Natalie Scenters-Zapico | Lima::Limόn | Copper Canyon Press: $16.00
Natalie Scenters-Zapico’s Lima::Limόn is her second book of poetry; and it might be useful simply to quote the back cover blurb as a suitable introduction. ‘Lima::Limόn fiercely questions machismo and marianismo, cultural norms that give way to gender violence and a blind eye turned to femicide.’ Marianismo is, as we might gather from the word itself, the machismo view that women should be pure and virtuous, like the Virgin Mary herself. And the blurb does, more or less, sum up much of the thematic concern of the book. As we might note with the blurb’s comment on ‘femicide’, that the book does not pull its punches.
One thing to notice, and which colours this review, is that while published by a major American poetry publisher, and aimed at the ‘general’ poetry reader, whoever that is, the book contains quite a daunting range of Spanish vocabulary. However, the decision not to translate such terms, even in the notes, is vindicated by the way Scenters-Zapico uses them to lever up the carapace of machismo. That Scenters-Zapico is choosing these words carefully is a given. That she uses them within the grammar and the sentences of the poems to provide emotional fulcrums is less of a given; that she does so with such fierce skill is testament not only to the vehemence of her message but also to the technical acuity she clearly has. The Spanish vocabulary, and this from a completely non-Spanish speaker, offers a kind of oral valve from which pinpoints of emotional culture emerge to force the reader to attend.
To attend to what? The epigraph to the book is the Spanish and an English translation of a poem by Conchita Piquer. The epigraph begins by commenting that that children will sing a song, ironically called ‘This sad little copla’, which ‘the wind takes / From the lemon to the lime’ and finishes, ‘What pain & what shame, / the little neighbour girl from in front ended up single.’ Thus, Scenters-Zapico shows from the opening page of the book that the girl is under huge social pressure to find a man, keep him and get married. The woman is condemned from an early age.
The opening poem that follows that epitaph is a highly ironic, erotic paean to a kind of female desire. ‘I want to be the lemons in the bowl / on the cover of the magazine. I want / to be round, to be yellow, to be pulled // from branches.’Lima Limόn :: Infancia’ A profound ambivalence seems to underpin these lines. On the one hand, the text evinces a kind of desire that should be natural and right; the word ‘want’ sits emphasised at the end of the line. But then, there is that title ‘Infancia’ translated as anything from ‘babyhood’, through ‘infancy’ to ‘childhood’. And in the final verse, a sense of self-destruction imbues the writing, ‘I want to corrode my husband’s / wedding ring. I want to be a lemon with my equator marked in black ink – / small dashes to show my shape: pitted and convex.’ Desire has turned to a kind of self-mutilation which follows from the bitter corrosion of the man’s connection to his own marriage.
That irony and corrosion becomes explicit in the next poem, ‘Neomachismo’ which contains such prose verses as, ‘įAye pena penita pena! Listen to Lola Flores & search for the pain between your eyes on WebMD. Don’t feel bad if you sob in one room while he reads about aporia in the next.’ There’s a wilful play in these lines which makes them even more striking. It may not matter if the reader knows who Lola Flores is, but the reader’s view is almost shunted from that particularised, named person out to WebMD; a health website. And then the bitter irony of the woman who sobs in one room, while her ‘intellectual’ man ironically reads Derrida on the gaps in ‘text’ in the next room!
It would be too easy to suggest that Scenters-Zapico has a range of targets, some of which are easier to hit than others. That would be to suggest that the writer is caught up in the loop she seeks to break open; the cyclical violence extended to women in Mexico. It is clear that Scenters-Zapico is fully aware of the ways in which her subject matter might pull her in and down. In the poem, ‘Aesthetic Translation’, Scenters-Zapico describes the work of Charles Bowden, who wrote, ‘Femicide … was an hembra (female)/ lie about machos – a myth./ Years later, Charles Bowden // would speak for Mexican women / of the violence of machos, / of femicide, for glossy magazines // far away.’ Bowden is ‘collector of violence / against hembras. He won’t let women / speak.’ The careful line breaks here emphasize the ‘far away’ and ‘speak’, the evasive negatives contained in both. Scenters-Zapico’s reportage here paints Bowden into a particular corner, a corner that, it is clear, if Scenters-Zapico is to be believed, Bowden deserves to be in.
Such closing down of debate would feel partial, at the very least, were it not that so much of the writing in this book is simply so vivid and truthful. It is not simply the energy and anger that bursts through so much of the poetry, it is the completely lived-in feel that the poems evince. ‘Aesthetic Translation’ moves on to finish by describing the mourning doves gathered on lampposts, ‘searching / for any pool of water to clean // their brown, pointed / beaks. The mourning doves eat / loose change // on streets. The mourning doves open their wings & clean the air // of the maquila’s smog. I breathe // deep, I breathe so deeply. I swear // I’ve died. I swear I was born // dead again.’ When Scenters-Zapico depicts the mourning doves, traditionally monogamous, she depicts not only the sense that nature is part of the witness to Bowden’s lies and to femicide itself. Nature in the form of the mourning doves is polluted in ways which are analogous, if not similar, to Bowden’s pollution of the truth. A maquila, by the way, is defined as ‘a foreign-owned factory in Mexico which uses cheap Mexican labour to assemble products and then exports the products back to the country of origin’. Scenters-Zapico’s own final intervention shows the ultimate pollution of the female, where the breath of life itself is a kind of death.
by Ian Pople