Review: ‘To the North/ Al norte’ by Leon Salvatierra

To the North Al norte

To the North/ Al norte, translated by Javier O. Huerta, is a bilingual poetry collection that retraces Salvatierra’s shaky steps from Nicaragua to the United States, taken at the tender age of fifteen as a result of the civil wars that ravaged Central America in the 1980s.

After eleven years as an undocumented immigrant, Salvatierra gained the status of a naturalized citizen; one who grapples with notions of exile and violence in a body of work that feels struck through with arrows.

To the North/ Al norte begins by addressing the reader, unfurling Salvatierra’s backstory with a lyrical undertone, “The accented syllable in my name had to absorb the blow: León.” Soon, the mind housing the name gets caught up in the “fraud” of a falsified existence, from its age to its “undocumented life” post-rupture.

Salvatierra refers to the “nine Kafkaesque years” he spent erasing the horizon of his education, trapped in the catch-22 of a denied right to asylum. 

From this point on, a sore emotional dissonance makes itself known. Salvatierra’s relationship with his father — whose infidelity often drew the neighbors’ fingers to his son’s chest, and who died young from alcohol abuse — demands a breaking off from his roots, “And while it has never been easy, I have renounced his inheritance.”

It makes sense, then, that memory becomes a point of fixation, and that the expected and unexpected collide.

In Memory, Salvatierra stirs intrigue with the verses, “where some children played/ I couldn’t tell if they were little men/ or little women/ because they were naked.”

This subversion of our expectations, specifically the thought that the body should naturally betray one’s sex, swings like a pendulum toward trodden territory, “I saw that I too was a slave/ to the calmness of my sheets/ to paydays/ addicted to a digital sleepiness.”

While this fluctuation might seem uneven, it also mimics the cadence of life. From the central youth to remote adulthood, no two days ever find themselves in the same state of enraptured volatility.

This becomes apparent in Upon Returning, which dislocates its verses to portray the upheaval of “flying over rivers,” of crossing Guatemala and Mexico to arrive at the United States’ “paralyzed dream.” 

In the titular poem, as the race across Mexico’s border gains velocity, a fellow traveler reintroduces Salvatierra to the horrors of premature death, “spewing white foam from his mouth and convulsing like he was possessed by a demon.”

But then, in another corner of the collection, we discover that “In nineteen ninety-nine/ Nicaragua/ is still/ Alone.” And from this stillness, the romanticization of place, effectively the linking of the body to space, is born. 

Luxembourg entices with its palaces and the flank hugging Germany. Distant lands and the United States’ unscratched parts all whisper endless tales of the freedom that once seduced a child’s imagination. But the body has the final say, and it craves the rasp of a cactus,

“The thing is, the pitahaya has dimensions similar to the clock on your/ bosom/ to my breathing, to the ache and the rhythm.”

Concrete poetry heeds the tempo of memory rather than the abstract, on which ideation breaks apart, “some faces seem to me/ so transparent, others so strange/ that they frighten me.”

And yet, the collection offers verses, and occasionally whole poems, that knead the mind, painting suicide as the “carrion of sensationalism” and eyelids as the forests, among which “lights of the city” can be devoured.

The spirit slips from the confines of Insomnia C, spreading itself out on the page before curling up to accommodate the shape of its melancholy. This sedation doesn’t last long as, in the next breath, the creationist violence of boxing — that uniquely American sport — is bared,

“His nose is not strong enough/ It is fragrant cartilage/ If you hit it from one side/ the nasal septum breaks/ He no longer smells flowers.”

Refined verse is frequently offset by stark prose in To The North/ Al norte, delivering a more painstaking venture into consumerism, capitalism, and gaze-dimming reality, “I open my blinds and can only see my neighbour’s white blinds.” Battered by the mundane, Salvatierra recalls NACARA (The Nicaraguan Adjustment and Central American Relief Act of 1997) and the joy of having his humanity realized.

Unleashed, the echo of romantic love, which has been slipping up and down the walls of the page, gains resonance. And in The Weight of Love, it marries playfulness with the heft of sincere sentiment, “From now on I will love you according/ to your weight. Pound for pound,” “Suffer, I know you will suffer, and no more will you tell me/ I want to lose weight because I look fat.”

To the North/ Al norte’s idea of physical rupture seems to find its ideal in Canes on Fire, a poem that bristles with poetic manifestation,

“My eyes that always saw/ suns cast shadows upon the trees.”

The memory and humanity that Salvatierra reaps along the way are ultimately challenged, and subdued, in The Swearing of the Immigrant. As the poem’s verses unfurl, the poet’s tongue assumes an American identity.

The rest of his body wraps itself around the flame of his youth, sparing it from the ritual. What we’re left with is the impression of autonomy; and its anatomy of longing.


Publication date: November 8, 2022 (University of Nevada Press)

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