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sexoPURO sexoVELOZ / Septiembre: A Bilingual Edition of Books Two and Three of “Dolores Dorantes;” Translated by Jen Hofer
129 + xii pp. Counterpath Press / Kenning Editions. US $14.95. 978-0-9767364-2-4 paper.
Few poets these days are able to evoke and inhabit disquietude with the concentrated intensity of Mexican writer Dolores Dorantes, and this beautifully produced bilingual collection is powerful evidence of this. She herself declares, in a statement reproduced on the book’s back cover, that “[w]hat does clearly emerge from all of this [writing], for me, is a war,” and her text signals that this war is waged on a variety of fronts simultaneously.
The first and most immediate of these fronts is stylistic. Dorantes openly declares her intention to break with what she calls “the confessional poetry that prevails in Mexican literature,” a poetics she claims is thoroughly domesticated by government-sponsored cultural networks of grants and publications driven by cronyist patronage. Against the tendency in much Spanish-language poetry towards long-breathed lines and often extravagant verbosity, Dorantes favors a sparse, compressed, resistant diction – “drawing language taut,” as she puts it.
Secondly, Dorantes seeks to blast open the prisons of identity, whether individually or collectively defined and shaped, whether gendered or fixed by a proper name. Both sequences form Books 2 and 3 of an ongoing poetic project that the author has titled with her name. While there is nothing specifically new or radical about exploring the fissures and continuities between the one who writes and the one who, in the process, is written – one need only think of Rimbaud’s celebrated aphorism “I is another” and Pessoa’s heteronyms – Dorantes’s creation of an open-ended book titled “Dolores Dorantes” bears affinities not only with Mallarmé’s dream of an all-encompassing Book but with a less well-known (to U.S. readers) precursor, the great Argentine poet Alejandra Pizarnik, in particular her anguished, fragmented 1962 sequence “El Arbol de Diana.” In the 21st of these poems, Pizarnik establishes a foundation for Dorantes’s future poetics: “i have been born so much / and doubly suffered / in the memory of here and there.” Dorantes oscillates between that “here” and “there,” a present moment haunted by her recurrent, and concluding, realization in “sexoPUROsexoVELOZ” that “May be / I had to forget how… ” in order to struggle towards a difficult and protracted birth into a self inseparable from its incessant reinvention: “(Observe / with the blow of the chisel: // yourself find.”
The violence erupting from the initiatory “blow” and lurking behind the ominous “how” that motivates an effort to forget is no mere rhetorical figure. For the third and most urgent of Dorantes’s battlegrounds is a site of intense personal and social danger: the border city of Ciudad Juárez, where Dorantes lives and works and where (amidst an overall pattern of increasing violence fueled by powerful narco-gangs) hundreds of women have been brutally murdered over the past several years without any serious investigations or arrests being made. This ongoing atrocity has added the grisly word “femicidio” to the Spanish language, and Dorantes must necessarily incorporate the textures of this violence into her often choked, stammered words scattered across the silence of the page: “(From a sore / down deep) the words // extend a red mantle / (on top of) darkens”. More than a witness, Dorantes enacts and embodies the Guyanese poet Martin Carter’s observation that “all are involved, all are consumed”; like Carter’s, hers is a poetry of affinity as well as resistance.
