Octavio Quintanilla, one of the rising voices in American poetry, offers a tone and vision that interrogates and reveals the difficulty of loss and solitude not just in 21st-century life, but harking back the deep grief inherent in the human condition. He’s a poet I return to because he refuses to shy away from difficulty, refuses to see things for anything other than the way they are. Maybe it’s my Texan-perspective that I can’t shake, but these poems offer the kind of raw honesty, or at least the honest attempt at wringing out something we can accept for truth, that I find, more than simply admirable, but deeply rewarding.
I’ve already written about Octavio’s work in a review published in the Concho River Review last year, where I praised his balance of celebrating and questioning landscape and the personal and cultural ramifications of border politics. His poems offer a vision similar to Larry Levis, a statement I don’t make lightly, and though I’ve already written praise for his work, like I mentioned earlier, I find myself returning to his poems, and so I’m going to say a few words about a strange little poem at the end of If I Go Missing, Octavio’s first book of poems, published by Slough Press in 2014.
The poem, “SONNET WITH ALL ITS GRIEF CUT OUT,” uses the title to set up two specific expectations: one, the poem will be a sonnet (though perhaps incomplete), and two, the poem, with all its grief exacted out, should offer us hope, joy, or at the very least an absence of grief. And like any good poet, Quintanilla both satisfies and thwarts the promises his title delivers:
Ah, indeed. The opening line not only follows through on the title’s promise that something will be “cut out,” but it upends my readerly expectations because the emptiness–what’s left when something (grief, etc.) is cut out–reveals a different kind of grief. The opening line also avoids any verb, presenting itself as a fragment, which helps establish not just a tone, but an expectation for the reader. Already the poet has followed through and abandoned our understanding of the poem. Though the poem primarily uses second person, I see the you as a reflexive use of the second person, where the speaker’s actually referring back to themselves. As if you could replace all the yours with mys and the yous with Is–that’s how the poem instructs me to read it, but by using the second person, Quintanilla heightens not just the immediacy of the poem, but he also puts the reader into the position of the speaker. It’s a tactic not everyone can pull off so effectively. It’s so subtle I almost forgot to mention it–though it’s important to the development and the impact of the poem because it invites the reader in to experience the speaker’s personal grief.
The opening line starts with an abstraction, but the next two lines bring the reader closely to the specifics of the real world. We learn that our speaker’s thinking about a woman he loved decades past, thinking about her and her life with her husband as empty-nesters. The speaker latches onto this atmospheric tension of an imagined space, where he imagines the empty house of this former lover right before the moment she and her (current) husband are about to make love. The house “ready once again” reminds us of the past. It’s as if the mind of this speaker is purposely punishing himself, focusing on this former lover who can no longer be part of his life. And instead of thinking about their time together, the speaker dwells on the present, projecting a life imagined into what must be truth only because it stands so starkly in contrast to the position of the speaker in the present moment of the poem.
The last two lines of the poem reveal the location of the speaker. This may be wrong to assume, but my reading suggests the speaker’s alone–why else would he be thinking about this former lover?–lying in bed at night unable to sleep. So of course, if the speaker’s alone and thinking that the mailbox of his life is empty, then his former lover must be, in that exact moment, about to experience the pleasure of intimacy, suggesting this be the very desire our speaker is either denied or denies himself of. The final line offers an image of nourishment–though what milk do the nipples of the huge night offer? Solitude, it seems. Its own kind of sustenance. A keen, sharp sense of the sounds of the world.
That final image unexpectedly swerves into place, but perhaps the most admirable aspect of the poem is the way Quintanilla exposes a vulnerable speaker without dipping into the well of self-pity. The sonnet’s cut in half, as it’s title suggests, and though it’s chock-full of grief, the voice doesn’t despair, doesn’t beg for our sympathy, and offers, in the tradition of the sonnet (premise, turn, resolution), some kind of redemption in that final line. Without the nourishment (sexual, emotional, psychic, maternal, etc.) of the former lover, our speaker turns to the huge night. The final image is both sexual and one of nourishment, but more than anything, it stands as a bold declaration against dwelling further into the self-deprecating spiral of what-if when thinking about loves lost. That helps me learn how to draw energy from different sources (the huge night) when I find myself deep in contemplation about former loves, regrets, guilt, etc.
Though the title promises us a sonnet, it also promises us to anticipate an emptiness, that the grief in the poem will be cut out. And though the poem follows through on the emptiness (we have about half of a traditional sonnet), the poem also tricks us by focusing almost entirely on grief when the title claims to have excised it all. This little paradox pairing proves satisfying to not just my ear and my mind’s eye, but to my understanding of my own internal thought process. It teaches–as any good piece of writing should–if not how to live well (like Montaigne wants), at least how to live a little bit better.