WENDY LYNN COHEN Reviews
The Great Whirl of Exile by Leroy V. Quintana
(Curbstone Press, 1999)
Poet Leroy V. Quintana is a revelation. His 1999 book, The Great Whirl of Exile, published by Curbstone Press, is my first Quintana book, but it will certainly not be my last. Published several times, Quintana is a storyteller of considerable skill, a poet of some renown for work articulating his experiences in Vietnam, and a voice of the Southwest. Quintana is particularly known as one of the best of the Chicano Poets, a group organically formed -- from a large migration of people, mostly to the Southwestern U.S., from Mexico, Central and South America -- that presently write about a singular culture. The commingling of language and cultures created a Latino subculture concretized by racism in the areas in which they settled. These poets have politicized their experiences, communities and personal reality[s] through their best weapon -- in their words; poems and prose. They speak out against negative attitudes of Federal and local governments, and the primarily racist white populace, while interacting closely with the people in their own communities.
Quintana’s irony, political and literary savvy, prove why he is considered one of the top of this specific literary community via his unique ability to paint powerful images of his people, his culture and his life in words. Clearly a political being, the poet’s stories are simple, direct and dramatic. Quintana employs humor and irony, while telling us of his hometown, his family, his childhood, his friends, and his army comrades. These are not political sounding poems but they are political nonetheless. He savagely addresses issues of youth, war, poverty, sadness, and fear. The repeating character Filemón, for example, says in the poem “Etymology: Chicano” that “when the movimiento (movement) began, a talkshow host attempted to clarify how the word ‘Chicano’ originated. A woman called in, assuredly said it had its roots in ‘chicanery,’ those people being such liars and thieves, so dishonest and deceitful.”
This book is segmented into three sections that separate the purpose and tone of specific groups pf poems. Legends of Home is the first segment, comprised mostly of stories reflecting Quintana‘s New Mexico boyhood/teenage life. Some pieces are blunt, forceful; others have recurrent characters, i.e., Filemón, that are comforting in their keen everyday observations, relayed in a voice specific to New Mexico. John Nichols‘ New Mexico trilogy, encompassing The Milagro Beanfield War, and Tony Hillerman’s mystery novels set in this Southwest area are best known works in this voice. Quintana adopts this unique, real voice: a self-mocking yet non-debasing, no-nonsense, unpretentious, what-you-see-is-what–you-get (computer WYSIWIG) style that allows us to be in the neighborhood. In the corner market, Lalo, in the middle of a sentence forgot the name of those “people who drank a lot of wine…wasn’t the Italianos…los Franceses…the name of those people who drink a lot of wine! No goddamnit, it wasn’t the Greeks!…¡Winos! ¡Winos! he exclaimed suddenly…” “Drunk in English” and “With the Lights on All Night” are light, clever poems with delightful concurrent plays on words in English and Spanish. Dedications, the second section, is a series of poems driven by the writer’s memories, not of the person the work is dedicated to, but rather the time, place, or people they evoke for Quintana. Omen, the final segment, contains far darker work, poems that clearly cut so deep one can almost see blood running down the pages.
A spare, sparse use of language is one of the most interesting aspects of Quintana’s work. Brevity permits easy access to the real work, the core and energy, yet Quintana’s pieces lack none of the richness other poets require in so much more language, filling up pages with aimless phrases. “Legends of Home” sadly speaks of lost youth via “the only way[s] youth knows.” Car accidents are the “Saturday night turned into Sunday morning that turn” into stories, “flying off the road …flames thirst for…spilled gasoline” (pg. 3).
Though Quintana’s writing is seemingly simple, simple is not what his work is. It is very deceptive, with varied techniques that engage the reader, like biting wit couched in simplistic language in the mouths of people from whom we least expect it. He draws the reader as a spider to a web, and once there, his view of the universe -- his regret, his outrage, his isolation and his anger is shocking. Even when only meant to be funny and quirky, his work makes the reader wait for the single line that will take the breath away, especially after seeing so much pathos and depth in other poems. But humor is so much a part of this culture, too; to fend off the collective and personal grief and pain.
The writer’s deep loss is clearly his sense of exile -- from growing up in a racist environment, and going off to a horrific, unpopular war, to coming home to a world that hated him simply for doing his job. Soldiering ultimately made him live a life “so afraid, on a rain-soaked day such as this, On a rain-soaked day…in Vietnam I prayed fervently. In Vietnam, I prayed fervently shivering uncontrollably in the mud…” (from “Poem for Our Dog Afraid of Thunder on a Rainy Day”, pg. 58); and aware in “Sharks” (pg. 56) of the onus of his birth -- “lettuce pickers and dishwashers, all we are good for…We carry fearsome switchblades…born knowing how to use them.”
Quintana’s technique repertoire includes echoing of character, forms of anaphora and other repetition for immediate attention and emphasis. The thrust and prominence of phrases change subtly, and though in short pieces we are as shivering and cold, and as devastated and fearful on a rainy and thunderous day as either man or his dog.
Poet Quintana’s ably created quiet, rational and boldly meaningful indictments against the systems and environments that exile him -- that, in truth, separate all of us -- are essential to hear, particularly in a country hell-bent on freedom that cannot cure its own racism in a world on a path to yet another war.
Wendy Lynn Cohen is a writer and editor currently living in Los Angeles, California. Cohen is a graduate of Antioch University Los Angeles baccalaureate Creative Writing program in 2002. She continues to freelance for multi-disciplined commercial writing/editing/design projects, while executing varied creative fiction and non-fiction projects. In 2007, Cohen edited, The Devil Made Me Do it, a memoir of a renowned 1970’s film actress. She aided the self-published author in designing the book, its cover, and marketing its initial launch in mid-2008, garnering a coveted NPR interview and book signing at Book Soup, one of LA’s foremost independent book stores. Though not specifically a poet, her love of poetry was greatly heightened in an all-involving “…reading-poetry-is-reviewing course…[whose] syllabi were recognized by [the] National Book Critics Circle as innovative courses.”