SEPTEMBER 17, 2022
IN RECENT YEARS, two poets from two very different backgrounds have come into my life. Now, both have published new books within months of each other. Dolores Dorantes’s bilingual prose-poem sequence, Copycame out from Wave Books in April, while Kyle Harvey’s first book-length collection, Cosmographiesappeared from Cuneiform Press in July.
I first discovered Dorantes’s work in 2003, in Sin puertas visibles: An Anthology of Contemporary Poetry by Mexican Women (University of Pittsburgh Press), and delved deeper in 2007, when Kenning Editions released her own book, combining sexoPUROsexoVELOZ and Septiembre. Several years later, I was asked to write a letter to US Immigration on Dorantes’s behalf, supporting her claim for political asylum from the town of Juárez. She’d been working as a reporter there, chronicling, at great personal risk, the ever-growing number of femicides, and eventually fled across the border to El Paso. In 2013, she was granted asylum and now makes her home in Los Angeles.
Dorantes certainly pushed boundaries in her journalism, and she does so in her new book. Though it rightly bears the words “translated by Robin Myers” on the cover and title page, Copy is, in the fullest sense, a collaboration. Between the covers, the two poets together explore profound questions of identity, which play out in the act of copying themselves, always with the proviso “copiously.” Interspersed throughout on recto pages — another take on “copying” — are collages from a Spanish-language dictionary, with Myers’s translated legends beneath.
To say that Copy is a collection of prose poems would be misleading. The book, to borrow from the French, is an oeuvre, a longer poem in a very condensed and heightened prose, tracing “copiously” an ever-liquid, ever-invisible journey. As Dorantes implies toward the end of the sequence, this has been an “interrogation” all along, with the questioner and questioned, seeker and sought, incessantly copied:Let’s finish the interrogation. This isn’t an army. It’s a forest. Let’s finish the interrogation. This isn’t an army. It’s a flock. Let’s finish the interrogation. This isn’t an army. It’s an ocean of blood.”
This is not to suggest that the poet creates a house of mirrors, with prose vignettes doubling back upon themselves. Instead, from the outset the poem is sailing in every direction at once, exploiting all the possibilities of language as it discloses itself: “To open. To open one’s hand and memory: to communicate.” The poet’s appeal quickly becomes more insistent, undeniable:
You live because someone cast enough light onto the edge of the highway. […] You live, like an animal or like a room ousted from its place. To loose one’s place. To loose one’s mind. To loose one’s address. Because it’s exactly this bird leaving the nest, draining the pond, to be callously impoverished, to be transformed, that you embraced as you embrace life.
Dorantes’s language is so pitched in its intensity that one feels one is constantly switching places with the poet: “You’re the one who answers the interrogations, the one who stops, identity in hand, at every checkpoint. Copiously. You, not I, are the loser. Copiously.”
Here one is reminded of the Algerian Mohammed Dib’s equally remarkable and disarming book-length poem en prose“Omneros,” with its provocative invitation:
one step into the design and all space is surpassed there is no more space there is only the path you engrave in this paraphrase of calligraphy you must go search the writing that searches and writes you but
Dorantes’s linguistic posture, like Dib’s, keeps expanding and contracting in unnerving ways. Poet and translator take us to the most unexpected places, shifting, recombining, revising where we think we are or have been: “Take me to the displacement on the highway. Take me to you. Take me with you.”
As Dorantes comes to the end of her poem, she fulfills her own forecast from the start of the book: “To do is to undo.” Or, put another way some pages later: “To reassemble oneself.” Her and Myers’s music resolves the intricate and copious parts of their Copy. Each turn of phrase, each gesture, carries us to an ending as also to a beginning: “A copy of everything visible. A copy of everything displaced. One construct time. The discovery place. Singular.” The poet’s declaration of singularity is key to her poetics of reassembling in order to occupy a place fully — as a poet, not as an army.
