Lima :: Limón by Natalie Scenters-Zapico
Copper Canyon, 2019. 80 pp.
Reviewed by Emily Pérez
In “The Hunt,” the last poem of Lima :: Limón, Natalie Scenters-Zapico’s searing second collection, the speaker “will not apologize / for my desire to love a macho / who could crush my skull / with his bare fists.” In this complex portrait of domestic abuse and femicide, a female speaker enmeshed in a culture of toxic machismo unapologetically presents herself as virgin and whore, perfect partner and punching bag.
The book’s title comes from “A la Lima y al Limón,” a song which pities the single woman who has no man to love her. This is the collection’s baseline logic: any man is better than no man at all. Into this world walks the hembra, looking for the way to mold herself to her macho’s desires. In “Neomachismo” she desires to cry “glass tears” like figurines of the Virgin Mary, like “virgins who look up to men who bruised their bodies.” She is pure, saintly, consumable, disposable. The poem ends when her macho asks in the language of all gaslighters: “Who taught you to hate yourself?”
Scenters-Zapico grew up near Ciudad Juárez, one of the femicide capitals of the world. In the third poem, she deftly connects abuse in the house and the murders of women outside. The speaker of, “In the Age of Los Zetas” chronicles her abuse in terms that are at once national—“I am in mourning // in the bloodiest year / of Mexican history”—and personal, detailing her
of clots—all the children
I’ve failed to bear because
I’ve been hit by men who
in their thirst for me strangled
a flash flood into our kitchen.
Don’t tell me I deserve better
in the age of Los Zetas.
Both speaker and author recognize that this “age”—a time of crime syndicates, dead and disappeared women—is a natural offshoot of homegrown gender dynamics. The speaker claims not to “deserve better”: she, too, was raised in this home.
Scenters-Zapico writes in a voice that is controlling, intense. The speaker is a victim and yet she does not present herself as one; rather, she wishes to convince us that she has chosen her circumstances. In the first of six poems titled “Macho :: Hembra,” the speaker relates:
I cleaned chiles until my fingers burned to feed him. Like my father
did to my mother at parties, he called me tontita. When we danced, I
pressed my body against his. He smiled & pet my head like a dog. A good
hembra never speaks of the violence of men.
The poem economically captures the subservient woman who “burns” to feed her man—at once experiencing intense desire and pain. This is juxtaposed with the family history; the line break after “father” makes “him” both lover and father, suggesting a replication of this pattern through generations. Like her mother she is “tontita”—“little dummy”—both an insult and a term of endearment. Tenderness comes through dehumanization; the woman is “good” when loyal as a dog. She stays close, knowing she must never speak of his violence.
Here is the conundrum: this speaker does name “the violence of men” in poem after poem. In that way, she is powerful and defiant. However, those words are juxtaposed against her claims that she wants and deserves abuse. The words have escaped, but she will not.
The last section of the book catalogues abortions, miscarriages, and nightmare visions of murdered and murderous children. “Bad Mother :: Bad Father,” evokes “Macho :: Hembra,” suggesting this is what the macho and hembra become. In this piece, a child is birthed from a bottle of sotol. He is Eden’s apple, rotten. The bad mother carries it to “the yard to hush // its sticky crying.” After eating it, she begins to produce fruit, explaining that now her macho sells “the fruit I bear in bottles.” From bad trees comes bad fruit, comes the poison passed on to others.
Reading this book often felt unbearable, yet as much as I wanted to turn away, her speaker’s incantatory certainty hooked me. Scenters-Zapico pretends to provide relief for the reader, reminding us these are just poems in “There is No Such Thing as Confession in Latinx Poetry” (a title that deserves an entire essay). Here the speaker declares “I am not I. He is not he.” And yet, even if we understand that poetry is not biography, this is not the author, nor the story of one particular woman, this book still reveals real women and men raised in a real world of deadly masculinity, a violence that reproduces itself both in and outside of the home, birthing dead things. Though the speaker locks the gaze firmly on herself, the author turns a question toward the reader: Aren’t you complicit in your witness?
Emily Pérez is the author of House of Sugar, House of Stone, and the chapbook Backyard Migration Route. She earned her MFA at the University of Houston, where she was poetry editor for Gulf Coast and taught with Writers in the Schools. Her poems have appeared in journals including Poetry, Diode, Bennington Review, Borderlands, and DIAGRAM. She teaches English and Gender Studies in Denver, where she lives with her husband and sons.