“Because We Come from Everything: Poetry & Migration” is the first public offering of the newly formed Poetry Coalition—twenty-two organizations dedicated to working together to promote the value poets bring to our culture and communities, as well as the important contributions poetry makes in the lives of people of all ages and backgrounds.
During the month of March, coalition members CantoMundo and Letras Latinas are partnering to present guest posts by CM fellows at Letras Latinas Blog that will include essays, creative non-fiction, micro reviews and dialogues between writers. This year’s theme borrows a line from U.S. Poet Laureate Juan Felipe Herrera’s poem, “Borderbus.” Please return to this space and enjoy all the pieces in the series, and leave comments to participate in the dialogue.
Barbara Curiel, CantoMundo
Francisco Aragón, Letras Latinas
The Body Doubled, The Double Exposed
in Scenters-Zapico’s “A Place to Hide the Body”
by Emily Pérez
Natalie Scenters-Zapico, The Verging Cities, Center for Literary Publishing, 2015
Like the not-quite mirror images of Ciudad Juarez and El Paso, would-be doubles populate Natalie Scenters-Zapico’s debut collection The Verging Cities (Center for Literary Publishing, 2015). In “A Place to Hide the Body,” a poem that occurs almost at the center of the book, a boy is doubled: his story told directly by the narrator and also by “the film of Southwest culture” she watches in her “ninth-grade history class.” The version from the documentary is familiar to us, for we’ve seen that documentary, too: the boy is migrating illegally, signaled by his clothing—“faded polos and dress shoes two sizes // too big”—and his lack of preparation: “The documentary says he never brings / enough water.” The film casts judgment; as its viewers, so do we.
But Scenters-Zapico’s narrator gives us another, insider perspective. She knows the documentary is wrong and she contradicts it. In reference to the Polo shirts she says, “But I know he wears the same // Aéropostale shirt as my brother.” The boy is not an “other,” after all; he could be the narrator’s own kin. She further disrupts the narrative by revealing that he “climbs / Mt. Cristo Rey every spring” meaning that whatever his nationality, he returns each year to a pilgrimage site at the juncture of New Mexico, Texas, and Mexico, a place that speaks of connection to local culture, tradition, and religion. By making the boy a pilgrim, Scenters-Zapico confirms that he is a traveler, but “pilgrim” is a far cry from “illegal immigrant.” He is not seeking escape; he is seeking ritual, return.
We never truly see the body of the boy in the documentary, but his double is exposed. In an arresting extended metaphor, Scenters-Zapico opens the poem by comparing the boy to a boat—as such he is a traveler for sure—but as a boat in the desert, he’s in the wrong medium, and he’s in trouble.
He’s a boat beached in the desert, turning
black at the hull. He longs for an artificial lake.
A corroded can cut his foot, which hurts more
than where he’s been shot, that gap
for his finger to fill. His blood is the bilge,
his heart the broken pump.
We do not know how he’s been shot or even where in his body is the “gap”; in fact, that seems incidental to the poem. The violence against him feels like a matter of course. The cut on his foot we can guess is a by-product of walking without shoes. His heart is “broken”—we do not know how, but the image conjures not only the mechanical failure, but also emotional despair. Not only is he beached, cut, and shot, but he’s leaking, so it seems a statement of pure naivety when the narrator says, “I think he may // be dying.” Is he not dead already? The answer is delayed by a shift to the official version—the documentary. We do not return to this real boy until the last two stanzas of the poem, in which death is assured. “When he’s dead // they’ll leave his body to the sun, an abandoned / ship in land the ocean’s left behind.” The boy’s body is wholly abandoned: left behind by whoever shot him, left behind by future travelers, left behind by readers who witness and then put aside the poem, left behind by the very ocean that once flowed in this desert.
The story the documentary tells, the story we’ve heard time and again is the story of migration—from Ciudad Juarez and deeper south, to El Paso and further north—from one life to another, from certain poverty to possible prosperity. But Scenters-Zapico upends this story with her double vision. Is the boy a migrant or a local? On which side of the border is the desert in which he suffers? And while his real story is buried by news accounts, documentaries, and our imaginations, his true story is exposed by the poem. The boy has not migrated at all. He has not moved. He’s moored in the desert, and though we may leave him behind, his image remains, indelible. There is no hiding the body.
Emily Pérez is the author of the poetry collection House of Sugar, House of Stone and the chapbook Backyard Migration Route. Her poems have appeared in Poetry, Diode, Borderlands and other journals. A CantoMundo fellow, she has received funding and recognition from the Artist Trust, Jack Straw Writers, Bread Loaf, Community of Writers at Squaw Valley, and Summer Literary Seminars. She is a high school teacher in Denver, where she lives with her husband and sons.