In the asylum letter I wrote for Dorantes 10 years ago, I noted that I was “impressed by the refreshing combination of the seriousness of Dorantes’s intent and her good humor, making the poet’s obvious linguistic and personal energy all that more remarkable.” I’m not quite sure why I chose to introduce my case with the US Citizenship and Immigration Services in such a plea, but the kindness and wry optimism of the poet shone through from our first meeting. I am delighted to say that, despite hardships and displacements, this healing force remains evident in Dorantes’s work.
I got to know Kyle Harvey’s poetry a few years ago through his chapbook July (Lithic Press), which contained one long poem. It impressed me as being very much in the Spicerian tradition, a serious attempt to build upon the “house that Jack built.” Harvey’s experience as a designer shows in his new work, Cosmographies, most importantly in his understanding of the book form — what may happen between its covers. Like Dorantes’s Copy, Cosmographies A long linguistic journey in process, a ramble across distant, millennial territory. The first section is the eponymous longer poem in nine parts, in many ways a sacred trip through “a cosmos of particulars / around an axis of indifference.” The poet’s observations are gnomic, both sharp and mysterious:
jasper of time
the Jack of Hearts
quartz & quill
& laying still
the woolen oak
along the river.
Harvey demands that we explore the territory with him, asserting several times in the course of Cosmographies that we share with him a process of coming to meaning: “Whole oceans / of meaning / revealed.” Yet there are no shortcuts, as “[m]yaning / is the murder / of process,” and process is what counts. What Harvey demonstrates, and most values, is an alertness to “raw holy texture,” by means of which “a single prayer might / make a blueprint / for a new world.”
The next sequences of poems in Cosmographies, “The Alphabet that Never Recovers” and “Western Suites,” are somewhat longer. Though just as challenging, they proceed at a more determined pace, as in the opening of “The Alphabet’s Book of Fire”:
When I say suggestI do not mean as an action
& when I say forever, I do not mean as measurement or duration
What I mean to say is:
Is / Just / Be / What if not this
Harvey’s sense of lyricism counterbalances these instructive passages, and the combination reveals a kinship with Mallarmé. Like his ancestor, the young poet knows that our experience is “a chance inside of someone else’s dream.” Later in the “Alphabet” sequence, Harvey displays special playfulness by offering his own brand of self-help. The influence of Jack Spicer appears most clearly here, in “The Alphabet’s Book of Self-Knowledge”:
Self-knowledge is woolen oak, wet feather.
Self-knowledge is coarse blur, black tarp.
Self-control is curling over & laying still.
July beats in your wet hands like a heart.
Yet Harvey keeps pushing Spicer’s legacy well beyond imitation, using it as Spicer likely would have wanted it to be used, to redefine “the shape of the alphabet.”
In the end, following the sun’s arc, Harvey gives us a set of “Western Suites.” This section is my favorite, a moving resolution and a settling of accounts, before lighting out for the territories. In the first piece, “Western Suite for Danny on His 60th Birthday,” there is a graceful nod to a panoply of Harvey’s masters, including Spicer and Mallarmé, but also Jack Mueller, Neeli Cherkovski, Frank O’Hara, Guillaume Apollinaire, Gérard de Nerval, Teòfilo Cid, and the dedicatee, Danny Rosen, publisher of Lithic Press and proprietor of Lithic Bookstore in Fruita, Colorado, all convened to “rejoice / in the Gathering Light.” The poets concludes his birthday wishes to Rosen, who is also a geologist and an accomplished rock climber, by enjoining, “if I go first, hang a rock from every tree in Pollack Canyon. / If you go first, I’ll stack rock upon rock until they reach an agreement.”
Kyle Harvey’s and Dolores Dorantes’s books achieve an odd and rewarding agreement, accomplishing what the younger Harvey sets as a goal in his brief afterword: that the poet’s work remain “ongoing, reimagining le livre.” Copy and Cosmographies are “books” in every past, present, and future sense of the word. It is a pleasure to read them and be assured that Dorantes’s “abundant place” and Harvey’s “grand sense of measure” are still available in our shrinking world.
Paul Vangelisti is an American poet, translator, and editor, and the founding chair of the Graduate Writing program at Otis College of Art and Design.