The Verging Cities by Natalie Scenters-Zapico (The Center for Literary Publishing, 2015)
Reviewed by Willy Palomo
I have never been to the border, yet the border has maintained its presence in my life, mostly through the barriers it has erected against my friends and family. What I know of it I have learned either from the confusing and crazed worlds of media and academia or from late night stories half-spoken by my parents, both of whom migrated to the United States from El Salvador during the 1980s and hardly speak of it. Given all the violence, divisive politics, and silence surrounding the border and its issues, it is difficult to find a voice discerning and trustworthy enough to share its stories with the scope and passion Natalie Scenters-Zapico faces the subject in The Verging Cities, her debut collection of poetry about the sister cities, El Paso and Juarez.
I trust this book because from the first poem, it contradicts sensationalized assumptions about Juarez, including the speaker’s. In “Crossing,” the speaker and her undocumented lover, Angel, cross the border to party in Juarez, and the speaker describes how after five years of being away, she “expect[s] there to be an explosion,” only to soon acknowledge, “It’s still a city.” The speaker’s willingness to acknowledge and critique her own misperceptions speaks to the sincerity and vulnerability evident throughout the collection. Later on in the poem, an overweening man yells, “That’s it? That’s all you have for me, murder capital of the world?” In this first scene, outsiders and locals engage in Juarez’s nightlife; the speaker’s decision to start us off here draws the reader’s attention to the tension between lived and unlived portrayals of Juarez and counteracts extravagant narratives about the city. Later, the speaker’s choice to “smile / and kiss” Angel for the cameras at the border mocks the formality and legality of the border and speaks to the audacity of the voice in these poems. This move also sets Angel and the speaker as parallel to Juarez and El Paso, a symbolic dynamic that expands and contracts throughout the book.
I trust this book because of the respect it gives the dead. When the time comes to discuss the violence of the border, the murders it commits, the book carves out each moment with the precision and long-suffering the dead deserve. For a taste of the effect, try “Guerrero Pears”:
The tree hangs brown pears over his head.
From his pores white snakes pop. They swim
down his face to turn the soil. His tongue lies
in blood that’s collected between his teeth.
He swallows red until he cries it. Streams run
around his nostrils; they bloom into a field
of roses at his chin. Birds perch on his gums
and drink the salt of him. His body, three feet
away in a cooler, rots with two beers and a knife.
His wide eyes are bruised and have turned black.
A girl comes to climb the tree for fruit and shakes
at each branch. The birds, scared, fly into the tree.
She opens the cooler, she covers her face, she
vomits. She looks at his head and says, Un hombre.
The book draws the reader through the heat of each moment, until it is the reader’s face that reddens with blood, until the reader feels the urge to vomit. In her poems, the poet submits herself again and again to these unspeakable moments of violence and death. One can feel the love radiate from the collection as the speaker finds the strength to continue facing these moments and move through them. At the same time, the book works throughout to counteract the inclinations of terrible readers, the ones who would sensationalize, dismiss, or otherwise assimilate the narratives in her poems. She does so by interrupting series of poems about the dead with critical poems, such as “Placement,” “The Archeologist Came to Hunt Trilobites,” and “A Journalist’s Field Notes On The Kentucky Club.” These poems critique those who inebriate themselves off the violence, apathetically dismiss it, or parade it for their own gain. In doing so, the book preserves the dignity of those who the border has murdered in such dehumanizing ways.
Yet the reason I most trust this book is for the emotional reaction it pushes out of me. The Verging Cities doesn’t rely on the sentimentalism of liberal immigrant narratives or commercials designed to garner donations; it doesn’t feel like a movie. Reading the book doesn’t make me feel better. It makes me weep with anger and frustration. It opens the wounds people try to ignore. It calls the ambulance.
Visit Natalie Scenters-Zapico’s Website.