Danni Quintos’ debut poetry collection, Two Brown Dots, is a fresh bouquet of honest poems that explore the enchantment of the mundane through the eyes of a multi-ethnic woman as she comes of age. It was selected as the 20th annual winner of the A. Poulin, Jr. Poetry Prize by Aimee Nezhukumatathil, who describes Quintos as “refreshingly tenacious, bearing spells and gifts.”
Quintos’ compilation reveals her experiences of womanhood, racism, and the body that transcend the three sections the book is divided into. The first section, “Girlhood,” is an awkward and tender account of being a racially ambiguous brown girl in Kentucky. The first poem throws us into the thick of it, opening with the speaker and her sister making shadow puppets in a tent in the front yard while police search for a serial killer who is brown-skinned like her father. Quintos conjures a contrast between the safety inside the tent and the threat of racism that looms just beyond.
That nostalgic tension between the protection and innocence of childhood and the horrors of the real world, be it racism, heartbreak, or the double-edged sword of sexuality, continues throughout this first section. In “Letter to My Childhood Crush” she addresses Duke, “Stop pushing your forearm / to mine on the playground, saying a brownskin can’t marry a whiteskin. / I am the kickball here. I am over the hedges, out of bounds.” In “The Rules,” Quintos admits “Jennifer is allowed to play / with Yolie and have her sleep over and everything […] It’s because Jennifer’s dad / doesn’t think Yolie looks dirty.”
The added sprinkle of 1990s pop culture references makes the nostalgia even deeper for those of us in a certain age bracket. In “Age Eleven,” Quintos captures the power of wielding sharp grown-up words: “I don’t know / what these words mean, / but the feeling / of reading cuss words / in the dark & the nettled / burn of Alanis’s voice / give me some kind / of power, & Mom lets / me sing these cusses, / so long as I promise / only at home where / it’s safe.” Coupled with playground racism, the mixture is potent. Many of us might relate to the precise sting Quintos describes in “Scary Spice” in which she admits “I asked / which Spice Girl she would be. I always wanted to be Ginger, but got bullied into being Scary / since I was the only brown girl playing.”
Many of Quintos’ poems stay anchored in the body, whether she’s speaking of the color of her skin or the intensity of adolescent sensations: “afternoons of just kissing / & nothing else but friction: our bodies trying to get loose / from their husks.” This bodily theme continues into section two, “Motherhood,” where she captures the physical experiences of trying to conceive, being pregnant, breastfeeding, and finding a tumor in her breasts. These poems are Quintos’ most compelling, so intimate that they occur inside her body. In “Luteal Phase” she confesses “I darken my eyebrows / with pencil & test the texture / of my cervix in the shower.” In “The Eighth Month” we are again inside her body: “When I’m still / he’s moving: surf-swimming, somersault / under my ribs.” and “like a sleeping kettlebell / I cannot take off. In the night I sometimes / roll over, forgetting the body I’ve become & it pulls.”
The “Boobs” she described as “two brown dots” are transformed in “First Milk”: “Once, you were / a girl with two breasts like the smallest constellation, an incomplete ellipsis. Today, they find new purpose. Today they are nourishment & comfort, / food, water, some kind of magic.” They are transformed again in “Breast Pain”: I find an egg / -sized lump, angry & hot, under / my shirt. A toddler’s hug makes / me wince.” Quintos shares that “lola had hers / excised […] My breasts / inherited thick, ropey tissue; a risk from her / side.” Quintos’ body becomes the vehicle through which we experience the world, and the changes in her body mark the passage of time.
The final section, “Folklore,” connects Quintos with The Philippines, her family, her culture and history, though the physical realm remains central, whether through reference to skin whitening products and Filipina Barbie, the preparation of a chicken to be eaten, or racist colonialist history. In “Ghazal for Dogeaters,” Quintos references the exploitation of Igorot people at the 1904 St. Louis World Fair: “they shipped twelve hundred Filipinos, shivering in a / train car, from Seattle to St. Louis for a human zoo. No joke. / They forced them to eat twenty dogs a week: a spectacle / for the fairgoers. The butt of the joke. The root of the joke. / Once a co-worker barked like a dog because someone else / ate Chinese food; but calm down, it was just a joke.”
Just as haunting, “Letters to Imelda Marcos” addresses the notorious first lady of the Philippines who stole billions of dollars from civilians. When presented side-by-side with such emotionally charged content, certain other poems fall flat in their matter-of-factness.
As a whole, though, Quintos’ work shines in her blunt descriptions of bodily experiences, from cringeworthy puberty, to the intense longing to conceive, biopsy, and the visceral ache of racism and generations of colonialist violence.
Two Brown Dots
By Danni Quintos
Published April 12, 2022