"Lost In Light": The Poems of Octavio Quintanilla

Octavio Quintanilla at a public poetry reading in Illinois.

Octavio Quintanilla at a public poetry reading in Illinois.

If I Go Missing (2014 Slough Press), the first full collection of poetry by Octavio Quintanilla, explores the ambiguities of loss. As the title suggests, something has gone missing in many of these poems, but something else is to be found. In our culture of “more is better,” loss is almost always seen as a bad thing, unless it is adipose tissue. But while he acknowledges the pain of loss, Quintanilla is always aware of the important possibilities that open up when a part of us is removed.

One of his most powerful metaphors is the idea of the boundary, which he deftly uses to suggest both the complexity of personal identity and the problems of poverty, immigration, and race in the the US. The poet eschews abstractions, rooting every line in simple but resonant imagery. His language is starkly, beautifully simple, which is well-suited to the variety of topics addressed in this volume.

Quintanilla transitions between everyday interactions, such as hanging out in a coffeeshop (“Café Triste”), or common experiences such as aging (“The hardest thing for anyone to endure”), with dreamlike visions of mortality (“Legacy”) and even the consciousness of other writers (Borges in “Dream Transient”). But the movements of the poems repay rereading: each one speaks to others, sometimes supporting and other times undercutting, but always enriching the poems with an intertextual network.

The poems are studded with experiences that relate to the everyday life of the common folk. A reference to Facebook as a way of communing with the dead appears in the poem “Message.” A reader is just as likely to encounter an untranslated line of German from Rilke as a Spanish phrase. The nuggets of different languages together suggest the impossibility of a native or a foreign language.

As the book’s title suggests, the themes of the book revolve around the idea of abundance found in nothingness and the constantly repeated cycles of forgetting and recognizing. The opening poem, “The Left Hand,” examines the possible ways the speaker could lose his hand in a in a paratactical list.

The speaker of the poems is “re-viewing” seemingly mundane things and finding something of divine in them. The terminal and titular poem of the collection, “If I Go Missing,” begins with the line “I won’t improvise desire” and ends with “like newly discovered scenes/ in a movie you haven’t discovered in years.”

The other major sense of the book is a sense of individuality balanced in a community. “If I Go Missing” modulates between a singular speaker “I,” a plural “us,” and the implied audience, a second person “you.”

Hands are a recurring motif. They show up in a majority of the poems, if only as a detail, and almost always point to a loss or impotence. In “Dream Transient,” the speaker’s “hands and feet are tied.” In “Legacy,” a father tells his son, “In your mouth this milk/ will feel as warm as a hand/ inside a cow’s vagina.”

Nearly all the poems are free verse, but there are two sonnets embedded in the collection. Both of them are remarkably un-sonnet-like, but that is clearly Quintanilla’s intent. The mock-sonnet “Sonnet with All of Its Grief Cut Out,” has a form that mimics the content, seven lines have been gutted from the middle of the traditional form. The poem closes with an arresting image but otherwise refuses the easily clinched message of the English sonnet’s terminal couplet “You listen, eyes, closed, awake. / You suck on the nipples of the huge night.” While the form only alludes to the sonnet, the compression and hyper-awareness of the speaker is squarely in the sonnet tradition. The poem contains ghostlike traces of the old form, a few iambic pentameter lines are interspersed in the free verse.

The “Sonnet for Human Smugglers” is an example of how form can heighten the importance of a subject. The sonnet, so often an homage or a love poem, becomes an ironic comment on the speaker, who is apparently helpfully advising the smugglers, “Take care of them. If they want water, / Dump them in the river.” Again the poet intentionally resists completely following the traditional form, only hinting at it in several formal features: iambic pentameter lines, 14-line structure, and a crucial turn after line nine, “But for you, everything is possible.” The misplaced trust of the people being trafficked, the smugglers’ power, and the morbidity of the enterprise is summed up in the next lines “You’re the map that leads them astray, / Priest that leads a funeral procession.” This image of the priest and death synthesized with the idea of crossing the boundary of death and crossing into another country is another example of the recurring theme of the crossing.

The tone of these poems shifts from sadness to a mature playfulness. In “Café Triste,” which has been the subject of video interpretation available on YouTube, Quintanilla tells the story of a coffee shop interaction familiar to anyone who has found themselves in a Starbucks. The speaker’s pseudo-bravado is gently mocked, which reverse the tone of a poem from somber to quirky in the following lines: “I pretend I have what matters. / A job. A plan. Hands that come off / with the gloves.”

The Wind Has Erased the North Star, by Adam Turl. Oil, acrylic, cotton, ash, concrete, debris and snow on canvas. Cover art for Octavio Quintanilla’s If I Go Missing (Slough Press, 2014)

The Wind Has Erased the North Star, by Adam Turl. Oil, acrylic, cotton, ash, concrete, debris and snow on canvas. Cover art for Octavio Quintanilla’s If I Go Missing (Slough Press, 2014)

In the simplicity of his diction, which is primarily monosyllabic, concrete, Anglo-Saxon, the poet achieves remarkable traction in the reader’s ear. Consider these lines from “Night Visitors”: “They smelled bread / and then pushed small fists / of it into their mouths.” The concreteness of this short narrative in three images in hard to overemphasize. Three short lines combine three senses using nearly all single syllable words, playing with line break. This, combined with the musicality of his verse, makes certain poems explode off the page. “Fugitive,” for example, is a short poem about intensely paradoxical feelings of love and loss.

Very few of the poems are overtly political, but many deal with the dehumanizing effects of poverty. Quintanilla is able to suggest the need for social change without being heavy-handed. The poem “Landlords,” which should be a slam-dunk for the voice of the proletariat, is highly ambivalent. And in fact it begins in the expected way, “You’re a stranger to them [the landlords],” but ends in a note of seeming praise, “They want you in love.” But as simple as this line appears, it can signify two opposite ideas, twisted by the fulcrum of the preposition “in.” Does it mean “Landlords want you to be stupefied by love” and therefore unconscious, or “Landlords have the best of intentions”? Or both? Another example is “Welfare,” which might have been a sentimental sob song, but in which a communal voice expectedly says “We are the masters here.” The speakers miss the community and the rootedness in the land they had in their previous poverty, “Once we ate dirt moistened by rain. / Once we fed each other sleep. / Now we are going somewhere.”

It is a fallacy, of course, for any reader of poetry to identify the speaker of a poem with the author. But the speaker that emerges from of these poems is a compelling individual. While we cannot say the speaker is the author, the persona of these poems is so sensitive and compelling that we are almost always sympathetic. The speaker is unified but not completely fixed. The speaker’s gender, race, and name is never explicitly identified, but the voice in this collection is remarkably consistent. Part of the pleasure of reading these poems is the way the speaker is gradually revealed, especially in the initial half-dozen poems in the book.  The speaker is usually male, addressed as “hijo” (sonny) in the first poem. At different points the speaker has male and female lovers— whether this is a male or female speaker or a queer is left open to the reader. He may be non-white as the image of the speakers “brown hands” suggests, but there are few racial signifiers in the poems. Many poems are written from the perspective of refugees and the undocumented. The speaker is someone is regular in their habits, “my boots just right / underneath the bed / as I tend to leave them” (from “If I Go Missing”). And the speaker is finally an “American,” one with a brother who is a soldier in Afghanistan (“Promise” and “The Poor”).

Quintanilla has found in these poems a kind of lyrical version of the blues, a song to keep from crying. They balance the universal and the personal effortlessly, and a reader looking for personal stories or evocative symbolism will be fully satisfied.

David Leitner is an assistant professor of English at Lincoln Land Community College in Springfield, Illinois.