A Review of Natalie Scenters-Zapico's The Verging Cities — February 21, 2016
by Christopher Nelson
As an undergraduate I took a year off from studying and traveled across the West to live with a friend in Tucson, Arizona, a place that eventually became my home for fifteen years. I knew, in a general way, about the plight of migrants crossing the border and the economics that compelled their journeys, but when I learned about the number of deaths of migrants each year and the depth of the shadow world that awaited them upon arrival in the U.S., I was saddened, bewildered, and outraged. Just beyond the subdivisions, parking lots, and movie theaters a tragedy was playing out that would claim two-hundred lives a year along the Arizona-Mexico border. Two-hundred or so. No one knows the actual numbers. The desert is vast, exceptionally inhospitable, and, despite cities in the region (Tucson, Nogales, Phoenix, Yuma), most of the terrain is inaccessible. But "inhospitable" may be the wrong word: archaeologists say that the Tucson valley has a history of consistent human settlement for over 12,000 years.
Natalie Scenters-Zapico knows that for these reasons and others the deserts of the Southwest are haunted. In her urgent, political, and personally complex debut, The Verging Cities, she writes about El Paso, Texas, and Juárez, Chihuahua, where death-toll reports from the past few years are comparable to war zones. Yet, while set in death's penumbra, this book is about love. A woman from one side of a border and a man from another: "In bed she asks him: Will you marry me? He thought / she asked: Can I give you country?" The poems are gracefully woven together to make a book-length narrative in which various permutations of love and death are considered: lovers together, lovers separated, lovers dead and alive.
In the titular poem, the two cities are personified, enacting the impossible union experienced by their human inhabitants; the very structures that make their togetherness possible (roads, buildings, bridges) also keep them apart. This is the central drama—and source of beauty—of these poems: love and fear wrestle over the fate of human life. Without entirely renouncing romanticizing that reality, Scenters-Zapico emphasizes how brutal la frontera can be. There are mass graves, suicides, exploitations, and murders. And while El Paso is America, heavy with its own symbolic weight, "five hundred feet away … the maquilas / run all night," and a woman "with no money in a new land [learns that] her body is a thousand dimes."
Scenters-Zapico's style is often surreal: a weathered mass grave reveals the open mouths of the dead as if they chewed their way from desert dirt, cactus instead of words coming from a mouth, a mouth where an armpit should be, "the eye: a mouth // of teeth." Surrealism is the appropriate mode for treating the horror of border politics and realities—a subject too impossibly real. The journalist's objectivity and the photographer's mechanical eye can capture the actual, but the poet's sympathetic imagination can place us in the emotional reality of people caught in the borderland between waking and nightmare. These poems consistently succeed at doing so. In "Because You Don't Have a Social Security Number," the lovers "kiss through / the diamond mouth of a metal fence," and each kiss is "a memory of the house you hung // stars in."
Punctuating the fraught love between the speaker and the man Angel—who, yes, doubles as an angel in some poems—are recurring dead bodies in the desert and allusions to the disappeared women of Juárez. An archaeologist hunting trilobites in the desert finds the remains of a young woman: "Her face was already / bone. Her body, scattered." In another poem, photocopied fliers announcing a missing seventeen-year-old girl are blown by a dust storm and catch in barbed wire—an image that captures the atmosphere of The Verging Cities: despairing, urgent, critical. The fliers don't stop, and it will take a long time for the rare rain to return the paper to the earth. This isn't to say that the poems are hopeless, but they point out the futility of hope in the face of truths we must not turn away from. "The river," writes Scenters-Zapico, "is only blue on the map."