Something like flowers

A review of Angel Dominguez's 'Black Lavender Milk'

Photo by Gabriel Ojeda-Sague.

Black Lavender Milk

Black Lavender Milk

Angel Dominguez

Timeless, Infinite Light 2015, 160 pages, $20, ISBN 978-1937421038

I am taking a flight home to Miami today. I’ve already read a PDF of Angel Dominguez’s Black Lavender Milk while at school in Philadelphia, but now I’ve got the physical thing in my hand, printed in blue letters, and I have a chance to read it the way it was written: on a plane home. I promise myself I won’t start the book until I am on the plane, but it’s hard to wait for the staff to go down the line of boarding classes (First Class, Military, Executive, Platinum, Emerald, Sapphire, Gold, Ruby, Priority, Group 1, 2, 3, and I am in 4, as usual) without doing anything but standing and waiting so I allow myself just the first section:

Do you want to remember your dreams? Pour a glass of water, at night. Drink half the glass before bed and remember to drink the other half upon waking … Go to bed before you read this book. Carry it with you and don’t read it … Meet me in the orchard or airport. [1]

I realize that if my goal is to read the book as the book instructs me to I’ve already failed. Not only have I broken my promise to myself not to start the book until I am on the plane, but I haven’t done what the first page tells me to do and treat it like a ritual object, to feel the weight of it, carry it around like a soft rock, or to treat it like a dream I am having. The book invites you to partake in its own materiality, to read it (or not) in the right places, to feel “the weight disbursed between the book and the body holding the book” (13), to perform or imagine performing the rituals inside of it, to taste “black lavender milk.” I’m tempted to dip the book in a bucket of water and see if it grows, either slowly like a plant or overnight like a Grow Monster toy.

Black Lavender Milk is, most basically, an account of a flight home, where the book is being written. Dominguez is a sensitive narrator, writing the sleep of the passengers crammed into his sides, imagining different permutations of events for the plane (“A mask descends from the airplane at the limit of blue: sky fractures into a vacuum despondence” [82] or “I step from behind my seat and reveal that there is no one here” [152]). The flight is dreamed and sleepwalked, much like the rituals of embodiment and grief that are scattered across it. The flight, illustrated by the stunning blue-filtered full-page photos of clouds that mark section divisions, never happened. Or perhaps it is more appropriate to say that it is always happening. Every fragment of time on the flight is treated as simultaneous, layered, just as the writing process and reading experience are treated as simultaneous. As the epigraph from Clarice Lispector says, “It is happening now, it doesn’t matter when this now was or is or shall be” (5). In fifty years, if I were to pick up the book, Dominguez’s flight would only just have begun and will only just have ended.

For Dominguez, the dream of everything occurring in a mobile now comes from the dzonot (or cenote, in Spanish/English). These structures, whose name literally means hole with water or cavern with water, are interconnected portals in the limestone base of the Yucatán peninsula, leading eventually to the ocean. The dzonots are considered sacred amongst the Maya peoples as portals to Xibalba, the Yucatec Mayan underworld, and were important sources of water and sacrificial areas. Dominguez tells the story of his first encounter with a dzonot:

We saw a small hand-painted sign that read: DZONOT … We followed the sign to a clearing in the surrounding jungle. There were no bodies present. I bolted from the car, running towards what looked like a vast hole in the earth; my family yelled for me to stop what I was doing. But I was an American, hot-blooded and ignorant; I ran until I had to jump … The water was clearer than any memory could possibly reproduce. (17)

Dominguez wants that experience to be completed, to really jump into the dzonot and swim to the floor, feel his body dragged by currents to another dzonot hundreds of miles away or straight into the Gulf. But instead, he builds the dzonot inside a plane, the mouth in the earth replaced by a window. Dominguez recalls “how anyone who drinks the water of a dzonot would be bound to return to the peninsula” (18). He and I are on flights home, with his words and writing as vessels for carrying water that begs us Americans both to return somewhere. But we both lack return, or we lack where return ends and rests. His flight never happened, his memories are unclear or not fully gripped just yet, and if I am returning to anything it is to a city full of exiles, whose minds always dream of an origin country.

