What Sparks Poetry

Books We’ve Loved

What Sparks Poetry is a serialized feature in which we invite poets to explore experiences and ideas that spark new poems.

In Books We’ve Loved, we’ve asked our editorial board members and select guest editors to reflect on a book that has been particularly meaningful to them in the last year, with the intention of creating a list of book recommendations for our valued readers.

Elisa Díaz Castelo on Dolores Dorantes’ Copy

When asked the perennial question of what book he would take to a deserted island (or the Argentinian equivalent in the ’50s), Jorge Luis Borges said he would take a dictionary.

He did not hesitate. Or, at least, I didn’t imagine he did when the story was told to me in the dark classrooms of my crowded university, in my crowded city, during my crowded youth. If the question were asked to Dolores Dorantes, I’m positive she might give the very same answer. The joy and strangeness, the solace and disquiet written into the very structure of the dictionary, shapes this strange and lucid book, carried into the English by the always bright Robin Myers. The series of dictionary entries which appear throughout its pages constitute the prime matter from which Dorantes produces her own work: poems of unsettling and sharp intelligence, which include fragments of certain definitions to underscore the incongruity at the very heart of defining. How is it possible, the poet seems to ask, for one word to be defined in terms of another? How, again, for a single thing to be called by different sounds in different languages? The very premise of defining also constitutes the first manifestation of the copy in the latest book by Dorantes.

These fragmented definitions, along with other phrases, iterate over and over in her poems. Are, indeed, copied. In its use of permutation, these poems seem to be written in the tradition of the pantoum or the villanelle. The obsessive repetition distinctive to those forms haunts Dorantes’ work, but also the same mysterious and almost imperceptible progress, the piecemeal transformation of meaning.

Dolores Dorantes is a Mexican poet who was forced to flee her country due to violence and seek refuge in the United States. Taking the cue from the book’s epigraph, I choose to read its poems as meditations on exile and migration. Expressing emotion, says Mahmoud Darwish at the opening of the collection, (…) is not one of the attributes of exile. And, indeed, these poems seem to veer away from language traditionally aligned with emotion and, instead, to commit to a tone stripped of feeling, abraded by repetition. Her word-choice and the tone of her poems, along with the use of iteration, seem to reflect on how language is wounded by experiences that break into the very framework of identity. Her poems beg a series of potent and actual questions: What do we have left after such violence? What happens to identity when the structure that bolsters it, giving it permission to exist, collapses? What is lost but, also, what is gained in this displacement?

Writing Prompt

Dolores Dorantes writes, “In the structure. Hungry. To take the first step. In the water.” Write a poem with the same opener that repeats the following words: structure, hungry, step, and water.

Poetry Daily

Share This Post

Print This Post

Photo of Elisa Díaz Castelo
Pascual Borzelli-Iglesias

Elisa Díaz Castelo

Elisa Díaz Castelo is the winner of the Bellas Artes Poetry Prize 2020 for El reino de lo no lineal, the Alonso Vidal National Poetry Prize 2017 for her first collection, Principia (Tierra Adentro, Mexico), and of the Bellas Artes Prize in Literary Translation 2019 for her rendering in Spanish of Ocean Vuong’s Night Sky with Exit Wounds. With the support of the Fulbright and Goldwater scholarships, she completed an MFA in Creative Writing (Poetry) at New York University (2013-2015). She won the Poetry International Prize 2016, the second place at the Literal Latté 2015 prize and was selected among the semifinalists of the Tupelo Quarterly Prize 2016. Her poems have been anthologized in Fuego de dos fraguas (Exmolino), Voces Nuevas 2017 (Torremozas), Antología Liberoamérica (Liberoamérica, Spain), Puntas de luz (UAM). Her work in English has appeared in Poetry International, Tupelo Quarterly and Border Crossing, among others. Her poems in Spanish have been published in Letras Libres, Revista de la Universidad, Tierra Adentro, Este País, Periódico de Poesía, and others. She received the Jóvenes Creadores FONCA fellowship (2015-2016), the Fundación Para las Letras Mexicanas fellowship (2016-2017-2018) and another Jóvenes Creadores FONCA fellowship (2018-2019). Her latest book, Proyecto Manhattan, was recently published by Ediciones Antílope.