The Verging Cities by Natalie Scenters-Zapico
The Center for Literary Publishing
at Colorado State University, 2015; 80 pp
Reviewed by Caitlin Pryor
In her first full-length collection of poetry, The Verging Cities, Natalie Scenters-Zapico bravely defies the stock advice of composition teachers everywhere by offering an Oxford English Dictionary definition of the word “verge” at the opening of her book’s fourth section, and I for one am glad.
One definition offered is “the point at which something begins.” At the risk of dating this review, it must be said that Scenters-Zapico’s book—which navigates the proximity and distance of Ciudad Juárez, Chihuahua and El Paso, Texas—exists in an intense time of renewed cultural and political debate about racism, anti-immigration policies, and xenophobia in America—a country, it seems, very much on the verge. What, exactly, we are on the verge of, Scenters-Zapico seems to intimate, is for us to decide. Where do we begin once something else has ended? More specifically, the book pushes us to ask, are we, as human beings and as citizens, willing to wash the privileged “us vs. them” rhetoric from our lips, or are we, in the end, comfortable with the cruelty we inflict upon immigrants and people of color?
The speaker of “In a Dust Storm” ruminates on this question after finding a flier for a missing girl near the Mexican border: “The desert in the afternoon // is haunting and these fliers / will never quit begging the brush / to stop their constant flight.” Scenters-Zapico’s speaker begs the natural world to arrest the tide of pain, but we understand that the landscape itself is helpless in this endeavor; it is we who have work to do.
And yet, astutely, violence does not often elapse in real time in this collection. Instead, Scenters-Zapico’s poems limn the tendrils that curl out of violence like vines, grasping at our past, our future, our loved ones. In “Angel and I Are Both Great Pretenders,” she writes, “They tell us / Juárez is not a war and Angel cries at night / thinking of his father unsafe in his house forever. // We can’t sleep, so down to the carpet, a new position.” Violence, we see, is not a single collapse, but an earthquake that echoes.
The book’s three preceding sections, titled “Con/verge,” “Di/verge,” and “Re/merge,” are filled with poems that apply pressure on notions of unity (whether it be the unity of marriage, nationality, or humanity) in lucid, brave diction. In the poem “Woman Found near Sunland Park Mall,” she writes: “When the other border agents ask what state he found / this woman in, he has a story that involves water, // how some can buy it at Target and how others / don’t know how to call it by its proper name.”
In this piece and in countless others, Scenters-Zapico breathes new life into one particular often-bandied-about term: necessity. As America teeters on the brink of a contentious election in which the rights, visibility, and humanity of Latinx people and other marginalized groups continue to be, horrifyingly, called into question, books like The Verging Cities must be not only written, but read—and read well.
You will not win a staring contest with Natalie Scenters-Zapico; this poet cannot, and will not, look away.