There are so many reasons you might pick up a book in the first place. Perhaps you have a fondness for a certain publishing house, a history of reading—and loving—books from that particular press.
Or perhaps a given title strikes like a gong, and you can’t un-hear it—hours later, the words still reverberating.
Sometimes you fall for the cover. You might not want to admit how much a cover matters—image and color and font—not to mention the feel of the book in your hand. Let’s face it: Some books are just more claspable than others.
And sometimes it’s a fact about the author, one breadcrumb that drops from the bio—so delectable you’ll follow the whole book home.*
I recently picked up a copy of Natalie Scenters-Zapico’s second poetry collection, Lima :: Limón, for all of these reasons. For some years now, I’ve been an avid reader of books published by Copper Canyon Press. I’ve come to crave the lush density and maturity of risk that forms the ethos of this press.
There’s also the fact that I love colons and by extension, analogies, so here’s a title that’s already as intellectually engaging and enigmatic (“Lime is to lemon…”) as it is prosodic and alliterative (Lima :: Limón). The words actually taste like the fruits they are!
The book’s cover is black and white, with a dramatic photograph spanning the upper half. In it, a dark-haired woman in a white dress (which on closer inspection appears to be a man’s collared shirt stretched over her hips and waist, cinched with a belt) wearing black gloves poses on a white tabletop beside dark pepper, light salt, and a tall white dispenser of sugar. There are two men in the background, but it’s only the woman’s face we see clearly—her eyes peering down at us, her audience, with avian precision.
Some things this cover already imparts to me: Lima :: Limón is a woman-centered book, as the woman here is front and center, unabashed in her beauty and her strength, unintimidated by the prospect of confrontation.
It is a book about contrasts, too, signaled by the grayscale of the title, the bright white of the author’s name beneath it, then both of these made brighter by the black backdrop against which they are placed. One man in the background faces forward, but his visage is blurry, as is his body. The other man sits in a chair, his eyes closed, his face visible only in profile.
Gender relations, I can see, are central to this project, with the woman’s perspective and experience foregrounded.
Before I even read from the poem “I am a la Mode”—
I stuff each finger into a black glove & belt my
man’s shirt for all the times my mother called me marimacha. I climb
on top of the kitchen table & say: I am el rey & you are mi reina & all of
this mi reyno.
—I have anticipated these words, or at least the feeling of them.
The uncanny thing about this book is the way every word seems prefigured by the cover, the title, the length and width of the volume itself (longer and wider than usual), as well as its glossy softness. In fact, you cannot clasp a copy of Lima :: Limón without leaving your fingerprints all over the cover, one of the ways the reader becomes implicated in the book’s contents.
This is also a mirror perhaps for the way Scenters-Zapico prints her own words onto the reader, slipping, pointedly and without apology, under our skins.
I am a woman who knows how to turn her beauty on & off, how
to change its bulb, how to wash her face with white vinegar
until it shines like glass.
Machos hunt to watch women
in orgasm. Not because they like
to see women in pleasure,
but because they like to watch
women close to death.
Argyria is a skin condition
that has made your blood thicker & darker.
Will argyria turn you toxic? Slide yourself
across the grayscale, let argyria hold you
gainsboro, drip dimgray & sputter
slate. Say: hold me, argyria, until I become the silver
men mine my #C0C0C0 body for, until I am the silver
chain they pull across the necks of their hungry
daughters & feed to their teething sons.
See how visceral? Before I opened this book, I felt I was already inside it. Once I opened this book, the poet’s words were inside me, lodged like splinters I didn’t want to (couldn’t) remove: silver and glinting, their essential and persistent pierce.
In Lima :: Limón, Scenters-Zapico channels the voices of women who have survived domestic abuse, poverty, displacement, immigration, perpetual shame.
In her poem “Neomachismo,” she captures the voices swirling inside one (or is at all?) shamed woma(e)n’s head(s):
Say you’re sorry for getting angry. Say you’re sorry for being angry. Say
you’re sorry that you’re angry.
Anger is the emotion of men. By adding sugar, lime, & salt you can turn
anger into sadness as a good woman should.
Stop sobbing, it’s ugly. Instead, emulate the glass tears on virgins who
look up to the men who bruised their bodies.
Each couplet a razor’s edge; the space between each couplet a tiny breath, a quiet gasp—one moment to scab before the wound tears open again.
In the poem “My Macho Takes Care of Me Good,” the title leads directly to the first line:
because he’s a citizen de los united estates.
I got a stove this big a refri this full, a mirror
just to see my pretty face.
My name’s on this license. I drive la troca,
so you don’t have to, mi’ja. I am a citizen
de los united estates. Because he’s a citizen,
we are muy lejos de dios, but we love
los united estates.
I thought this was a ghazal at first, the way “los united estates” repeats so urgently throughout the poem. Then, I thought for a moment it was a pantoum, the tension spreading like wings of repetition and accretion.
But this is neither a ghazal nor a pantoum: it is a deftly rendered free-verse poem in which recursive lines form bars like a cage, the woman-speaker standing behind them (dusting, adding polish till they gleam) as she stands inside the prison of her marriage.
I fry chicharrones.
