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Motherhood, disenthralled

Talismans book cover

Bring Down the Little Birds
by Carmen Giménez Smith
The University of Arizona Press
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This slim memoir is soaked in the partum-based worry many mothers-to-be endure. The birth year Giménez Smith covers overlaps with her mother’s prognosis of, and tre atment for, a brain tumor. These threads, as well as some fictive turns and angry toddlers, are laced together, making for a strangely eloquent and fragmented meditation on motherhood’s woe. Few joys of pregnancy intrude—pickles and ice cream and padding around the house barefoot. A poet, editor, and teacher, Giménez Smith is too honest a writer to row that clichéd river.

For the author, a second child and the family’s ensuing chaos guarantee lost time—away from her students, husband, and writing. How will she survive? How did her mother do it? How will she bear her mother’s illness? And then how quickly she feels guilty and possessive, constantly making adjustments: “There are no amateurs in the world of children.”

Bring Down the Little Birds is a hyper-shifting collage—parts taken from Giménez Smith’s (actual) journal, parts lifted from her mother’s (imagined) writing, parts written in the throes of birthing a second child. The memoir races forward with space breaks and divisional asterisks separating thoughts and scenes—the fragmentation fits the author’s write-when-you-can, beleaguered condition.

The book begins with Giménez Smith’s imagined “discovery” of her mother’s journal.  “I daydream that I’m thirteen, sitting in an attic in my mother’s wedding dress. I discover a notebook, in it the evidence of my mother’s secret life.” In fact, Giménez Smith’s mother, who came from Peru, settled in New York City, and had four children (one dying in childbirth), undergirds the memoir as the stalwart Mom whose standard the daughter emulates and contends with.

In creating her mother’s journal, Giménez Smith makes the woman into the kind of mother who’ll be more useful to her than, or perhaps a balance to, either the stalwart Mom or the actual one who’s ill. “Because I cared little for my mother’s interior, it didn’t exist for me. My mother couldn’t be a mystery. . . . She was only a mystery when I needed one for the story I made of my life.”

Unlike the falsifications of James Frey, this fictive/imagined voice has a purpose: to embody the stress of Giménez Smith’s expanding family through the conjuration of what her mother must have endured. “I would have liked to have known her [the mother] better,” she writes, “but I was too occupied pulling her out of herself. Now the tables are turned—it’s a brand new table.” Mothers are always becoming their mothers.

A constantly unsettled wanting guides it all, in and out of childbirth: the desire to escape, to be helped, to be pitied, to re-inhabit the fear and love associated with her own birth. Such is the time-hopping terrain of this memoir, whose engagement comes from the disciplined interweaving of remembrance and emotion.

Equal to the mot her as a transformational dynamo are her experiences with her children. Study the texture of this instance in which Giménez Smith presents us her most shameful act.

But one day my son slaps me across the face. A straight-up bitch slap. And within a microsecond of his hand touching my face, I slap him back. Stronger than all my afterthoughts is my fury. Wow. I’m that mother, the one yanking her kid by the arm out of the grocery store, the one who gets really close in her kid’s face and hisses.

The apple doesn’t fall far from the tree. The Spanking Mother. The Mother Trapped in a Cycle. I tabulate the long-term effects as I weep in the bathroom, as my husband sits on the other side of the door. He is furious and forgiving. Me too. Mama, hold you.

Those last three child-forgiving words are heartbreaking. You can hear in the prose a kind of melded authorial identity, a mosaic of voices—narrator, observer, satirist, rationalizer, quoter (from Medea), pleading child. The passage is like a stew: thickened on rage, simmered with guilt, salted with irony, and served scalding.

In the end, the mother’s tumor is the least spun thread of the memoir; it’s kept at bay by the other voices. But it’s OK. Giménez Smith’s mother, flying to Peru for treatment, has proved more useful as myth than presence, just what her daughter-now-mother has required.



Thomas Larson is the author of The Saddest Music Ever Written: The Story of Samuel Barber’s “Adagio for Strings” and The Memoir and the Memoirist.