Poet and educator Angel Dominguez’s newest book, Desgraciado: The Collected Letters, concerns a fire: specifically, the fire ordered by Spanish friar Diego de Landa which, in 1562, burned several Mayan texts in the Yucatán Peninsula in an attempt to destroy the language and the “idolatry” of the Maya religion.
Despite the flames, throughout Desgraciado, Angel Dominguez communicates through channels of water, and conjures all of nature’s elements: the life-giving and destructive, invasive and sacred.
Dominguez began writing to de Landa in 2014 after friend and colleague Farid Matuk prompted them to “try writing a letter to your oppressor.” Growing up in Southern California with Yucatán family and ancestry, Dominguez felt alienated seeing Mayan people portrayed as past-tense, fabled or nonexistent, sometimes literally so, such as by pop-culture speculations that Mayan pyramids were really built by space-travelers. “Dear Diego, I wake up this morning and see ‘Where did the ancient Maya disappear to, and why?’ (as if we’re not still here),” one letter begins.
“It was for no one but me, I was writing in my notes app,” Dominguez says of the first letters.
In 2015, they released an early selection of the letters as a chapbook on fellow queer Californian poet Raquel Gutiérrez’s DIY press Econo-Textual Objects.
“It was just me and Raquel, we were doing everything,” Dominguez says of the chapbook’s two limited printings. “I didn’t stop writing to Diego. These other letters started to accumulate here and there, and I kept finding old ones.”
Brooklyn-based press Nightboat Books accepted the manuscript for publication in 2019, but Dominguez kept writing letters throughout the early revision process, the extra time a silver lining to the pandemic-related publication delays.
The collage on the book’s cover was also created by the author, a cosmic ensemble of symbols: palm trees, amethyst, Goya’s famous painting Saturn Devouring His Son and the Virgin of Guadalupe among them. Personal figures of Dominguez’s life—their mother, siblings and their self as a small child—stand among the pantheon of saviors and destroyers.
“In the center is what writing the book felt like,” Dominguez explains: “like I was fist-fighting Diego on the floor of the cosmos that was also the floor of death. And, spoiler alert: I don’t win the fight. I thought a lot about what it means to lose in front of people you love, and who I’d want to be there to see me go down swinging.”
Here, they pause, following their heavy statement, then crack up.
“Because I can’t beat Diego—Diego’s dead! I thought I would win, but once it was all together I was like—I’m getting my ass kicked! I’m done!”
Desgraciado meets defeat with reclamations of language and naming. Early on, the poet writes, “The skies are full of dragonflies today and everyone fetishizes my name[…] Is it Angel or Ángel? I always say: whatever you find easiest to pronounce. But really I’d prefer no name or pronoun; it’s these instances of being acutely aware of my ‘race’ that bring me back to you.”
The letter ends: “Between you and me, I really prefer the name Chaac.” The Mayan rain deity appears a handful of times. In one letter, CHAAC is signed at the end in all capital letters. Dominguez signs off with different names throughout the book: A D(og), A(nother), Rain. One is signed “Tu Sangre” (Your Blood).
“As poets, our environment becomes part of us….this larger mesh of language.”
Dominguez grew up in Van Nuys before relocating to the Santa Cruz Mountains seven years ago, with the Los Angeles cityscape and NorCal redwoods equally weighted sources of inspiration. Each redwood in a forest is connected by a subterranean network, the poet explains —another metaphor nature provides for memory and community.
In 2020, Dominguez and their partner were one of many households forced to evacuate due to the CZU Lightning Complex Fires. They were displaced for a month, but fortunately the home they rent remained intact. Upon returning, the poet recalls finding “a moonscape, with charcoaled trees and burnt telephone poles….[I was] working on a book about an ancestral fire of destruction and returning to these charred remains.”
Among the forest rubble, the poet saw another sign.
“Neon green shoots sprouting up from the redwoods. I just remember thinking: this is hope.”
Desgraciado: The Collected Letters