Scar On / Scar Off
Scar On / Scar Off by Jennifer Maritza McCauley
Stalking Horse Press, 2017. 81 pp.
Reviewed by Emily Pérez
Midway through Scar On / Scar Off, Jennifer Maritza McCauley’s speaker describes a casting call for “a rap video that says only cute / white and Latina girls acceptable.” Rather than feel defeat, the speaker defies. She wants to arrive “with my Blatina-black / self speaking slanty Spanish.” She will take with her a posse including “my girl Q who is German, trans, and Italian / as fuck, and we’ll march on into wherever / we need to go and we’ll be snapping.” This image is a banner for the collection: the speaker and her crew defy easy categorization, and they will snap back against normalized oppression.
One of the book’s pleasures is coming to know its many inhabitants. Gifted with vernacular, McCauley speaks from a variety of places and personas. There’s the lusty voice from the club— “Hey, Pretty Papi, / …you’re a rain-wet / street after squall. Ay / slick-bodied boy, Ima call you / mi empanada, stuffed to bursting”—alongside the voice of the ghost “From Dead Boy Street”—“You’ve never seen my body as it is, bountiful, blazing, bronzed by God.” She even directly addresses those who might balk at a poet using slang: “I ain’t gonna speak in / your cusses nor cursivos, / oye: // this talk / ain’t school-taught, // it’s ready for a gotdamn / brawl.” The many characters are mirrored in the variety of forms in this collection—poems both spare and dense, flash memoir and song.
McCauley’s multi-racial speaker is often an outsider, and she invites readers to feel that otherness. We stand beside her when a “browngirl” declares, disappointed, that the speaker “eres Latina at least.” We watch her decide how to position herself with the “rich blackgirl” who says “your kinky hair / need to get laid, you got that whitegirl ass. ” And we witness her alienation as a fellow guest among the white gala-goers of “We are Always At Somebody’s Party,” where she suddenly becomes the object of scrutiny:
Somebody asks how I feel about Big Topics. I say nothing…I am one of the dark colors they mention. Nobody in the room has my skin. Still one of their Big Topics is what to do with people like me.
No space is safe. Even a joyful gathering at a bar becomes fraught in the poem “Mulatto-Ed,” where well-meaning friends pin hopes for a post racial future on the speaker and her new love. Meanwhile, the speaker just wants a chance to explore the relationship. McCauley’s book lays bare the difficulties of mixed race identity in a world bent on black and white. It refuses to conform to one racial narrative, and thus is a powerful addition to a growing canon of multi-racial literature.
Despite providing a clear-eyed view of harmful power dynamics, Scar On / Scar Off also makes room for delight. Like the pregnant girls on the bus who harbor “delicate weather” instead of shame, these poems carry themselves boldly and “create something as beautiful as life.”
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.