Book Reviews

Sugar, Lime & Salt

by John Yohe | Contributing Writer

Lima :: Lim贸n
Natalie Scenters-Zapico
Copper Canyon Press, 2019

Natalie Scenters-Zapico writes from, about, and across borders: between Ciudad Ju谩rez and El Paso, between male and female, macho and hembra, machismo and marianismo, even perhaps between espa帽ol and english. Most people I think have an understanding of what machismo is, though perhaps not marianismo. The term comes from Mar铆a, Mary, as a role model for how women are expected to act, or be, in a ‘macho’ (en espa帽ol one says ‘machista’) patriarchal culture鈥攙irginal and motherly, accepting and passive. Lima :: Lim贸n seethes against these expectations.

Scenters-Zapico seems to have invented a new language symbol, or at least created a new use for the square double full colon: :: . What it means, or signifies, may be the key to the whole book, the relationship between men and women, and life in general. In the title, it seems to work as an equals sign, lima = lim贸n, either one can refer to a lemon or a lime. Lemon = lime, basically the same besides the color. Also surely not without significance, lim贸n is slang in American-border-spanish for ‘loser.’ Lima Lim贸n is/becomes Scenters-Zapico’s nickname, and how she’s taught to think of herself, by other women, perpetuating the patriarchal narrative against themselves.

In the first section of the book, the :: often seems to be used as a full colon in the series of vignettes, or prose poems appearing among the other free-verse poems, with the word to the right signaling the different stages in Lima Lim贸n’s life, with the title catch-phrase to the left, as in “Lima Lim贸n :: Infancia” (childhood), and particularly in “Lima Lim贸n :: Madurez” (maturity), where we learn that the lima/lim贸n of the title comes from the phrase Scenters-Zapico’s mother (passed on from her mother) sang to her, “A la lima y al lim贸n, te vas quedar soltera.” Literally, ‘to/like the lime or the lemon, either way you’re going to stay single.’ More like, ‘Lemon or lime, either way you’ll never get married (or find a man) (or get married).

But the :: seems to change in the second section of the book. Here the titles of the vignettes are all “Macho :: Hembra” (Male :: Female), the :: seeming to denote some kind of equivalency like in the book title, though also perhaps at the same time a causal relationship:

One night, I was done playing hembra. I asked him to stop playing macho. He pulled me by the arm to the side of the house. With one hand across my mouth, an arm across my shoulders & the weight of his body he repeatedly beat my head against brick until a faucet of blood opened from my head down my back. The pain became a vibration through my body. His hands :: death wish. Too weak to move, I slid down the wall & stared at a colony of ants that wound their way around my feet. I couldn鈥檛 feel the ants pinching welts into my skin. He kneeled down to hold me & kiss my sweaty face. I wanted to be a good hembra. I let him hold me. I whispered: Sorry, I’m sorry. I got up & only want to shower. It is shameful to let a man touch you that way. It is even more shameful to speak it.

On first read, the :: seems to be an equals sign, Macho = Hembra. But the more it appears, especially in this example, the more the meaning of the words it separates (or joins?), feels slippery, the reading becomes multiple ‘readings’. What does “His hands :: death wish” mean? Whose death wish? A quick visit to the Wikipedia page for a full colon tells us that, in language, the full colon “precedes an explanation”. Hembra is the explanation for Macho, female the explanation for male? Is this the self-incrimination of marianismo? That machista men behave violently because of the way women behave? Or does machismo, do machista men, cause women to think that?

And/or, again via Wikipedia, the colon “inform[s] the reader that what follows . . . proves, explains, defines, describes, or lists elements of what preceded it.” The death wish explains his hands. Or defines. The Hembra explains or defines the Macho, or she could be an element of the Macho. Machista explained by the female.

And/or the Hembra becomes a sub-title: Macho: Hembra. Male: Female. The general, followed by the specific thing the text is about. Which sounds exactly what Lima :: Lim贸n is about鈥攎en, specifically explained by/through women.

And/or the single full colon is a mathematical symbol for ‘such that’, or ‘so that,’  or ‘everywhere’. Thus: Macho, such that (there is)(everywhere) Hembra. The macho conditional on the fact that there is an Hembra. Or, Macho, so that (there is) an Hembra. Or, Macho everywhere (there is) Hembra. This maybe follows basic biology (can’t have males without females). But if we’re talking behaviors (and Scenters-Zapico is) the meaning again circles on what she would say is the ‘fault’ (line?) of the women causing the bad behavior of men. Or of women being told this, and growing up believing it.

The :: means all of those things, and Lima :: Lim贸n is the response (or really, the result) of that ‘fault’ that women are taught. Thus, it is an angry book. I don’t see, nor do I think Scenters-Zapico sees, anger as a bad thing. It can be a defense mechanism, a form of protection. It’s certainly not an emotion woman are allowed to feel in marianismo. In more than a few poems (the whole book!) Scenters-Zapico expresses her anger, to and about men her life. And is punished for it. Beaten for it. Her poem “Neomachism,” the second in the collection, sets the tone, and the problem:

Wear a red dress & let men pull at it all night. Your desire: to have your
hair pulled, to bleed, to lick your wounds like a dog in heat.

Say you’re sorry for getting angry. Say you’re sorry for being angry. Say you’re sorry that you’re angry.

Anger is the emotion of men. By adding sugar, lime & salt you can turn anger into sadness as a good woman should.

Stop sobbing, it’s ugly. Instead, emulate the glass tears on virgins who
look up to the men who bruised their bodies.

The problem with anger is that it can lead to hate. Hard not to hate those who hate you. The problem is, with machismo and marianismo, women end up hating each other or themselves. “Neomachismo” ends:

When he says you are letting this happen, don’t reply. Put his fingers
in your mouth & hold your breath when he asks: Who taught you to hate

Which makes me wonder about the ‘neo’ of her ‘neomachismo’鈥攊t seems like the same old machismo that’s always existed, though I wouldn’t go running to any generalization about just latino men here: Scenters-Zapico is merely using the Border Country as a way to talk about macho/hembra relations everywhere. Which is a bleak vision: we can cross the border from anger into hatred, easily. That line break in the last stanza allows for two types of hate: who taught you to hate, in general, but also, who taught you to hate yourself. Neither hate dissolves here, maybe especially not the self-hatred. Scenters-Zapico doesn’t seem to think it ever will. Even though by the end of the Lima :: Lim贸n she has crossed the literal and metaphorical border, the new country may not be any better. But the anger, the energy of righteous anger. That’s the salvation. Lima :: Lim贸n isn’t a happy book, but it’s beautiful in its horror. And power.

Born in Puerto Rico, John Yohe grew up in Michigan, lives in Oregon, and is Fiction Editor for Deep Wild Journal. He has worked as a wildland firefighter, deckhand/oiler, bike messenger, wilderness ranger, and fire lookout.