2016 has been a wild year. In the nine short months that this blog has existed, I’ve featured 34 collections of poetry, conducted 10 interviews, and promoted over 50 small presses. When I started this blog, my expectations were few. I only wanted an excuse to connect with some of my favorite poets, as well as a motivator to keep reading and writing about poetry. This blog has done so much more. Although Nervous Poodle Poetry is a very tiny aspect of the poetry community, I’m excited about what’s ahead in 2017. Thanks so much to the readers of this blog, and to the poets who I have interviewed and featured. Your work is needed and appreciated. I’ll be back on January 15 with the collection Prelude to Bruise by Saeed Jones, and then Born Palestinian, Born Black by Suheir Hammad. In 2017, you can keep expecting weekly poetry collection features, but I will be focusing more on interviews and local literary event coverage within the Northeast Ohio community. Also, AWP is going to be a huge week, so look out for that. Thanks for your patience during this break, and Merry Christmas and Happy Holidays to everyone! – Noor
In her collection The Verging Cities, Natalie Scenters-Zapico sets out to document what life is like on the border of El Paso, Texas, and Ciudad Juarez, Chihuahua. Through the speaker’s relationship with her undocumented lover, as well as everyday images that capture the terror and complexity of living within these two worlds, this collection is bold in its depiction of the border. Scenters-Zapico shows no limits, capturing everything from dive bars to border control, sex to the highly political topic of immigration. The Verging Cities is a necessary read, as it tears down the stereotypes we assign to this issue, giving readers a personal examination of these two cities.
From the beginning, the collection introduces us to the character of Angel, who also acts as a motif. The first poem, “Crossing,” shows us the two lovers entering the city of Ciudad Juarez for the first time in five years. Angel purchases a fake passport, while the speaker acknowledges “Border agents wave us across – // I’m too white to tell and Angel looks clean enough, but one of us is illegal” (lines 14-15). Despite the tension and fear, the poem manages to be playful in its depiction of these two people. Readers get a sense that they are close, and Scenters-Zapico does a great job capturing their nervousness but staying balanced: “Cameras every ten feet-we smile // and kiss for them” (lines 12-13). I felt that this was a great poem to begin this collection.
Because of the desperation, crime, and poverty that is depicted in The Verging Cities, many of these poems are heartbreaking. In the poem “The Verging Cities” the speaker is personified as Ciudad Juarez and El Paso, Texas. The description in this poem is harrowing: “I am the city that’s come to swallow / the plastic bags of your body” (lines 11-12). One of the reasons I love this collection is for Scenters-Zapico’s use of surrealism in so many of her images: “Your hands // leave broken bottles and receipts behind my ears” (lines 42-43). The poems are beautiful and daring, and took me by surprise again and again.
The Verging Cities is split into four sections: Con/Verge, Di/Verge, Re/Merge, and Verge. It’s a breathtaking collection, not just because it breaks stereotypes and makes a powerful political statement, but because Scenters-Zapico’s writing is really freaking good.
Buy The Verging Cities here.
*As part of my goal to promote small presses, here is some information about the University Press of Colorado: “Founded in 1965, the University Press of Colorado is a nonprofit cooperative publishing enterprise supported, in part, by Adams State University, Colorado State University, Fort Lewis College, Metropolitan State University of Denver, Regis University, University of Colorado, University of Northern Colorado, Utah State University, and Western State Colorado University. In 2012, University Press of Colorado merged with Utah State University Press, which was established in 1972. (For more on this merger, you can see a press release here.) USU Press titles are managed as an active imprint of University Press of Colorado, and we maintain offices in both Boulder, Colorado, and Logan, Utah.”
(Cover of The Verging Cities courtesy of the University Press of Colorado)
After finishing the collection Rapture by Sjohnna McCray, I was surprised to learn that this is his first collection. So many social, political, and historical issues are beautifully tackled in Rapture. Centered around the Vietnam War, this collection of poems introduces us to the speakers’ parents, who form an unlikely relationship during the war. Written in a chronological structure, Rapture follows the parent’s eventual migration to Cincinnati, Ohio, and the speaker’s childhood and adulthood. Through this, topics of race, sexuality, immigration, and family are addressed.
The stunning portrayal of the parent’s relationship in Rapture is best shown through the poem “Bedtime Story #1.” In this poem, the father is telling the speaker a story about how he met the speakers’ mother. McCray writes, “they could stroll the lane like an ordinary couple: / the unassuming black and the Korean whore / in the middle of the Vietnam War” (lines 21-23). This collection does a great job of giving us a different side of the war. I like this poem because it illustrates this relationship thought unlikely details, such as the “chocolate, / caramel and peanuts” that the father gives to the mother (lines 18-19). It also stunningly addresses the language barrier between the father and the mother, and the writing feels intimate and personal.
Something that really kept me hooked to Rapture was its tendency to cover a wide range of topics. Despite the expansiveness, one thing that really threads Rapture together is McCray’s honest depiction of sexuality. While I thought that Rapture would focus on the Vietnam War, I really loved his characterization of adolescence and boyhood. In the poem “Adolescence” we find our young speaker with his cousins, peeking at an unknown woman. The boys refer to her body with crude terms, such as “pussy” and “cunt” (line 22) but by the end of the poem, the speaker acknowledges that “Her body refuses the terms, / the slang-by-number words, // we try to assign her body” (lines 28-30). Throughout Rapture, the speaker is candid with his representation of sexuality, and the body is depicted in many poems, no matter what the subject.
While Rapture is not organized in sections, it does take place over a series of life events. We meet the parents during the Vietnam War, then later after they’ve moved to Cincinnati, Ohio, and then we follow the speaker into adulthood. One of the poems, titled “Postcard: Turning Station” is written in the mother’s voice, while the poem “The Savages in the Suburbs” documents the 1978 Cincinnati blizzard, and the Korean mothers’ attempt at learning new English words through her son. The poems in Rapture take on many different forms, and McCray does a great job of varying the poems both in style and subject.
Buy Rapture here.
*As part of my goal to promote small presses, here is some information about Graywolf Press: “Graywolf Press is a leading independent publisher committed to the discovery and energetic publication of contemporary American and international literature. We champion outstanding writers at all stages of their careers to ensure that diverse voices can be heard in a crowded marketplace.”*
(photo of Rapture courtesy of Graywolf Press)