Dominguez asks, “What is the function of writing?” and answers “to return (home)” (153). But his gambit is that the process stops at the verb. Writing is the practice of “returning home,” not the home itself. This is, I think, what he calls sleepwalking, the projecting of the body into a family history, radically reclaiming homelands, waters, and memories by placing them inside his body. As Ronaldo Wilson writes in the book’s blurb, Dominguez achieves “self evolutions fused through carefully attuned modes of seeing, dreaming, and feeling.” The continent he is returning to is one he must “occupy … within [his] body” (115).

As I’m reading Black Lavender Milk on the flight, I think of a performance Angel Dominguez gave in Oakland at a reading I organized where he wrapped the entire audience in a single strand of either purple or red or green yarn, I can’t remember which. Everybody pinched some part of the yarn that was closest to them. He said that he wanted to build a dzonot between us all. I didn’t feel really connected to the people across the room, but I did feel something very memorable between me and two people just down the yarn’s length from me. On the left was a straight guy I was friends with and on the right a woman I didn’t know. As Dominguez read from “Vestibule A: Appendix I,” I pulled slightly on either side of the string to feel the tension coming from the other people’s pinch. There was something erotic for me in that moment or, better said, Dominguez’s makeshift dzonot eroticized the act of sharing the same space with the people around me, made me feel incorrigibly separate and connected to them. I am having the same feeling in the flight with the young guy sleeping next to me, also Latino like me and Dominguez. He’s in the window seat, so any time I try to look out to see the clouds I have this body of his in my way, drowsy and bearded. Using my armrest I occasionally feel his body graze against mine, these little shocks of privacy. I think this is what Dominguez calls an “aisle memory,” the effects of the mobile now reaching back into memory. I graze his arm, I pull the yarn, water goes from one mouth of the earth to another.

Dominguez’s body is not the only one present. There is also the work around the body of Xix, Dominguez’s grandfather. Black Lavender Milk is a burial work. It is a book that takes the home unreturned to, the history of a family, the sweet traces of a life, and buries them inside the continent within Dominguez’s body. For this, Dominguez has tools: water, rose petals, blood, salt, avocados, lemons, orange, sulphur, charcoal from burnt palm trees, cold coffee, day-old wine. It would be easy to say that this book is how Dominguez remembers his grandfather, but it is more than that, too. It’s an acknowledgement that bodies carry weight, that events persist, that memory is an active and failing exercise, and that everything is passed down and passed through. “Was (it) a flock of bodies positioned at right angles or timelines configured into a distant geometry?” (93). To lose a parent or grandparent is to lose a place to return to; I know this personally. For burial, Dominguez imagines returning (home) as interconnected as dzonot water, where memory, a body, the water, flowers floating in a bathtub, and stars seen from inside a plane all hold the same alchemy.

What I hope no reader misses is that this is a book not just about grief, memory, and home, but about Latino grief, Latino memory, and home as a child of immigrants. As Latinos, and especially as Latino Americans, our grief systems work differently, we die differently, our memories are translations, our bodies project into two or more languages. In Dominguez’s unique and gorgeously told story, I saw the traces of my own heritage and grief, even if we have nothing really in common. I imagine any Latino-American reader would feel the same way. But just as he invites you seductively and sleepily into the book’s process and materials, he invites you to take it and put it into your own body. Black Lavender Milk asks you to lie with it under your pillow, to carry it with you and not read it, to “stay as long as you’d like — keep waking up with me, practicing dreaming, somnambulist — learning how to walk again, for the first time, in a frenzy” (156). Just as I finish his book, the pilot of my flight says over the intercom: “I’m sorry for how we’ve been shaking here. Hopefully, we’ll be able to find the smooth air soon.” I take one image of sky from the book and put it in front of my neighbor’s head. Behind his face of blue clouds are yellow clouds, behind two sheets of Plexiglas.

1. Angel Dominguez, Black Lavender Milk (Oakland, CA: Timeless, Infinite Light, 2015), 9.