Hiss-hiss, across my bare skin. Bang-bang,
my macho’s fists on the table. He wants más, más,
y más in his united estates. I give him all of me
served on a platter from back home
The husband never lets his wife forget that he’s a citizen, so she won’t let the reader forget it either. The weight of the unsaid rivets these bars to the page, and with them, the reader to the space between these lines: He’s a citizen, but she isn’t. The power the husband wields over his wife—not only as a man in patriarchal culture but as a US citizen with papers his wife does not have—is what cleaves the couple to each other, is what affixes the woman to her husband’s desires like a sticker she knows can be peeled off at any time.
For her, the non-citizen, there is no recourse, no safety net. For her, the female non-citizen, vulnerability is doubled, compounded.
In the poem “Aesthetic Translation,” Scenters-Zapico frames an intimate narrative sequence with imported text from the New York Times. Between the cited lines “The statistics speak for themselves” and “95 percent of the murders in Juarez are not investigated,” this speaker contextualizes and visceralizes the significance of the report.
That is: while journalism frames this poem, poetry makes the picture.
I learned to read by sounding out the names
in obituaries of those who had died. There were
so many people I could never finish
The section before leaving for school.
Six women are murdered a day. Obituaries:
proof you can only die once. Six more
women will die today, six more
women will die tomorrow.
w: wo: wom: wome: women-women-women
See how this speaker sounds out the word “women,” letter by letter? How the women become women right before our eyes, right inside our ears, and as they come into being, we know the rate at which they will be lost? This poem documents embodiment and erasure at the same time. It makes a picture the reader cannot unsee, leaves a feeling the reader cannot un-feel.
The poems in Lima :: Limón take many shapes on the page. The chorus of speakers in this book require many shapes to sing their stories of heartbreak and perseverance. There are prose poems and lineated poems, poems arranged in columns and poems that move like waves, numbered-sequence poems and segmented poems comprised of words and symbols. You’ll find a contrapuntal poem, a poem presented as a recipe, titles that repeat (Macho: Hembra, Macho: Hembra) throughout the collection, and a bilingual lullaby that never stops playing at the soft edges of our hearing: From the lemon to the lime, / You have no one to love you. / Que penita y que dolor. / Que penita y que dolor, / La cevinita de enfrente soltera se quedó.
There are so many reasons you might pick up a book in the first place, and so many reasons you might keep reading until the end. If you teach, there’s always a turning point where you can see yourself teaching a book, placing it into your own students’ hands.
That moment came for me when I read Scenters-Zapico’s poem “Buen Esqueleto” close to the collection’s end. Just listen to the first line: “Life is short & I tell this to mis hijas.” Sound familiar? Next lines: “Life is short & I show them how to talk / to police without opening the door, how / to leave the social security number blank / on the exam, I tell this to mis hijas.” Recognize it yet?
In “Good Bones,” a poem by Maggie Smith that BBC/Public Radio International called “the official poem of 2016,” the speaker says, “Life is short and the world / is at least half terrible, and for every kind / stranger, there is one who would break you, / though I keep this from my children.”
Natalie Scenters-Zapico writes closer to the bone, stripping away any signs of equivocation: “Life is short & the world is terrible. I know / no kind strangers in this country who aren’t / sisters a desert away & I don’t keep this from mis hijas.”
It’s not harmonizing exactly, what Scenters-Zapico’s poem is doing with Smith’s poem. I’d say she’s pressing on the skin of the first poem until the blood rises up, until the reader can see, feel, another story pulsing beneath it.
I am trying
to sell them the world. Any decent realtor,
walking you through a real shithole, chirps on
about good bones: This place could be beautiful,
right? You could make this place beautiful.
It’s not my job
to sell them the world, but to keep them safe
in case I get deported. Our first
landlord said with a bucket of bleach
the mold would come right off. He shook
mis hijas, said they had good bones
for hard work. Mi’jas, could we make this place
beautiful? I tried to make this place beautiful.
It might be important to note that the speaker in Smith’s poem is speaking before the election of 2016. She is speaking before the unimaginable candidate became the indefensible president who denounced immigrants and refugees coming to the US from so-called “shithole countries.” Perhaps we, perhaps many of us, thought our country had good bones then. Perhaps we, many of us, believed we could make it beautiful or that it somehow already was.
The speaker in Scenters-Zapico’s poem speaks in the world post-2016. She labors under fewer illusions. Her doubts don’t prevent her from trying to make beauty, to cultivate hope, but her reality is different, her subject position one that is, more often than not, obscured. There is no realtor to show this woman a house, literally or metaphorically; there is only a landlord to pass off his failure to maintain his property onto this woman, who fears deportation, and her daughters—a bad landlord, like a bad president, who expects his tenants to be grateful.
I proclaim “Buen Esqueleto” the official poem of 2020. I proclaim Lima :: Limón a feat of exceptional pain and power.
*Breadcrumb: Natalie Scenters-Zapico teaches poetry workshops in English and Spanish through the Latina/o Studies Department at the University of Puget Sound in Tacoma, Washington.
In 1997, my parents drove me down from Seattle to visit two schools in our neighboring city of Tacoma. One was Pacific Lutheran University, the other the University of Puget Sound. I liked both schools, but I chose PLU because the tour guide mentioned their thriving creative writing program. Nonetheless, over the next four years, I spent a good deal of my time with friends from UPS on that university’s stunning campus.
Just imagine if Natalie Scenters-Zapico had taught there then—if she were older and I were younger—if I could have taken one of her poetry workshops!
My lucky peace: I’m learning from her either way.