(Book Review) With the River on Our Face by Emmy Pérez

By David Nilsen

perezEmmy Pérez’s collection With the River on Our Face is intimately tied to the territory of its origin. Taking as its muse the land, wildlife, and people in and around El Paso and the Rio Grande river valley, the book looks at the Mexican-American border as a place both painfully, powerfully real and yet mythical in its role as a gateway between two worlds. It’s a place where the nation’s xenophobic imagination plays itself out with raids and detention centers, but a place that is largely ignored and forgotten about by most of the country otherwise. As Pérez shows, it’s a place where impossibly delicate butterflies pull nectar from desert blooms, and a place where trained attack dogs savage undocumented immigrants out of sight of America’s conscience.

The river of the title is, of course, the Rio Grande. It’s a river that contains far more depth than mere water; it’s a border between two countries, and rife with symbolism. It meanders through this collection just as it does through the arid southwestern desert to the Gulf of Mexico, and it is shown as both a river of death and a river of holy cleansing. Both brutality and beauty are found here in this space where to be home is to be displaced. In “Rio Grande~Bravo”, Pérez writes of the invisible border line down the center of the river as

“An invisible caesura
On water
Where I want to apply stitches
Like skin healing
Border
Into water
Again”

Pérez makes use of the language of waterways throughout the collection, even when she isn’t specifically speaking of the river she has lived so much of her life beside. In the title poem, she cleverly states,

“I want to oxbow lake

in this place where children still speak and lose
multiple tongues”

Beautiful, lyrical images like this are peppered throughout the often distressing poems of this collection, as in “El Valle” where we’re shown

“The tip of Tejas is an oriole’s
nest that whorls into

México like a galaxy.”

Pérez is excellent at blending the setting of urban El Paso and its surrounding cities with the harsh landscape of the neighboring deserts, placing both within one ecosystem with similar rules. These connections are made deftly, with subtle images that are none the less evocative, as here in “Siphoning Sugar”:

“cattle egrets white
treble clefs
flanking cattle exist

and a thousand tinsel triangles rippling
over used car lots”

With the River on Our Face is at its most powerful when it directly confronts the injustices of the U.S. immigration system, and the dignity that is stripped from the hopeful backs of undocumented persons who have jumped a fence, or crossed a river, or crawled under the desert sun only to be treated as subhuman if they’re found by border agents. She shows the pain, fear, humiliation, and grief of these situations unflinchingly, but some of the most heartbreaking lines in these poems are not violent. In “Exit Routes” she explains,

“Shelters do not allow pets

Infants exist         The elderly”

These quiet moments are, in some ways, more agonizing as images than those of overt aggression.

Throughout the collection, there is mention of poetry as sacred text, as spiritual salve and weapon. In “Rio Grande~Bravo”, Pérez laments “We can’t build poems faster / than the wall’s construction”, while in “Boca Chica~Playa Bagdad” she intones “When you said you read poetry like Bible verses / I stopped being suspicious of the world”. In “[Why]”, she displays her two muses–poetry and the river–together in one image:

“Diosita, diosito, you who
reads poetry and rivers

like they will save
you, not Jesucristo,

you prepare my daily bread.”

More than anything else, this collection is about documenting a place that most of white America only thinks about in terms of politics. It’s about describing the faces, the stones, the barrios, the lizards, the scrub plants, and, always, the river. Multiple poems in the book are scattered with lists of things that are real, things confirmed as real because this poet testifies to them, good or bad. Dreams exist… Swarms of snout butterflies / splatting on windshields exist… the hooded oriole exists… el Río Grande exists. This quiet insistence refuses to let this land and these people be ignored. While much of American might want to pretend it doesn’t exist, to build a literal wall on the border and a figurative wall around anyone perceived as different, Pérez will not allow it that dishonesty. This place of her home is real, and it contains both beauty and misery.

As she says in a poem titled “Upon Obama’s presidential interregnum a year before the opening of Anzalduas International Bridge, not named after Gloria Anzaldúa”, she concludes simply,

“The border, my home
(without you)
Is a real place.”

Emmy Pérez makes it real for us in these pages. Check out With the River on Our Face if you have the chance.

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