me more brave
but it certainly made me more afraid of feeling
worn down and showing pain to my children
for fear of infecting them with my past

Now I’m trying to undo that story which
is what parents are not supposed to do
make what we lacked their supposed gift
because it creates new lacks so I’m aware
of how I could do better though
I haven’t worked it all out
I’m sure there will be pain

Some nights left alone in dreams
that complicate their mortality
with the anxieties that become
plagues later my children wander
into my bed for harbor and I inhale them
in old-school want and recall
a more desperate version of myself in love
That woman was all in all hunger
and wanted everything immediately
and without question I wonder where she is now
what quadrant her embargo

I’m only this now! This cavalcade
of brokenness I say flexing my body in the mirror
All this life later through therapy and letting go
and also just unabashed failure really and
falling down and out finally
I learned that I only ever wanted the long devotion
of family not to replicate childhood but to replace it

Oh terrible childhood what tatters you made of me
though you made me a witness too a scrappy
thing but the breaks are there and vibrate easily
and make me do stupid things I’ll never regret
In seeking love I thought little
of outcome only the reaping I would do
The open windows closed the solutions
I wish we were layers we could unfurl
as object lesson maybe that’s what a poem is
a flayed skin I can turn into a map

Still broken I have worked hard
so the one thing my children
will remember is that my love felt animal
and even felt pure as light
sometimes complicated and afraid
but throughout their lives there was a thread
pulsing with a light they could call my love
Disparate wants and strangers connected
by blood that’s me now and I’ll take it

Life rollicks past you and its futility
becomes the most apt ontology
despite all I try to do to give it meaning
to assuage the vibration of language in me
still trying to make a story for myself
since my other devotion is the word
and song keeps me fixed to the page
which is the other impulse rippling in our house
pulling me from the communion of family

During the second pregnancy
I went into what they called false
labor exploding supernova
of urgency that became my only
type of consciousness masochist psychonaut
but it wasn’t time not for two weeks
though I felt my child becoming an insistent
storm someone like the now-girl in the room
down the hall and then I felt it when it would
really happen a pull different than before
an awareness of a legitimate beginning to labor
and to the relationship we would have
and there was an ending because life

would always be linked to death
That was the last time I was certain
must be why I’m recalling it
certain of what I needed to do to retain them
That must have been what love ended up being
in the long run in order for me to use it

Every night while my babies sleep
I’m furled into a ball softened by sugar and weed
trying to solve all our problems with dread until morning
when my babies tarry with TV and time shortens
our telomeres without mercy

My kids are just figuring out they pinned their fortunes
to someone who’s a little messy a little loud
someone who isn’t going to be a rock but more
of a sloop made of mahogany bobbing in the water
They’re coming to terms with my fallibility
I’ll die before identifying a single birdsong in my life
I didn’t make them organic or French yet
I think it’s too late but we’ll live We’ll live

Ravers having babies was what Jack said
when I told him I was pregnant and
he was only telling me the truth of my life
the way a friend who has walked alongside
your life without judgment tells you the truth
of your life whether I liked it or not children
would change my life is also what he was saying
we were marching in beginning and ending

So much to do so little skin left for transformation
And now like me my babies turn words
over with native wonder
To them the imaginary is still marvel
though each minute inverts them away from me


Carmen Giménez Smith is poetry editor (with Steph Burt) at The Nation and publisher of Noemi Press. She is the author of six collections of poems including Cruel Futures (City Lights, 2018) and Be Recorder (Graywolf Press, 2019). She is a Professor of English at Virginia Tech. 

The Poetry Section is edited by Mark Bibbins.