Of the two books, “sexoPUROsexoVELOZ” is the more powerful – because more tensile and uncompromising – statement. Each of the poem’s five sections begins with an epigraph from Juan Rulfo’s classic novel “Pedro Páramo,” specifically, words spoken by the tragic Susana San Juan, forcibly married to the novel’s eponymous cacique, an embodiment of crushing, blighting patriarchal power whom she defies by a headlong flight into insanity and death. In Rulfo’s novel, Susana San Juan’s resistant speech is part of a chorus of whisperings of an abandoned village’s unquiet dead, and Dorantes’s channeling of other restless unburied spirit-voices rustles with comparable uncanniness. Flashes of violence, of submission (now amorous, now cowed) to an unnamed “you” of shifting, unstable gender, of images intertwining hatred and love, sexual plenitude and sexual violence (the capitalized purity and speed of the title) – all emerge from a texture that is not so much woven as it is painfully pieced together out of wrenched phrases. Italicized words and phrases, which shadow, comment on, complete, or otherwise disrupt the flow of the “narrative” expressed by means of the regular typeface, constitute almost parallel poems in themselves and thereby add to the pervasive disquiet, as in the following excerpt (which exemplifies as well Dorantes’s ability to suggest boundless sexual violence/violation): “from emptiness we are pressed / and distant another body germinates // a tooth for a tooth / once again / an eye for an eye my woman”. And yet, love is not wholly absent from the poem, even as it is irremediably entangled with legacies of horror and fear, beautifully summed up in one of the closing passages: “Love / we are strange”.
By comparison, “Septiembre,” though bristling with passages of undeniable power, particularly in its first half, marks an overall falling-off in intensity and focus. More explicitly a tombeau – for the Mexican writer Jesús Gardea and for the dead of September 11, 2001 – “Septiembre” uses fragments of a passage by Gardea as epigraphs and carries over certain images and phrases from “sexoPURO… ”, in particular and most effectively a fragile poem addressed to “Menina,” a youthful incarnation perhaps of the mythic border specter La Llorona, who “come[s] to me clamoring / moving my darkness // There is nothing more than darkness / where I grew up”. Dorantes places this poem at the opening of “Septiembre,” but by altering the lineation, she nuances its meaning: “Menina, you come to me clamoring / moving my darkness (there is nothing more than darkness) / where I grew up [… ]”. Elsewhere, allusions to September 11 are carefully and subtly done, linked to visions of military violence, “calcined corpses,” and restrained though no less deeply felt mourning.
As the poem moves along, however, jarring moments of sentimentality occur in which the poetic “I” and the “you” to whom she addresses herself each become undifferentiated, thus reproducing the confessional mode to which Dorantes is ostensibly opposed: “We will buy / the most brilliant light / of eternity // Take one / the size of my heart // Give it to me // hold on to it // from your hand / to my hand.” Nevertheless, Dorantes’s fundamental poetic integrity is never in question; striving as she does in her work to “Be Light / be lantern” in difficult times and conditions, she gives us a political poetry that awaits its redemptive polis, where “You’ll never see anything bud / other than unexpected natural / spectra / of life:”. The white space at the end of the concluding colon is ours as well as Dorantes’s to fill, and since she has made her written work consubtantial with her name (and the individual life to which that name is attached), it is only to be expected that the unfolding of this creative project would not follow an even course. What is clear is that future moments in the poem of “Dolores Dorantes” will not fail to astonish…
The power of this book is inseparable from Jen Hofer’s superb, committed translation, more a poetic collaboration than a simple rendering of a text. Though at times unduly prolix and self-regarding, Hofer’s enthusiastic “translator’s note” bespeaks a passionate involvement with Dorantes’s poetry and the alternative cultural project into which it inscribes itself. The book’s very design invites a different approach to reading (and hence to understanding): instead of the conventional en face arrangement with the original on the left-hand side of the page spread and the translation on the right, Dorantes and Hofer share each page, with the translation on the bottom functioning as a supporting base for the original. Hofer describes translation for her as a “conversational, interactive” practice that “can change the way we experience the world, both substantively and formally.” By subjecting English syntactical rigidities to the greater fluidity of Spanish syntax – e.g., “I can give you / agitated the mist / of my breathing” – Hofer is not only faithful to Dorantes’s meticulous deployment of words, but also introduces a necessary defamiliarizing – one could say baroque — note into what remains for Latin Americans an imperial language, compelling monolingual North Americans to read differently and think differently about their language (which, in the end, is what poetry is all about).
Christopher Winks is Assistant Professor of Comparative Literature at Queens College / The City University of New York, and the author of Symbolic Cities in Caribbean Literature (Palgrave Macmillan, 2009).