Sasha Pimentel’s award-winning collection of poems, For Want of Water and Other Poems, selected for the National Poetry Series by Gregory Pardlo, offers a fierce, unflinching look at what it means to live, to love and to bear witness on the U.S.-Mexico border. Pimentel teaches in the bilingual MFA program at the University of Texas at El Paso, just across the border from Ciudad Juárez, where, as noted in the epigraph of her book, nearly 48,000 people were killed in drug-related violence over the span of five years. Her poems, seared by the unspeakable violence of life on the border — cartel thugs, hangings, decapitations — are, like the cheap motel bedspread she describes: “soft / as used wool but burnt through —”
Pimentel’s previous collection, Insides She Swallowed, won the 2011 American Book Award, and this second book is every bit as terrifying and powerful as the first — brimming with memorable images, sawn open by verbs, the poet’s “tongue rowing the frets” as she “hurt[s] to be kissed, ruin / their brittle necks.” Her writing, most eloquent in the vexed — but also beautiful — places that exist between bodies, nations, husbands and wives, is exquisitely attuned to the at times mundane music of borderland existence — unloading the dishwasher, sorting the knives, and yet, at the same time, undercut by its daily terrors:
in the neighboring city seventeen more drop
their hands to their knees, machine-gunned
at the drug rehabilitation center. This is the desert, after
all. We are always suffering
the shape of the wind.
Though this is a book about the desert, about living in want of water, it shimmers with a seductive braid of passion, philosophy and rage, which murmurs through the collection like undercurrent. Yes, there is suffering, but For Want of Water inhabits that suffering in a visionary, poetic mode — finding the form in it, articulating the shape of wind in the desert.
Pimentel also peers intently into the fraught intimacy between married partners as the borderland of their marriage erupts — or rather, disintegrates. As the relationship pulls apart, she examines “the slick helix” of male and female lives, entangled in one another and then coming unraveled. “Who can say / what flickers privately between husbands / and wives?” she asks. Each successive image flares like a lit match, illuminating the private dark of their shared life — its tenderness, but also its failures.
When my husband and I tried dancing lessons, we began
to realize how brittle our sacra, how we were wired
to our feet like blocky marionettes, our spines pulled down to the noncompliant
coccyges, and we braced ourselves in squared embrace
against the clock, each sneaking our private
count of the minutes before it would be over. . . .
The dance, mentioned explicitly here, is also evoked obliquely throughout the collection by Pimentel’s virtuosic use of form, which ranges from couplets to monostrophes to stanzas that drift, mirage-like across the page. Invented forms, inherited forms, poems that evoke the blues, even the haunted, fugue-like repetitions of the pantoum drift through the book. In one poem, a poem of fairly traditional tercets is nested within it, which creates a slightly off-balance sensation, as the three-line stanza often does. Pimentel stabilizes the poem by using extra-long lines that range into the right margin of the book and writes a direct address interrupted by slash marks to remarkable effect:
You open your hands to the night, / your edges abandoning themselves. You say out loud you
won’t do it again, you won’t / call the beautiful boy who brings you
meth like an offering, crystal glittering in his shaking palm. No, not tonight. Focus / on your
own exposed hands, your fingers cupped up like the spokes of a crown,
the folds / streaking your palms, your skin lifting to sky.
Amidst these images of terrible, arresting beauty, of meth glittering in the night like crystals, appear the violent slashes of the interrupted line, which, though internally fragmented and filled with gasps and stutters, remains for the steady duration of the line. This is language at its finest, straining against its own mechanisms. The poet’s lyric imagination operates full bore through formal innovation, coupled with moments of pure transcendence: the self’s edges abandoning themselves, its cupped-up fingers like crown spokes, skin lifted to sky.
In its final sections, For Want of Water enters a new lyric expansiveness. The poems are quieter, slightly more interior. Lines press more frequently into delicate couplets. Something has shattered, has broken loose — the speaker’s marriage, a previous way of life — and the poems reflect that breakage, outlining the impress of grief, but also freeing the speaker to enter heretofore unexplored regions: Connecticut winters, the morning call to prayer in Dhahran, lines of German from Rilke’s first “Duineser Elegie,” and the streets of Paris. In this way, the book feels chimeric, beginning as one thing and ending as another, but of course we learn that the end is not far from the beginning.
Though many of the later poems are slightly more impressionistic, their intensity remains unchanged — perhaps even amplified by their restrained mode. “I suck on an intestine. The sun / sinks the horizon […] El Paso’s star / burns a mountain. A moth hinges his wing.” In the revealing, what emerges is the autopsy of a failed relationship, a postmortem of sorts. Also the awakening of a new narrative: a different lover, fresh borders to negotiate:
I’d wanted you so bad that morning I soaked
the bed. Your ribs flicker, rise and fall, your
marriage too dripped blood, though your scars are most in
-visible, like mouths unbuttoning in sleep.
Yet, with the startling violence of these images, blood-stained marriages and scars coming unbuttoned liked mouths, it’s clear that both speaker and lover remain haunted by old wounds. Even in the landscape of new desire, we must relive the terrors of the border, implicated by the intimacies of a prior life.
In the riveting desert of Pimentel’s imagination, where the air is arid and “crackling from Juárez,” sleep evades. Rest evades. Much of For Want of Water inhabits the waking nightmare of border violence — decapitations, drug cartels. Yet it’s in the midst of the fray that the poet speaks, a voice of tremendous witness, demonstrating what it means to “receive / the night / spilling your body, your hands shaking with offering.”