On “Copy” by Dolores Dorantes and “Cosmographies” by Kyle Harvey

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IN THE LAST YEARS, two poets from very different backgrounds have come into my life. Now the two have released new books within months of each other. Sequence of Bilingual Prose Poems by Dolores Dorantes, Copycame out of Wave Books in April, while Kyle Harvey’s debut book collection, Cosmographiesappeared in Cuneiform Press in July.

I discovered the work of Dorantes for the first time in 2003, in Sin puertas visible: an anthology of contemporary poetry by Mexican women (University of Pittsburgh Press), and deepened in 2007, when Kenning Editions published its own book, combining sexoPUROsexoVELOZ and September. Several years later, I was asked to write a letter to US Immigration on behalf of Dorantes, supporting his request for political asylum from the city of Juárez. She had worked as a journalist there, reporting, at her own risk, the ever-increasing number of feminicides, and eventually fled across the border to El Paso. In 2013, she was granted asylum and now lives in Los Angeles.

Dorantes has certainly pushed the boundaries of her journalism, and she does so in her new book. Although it aptly bears the words “translated by Robin Myers” on the cover and title page, Copy is, in the broadest sense, a collaboration. Between the covers, the two poets together explore deep questions of identity, which play out in the act of copying each other, always with the reserve “copiously”. Interspersed on single-sided pages—another approach to “copying”—are collages from a Spanish-language dictionary, with Myers’ translated captions below.

Say that Copy is a collection of prose poems would be misleading. The book, to borrow from French, is a work, a longer poem in highly condensed and heightened prose, “copiously” tracing an ever-liquid, ever-invisible journey. As Dorantes implies towards the end of the sequence, it has always been an “interrogation”, with the questioner and the questioned, the researcher and the sought, endlessly copied: “Let’s finish the interrogation. It’s not an army. It’s a forest. Let’s finish the interrogation. It’s not an army. It’s a herd. Let’s finish the interrogation. It’s not an army. It’s an ocean of blood.

This does not mean that the poet creates a house of mirrors, with prose vignettes folding in on themselves. Instead, from the outset, the poem drifts in all directions at once, exploiting all the possibilities of language as it unfolds: “Open. Open your hand and your memory: communicate. The call of the poet quickly becomes more insistent, undeniable:

You live because someone lit the edge of the freeway enough. […] You live, like an animal or like a coin pushed out of its place. Lose his place. Losing the mind. Lose his address. Because that’s exactly it bird leaving the nest, emptying the pond, to become impoverished hard, to be transformed, that you embraced as you embrace life.

The language of Dorantes is of such intensity that one has the impression of constantly changing places with the poet: “It is you who answers the questions, the one who stops, identity in hand, at each post control. Copiously. You, not me, are the loser. Copiously.

We remember here the length of the equally remarkable and disarming book by the Algerian poet Mohammed Dib prose poem“Omneros”, with its provocative invitation:

one step in the drawing and all the space is exceeded there is no more space there is only the path you engrave in this paraphrase of calligraphy you have to go find the writing that is looking for you and you wrote but

Dorantes’s linguistic posture, like that of Dib, continues to expand and contract in disturbing ways. Poet and translator take us to the most unexpected places, displacing, recombining, reviewing where we think we are or have been: “Take me to displacement on the highway. Take me to you. Take me with you.”

As Dorantes comes to the end of her poem, she realizes her own prediction from the beginning of the book: “To do is to undo”. Or, in other words a few pages later: “Reassemble”. The music of her and Myers solves the complex and copious parts of their Copy. Each turn of phrase, each gesture, leads us towards an end as also towards a beginning:A copy of all that is invisible. A copy of everything moved. We build time. The abundant place. Singular.” The poet’s declaration of singularity is the key to his poetics of reassembly to fully occupy a place — 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 Dorantes’ seriousness of intent and good humor, making the obvious linguistic and personal energy of the poet all the more remarkable”. I’m not sure why I chose to present my case to U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services in such a plea, but the poet’s kindness and wry optimism shone from our first meeting. I am delighted to say that, despite the difficulties and displacements, this healing force remains evident in the work of Dorantes.

I discovered Kyle Harvey’s poetry a few years ago thanks to his chapbook July (Lithic Press), which contained a long poem. It struck me as being very much in the Spicerian tradition, a serious attempt to build on the “house that Jack built”. Harvey’s background as a designer is reflected in his new work, Cosmographies, especially in his understanding of the form of the book – what can happen between its covers. As Dorantes Copy, Cosmographies reveals a long linguistic journey in progress, a walk through a distant and millennial territory. The first section is the longer eponymous poem in nine parts, in many ways a sacred journey through “a cosmos of peculiarities / around an axis of indifference”. The poet’s observations are gnomic, both pointed and mysterious:

time jasper
the jack of hearts


quartz and feather
wear white


& motionless
the woolly oak


along the river.

Harvey demands that we explore the territory with him, repeatedly asserting over the course of Cosmographies that we share with him a process of coming to meaning: “Entire oceans / of meaning / revealed”. Yet there are no shortcuts, because “[m]the meaning / is the murder / of the process”, and it is the process that counts. What Harvey demonstrates, and most values, is an alertness to the “raw sacred texture”, by means of which “a single prayer could /make a plan/for a new world”.

The next sequences of poems in Cosmographies, “The Alphabet that Never Recovers” and “Western Suites” are a bit longer. Although equally difficult, they advance at a more determined pace, as in the opening of “The Alphabet’s Book of Fire”:

When I say to suggesti don’t mean like an action
& when I say still, I don’t mean like measure or duration
What I mean is:

East / Just / Be / And if it wasn’t

Harvey’s sense of lyricism balances 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 someone else’s dream”. Later in the “Alphabet” sequence, Harvey shows particular playfulness by offering his own brand of self-help. Jack Spicer’s influence is most clearly seen here, in “The Alphabet’s Book of Self-Knowledge”:

Self-knowledge is a woolly oak, a wet feather.


Self-knowledge is a rough blur, a black tarp.


Self-control curls up and stands still.


July beats in your wet hands like a heart.

Yet Harvey continues to push Spicer’s legacy far beyond imitation, using it as Spicer probably would have wanted it used, to redefine “the shape of the alphabet.”

At the end, following the arc of the sun, Harvey offers us a set of “Western Suites”. This section is my favorite, a moving resolution and settling of scores, before flying off to the territories. In the first piece, “Western Suite for Danny on His 60th Birthday”, we find a graceful nod to a panoply of Harvey 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 owner of Lithic Bookstore in Fruita, Colorado, all gathered to “rejoice / in the light of the gathering”. The poet concludes his birthday wishes to Rosen, who is also an accomplished geologist and rock climber, by enjoining, “If I go first, hang a rock on every tree in Pollack Canyon. / If you go first, I’ll pile rock on stone until they come to an agreement.

The books of Kyle Harvey and Dolores Dorantes strike a strange and gratifying chord, accomplishing what the young Harvey set as his goal in his brief postscript: that the poet’s work remain “in progress, reinventing the book.” Copy and Cosmographies are “books” in all past, present and future senses of the word. It is a pleasure to read them and to be assured that Dorantes’ “abundant place” and Harvey’s “great sense of proportion” are still available in our shrinking world.

¤

Paul Vangelisti is an American poet, translator, and publisher, and the founding chair of the graduate writing program at Otis College of Art and Design.


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