Cambridge Book Review

[Issue #1, Winter 1997-98]

In the Gathering of Silence
By Levi Romero
Univ. of New Mexico Press, 1996

Reviewed by Ken Hunt

At the 1997 Albuquerque Poetry Festival, Levi Romero admitted after his performance to being so nervous he could barely see straight. Sure, many poets say this, to which the automatic response is, "I couldn't tell" -- but in Romero's case, he either really did conceal his nerves or the crowd was literally too spellbound to notice. For more than the magnitude of his stage presence, his words instantly grabbed the mind and ear, dropping the listener into the meticulously crafted and wholly real environment of his life.

The ethos is not lost in translation to the page. Romero's blend of measure and lyrical effusion, concrete imagery and spiritual extrapolations, and utter sense of wonder in a ragged world put him alongside some of my other favorite Southwestern writers, such as Sandra Cisneros and Denise Chavez. "Lindy's" begins with an exemplary striking image:
we sit
in the gathering of silence
Picasso-faced men
hunched along the counter
like birds on a line

He finds the nexus of himself, family and Chicano culture in "Woodstove of My Childhood":
that heard Mentorcíto's violin bringing in the new year
that saw Tío Eliseo bring in an armload of wood
that heard Tío Antonio coming down the road
whistling a corrido and swinging his cane
woodstove of the blessed noontime
and Grandma Juanita heating up the caldito

Whether in English, Spanish, or a uniquely Southwestern blend of both, Romero documents Albuquerque like an archivist and activist. Take "One Yesterday at a Time," for example:
above the chicharra chorus n' rhyme
horns blare impatience
while silent Our Fathers
rise from behind the clouded horizon
as we make our way past
crushed metal and broken glass
steaming out've the asphalt heat

His love of language spans formal poetic tradition, dialect and street slang; it evidently stems from his love of people. Joy and bemusement infuse "Easynights and a Pack of Frajo":
Rosendo used to ride the buses
scoring phone numbers from rucas
he'd meet at the parque or
along Central's bus stops and diners

three to five numbers a day, homes
he'd say, by the end of the week
I know, I'll get lucky with
at least one, 'ey
This is an important book by an important voice in Chicano (hell, American ) literature. In a perfect world, I would have heard of Levi Romano without being in Albuquerque at the right place at the right time.


Ken Hunt is a new resident of Madison, Wisconsin, by way of Austin, TX and Seattle. A journalist as well as a poet, he has written for such publications as The Seattle Times, The Austin Chronicle, and Madison's Isthmus.

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