In my experience, poets often start slowly, offering a poem, sometimes even before the Table of Contents, that welcomes you to the book. Not so with Mr. Olivarez. His first poem, the one that gives the collection its title (actually, the title of the poem is “(Citizen) (Illegal)” is less a gentle welcome and more of a shout of manifesto. Whatever you may call it, it’s definitely a thematic introduction. This is a book about what it’s like to be in two worlds at one – both a citizen and (perceived as) illegal, both from the US and Mexico, a son of the father you have and the one you’d like to have, for Ilivarez to be “a long way from the fire [his] parents feared & so close to this new blue flame.”
While there is much about this collection that I’m sure I don’t understand (in part because I don’t speak Spanish), what I can access is powerful, both throughout the individual poems themselves and with sharp endings and humor:
there are white people in heaven, too.
they build condos across the street
& ask the Mexicans to speak English.
i’m just kidding.
there are no white people in heaven.
Tell me you expected that ending. Tell me you didn’t laugh.
Other favorites include “Gentefication” (the bad news is the economists say there is zero economic value on our block. the good news is we threw away the economic textbooks.) and “Poem in Which I Become Wolverine.”
There are too many to list. Read all of them.
Charles Ellenbogen is the author of the teaching memoir, THIS ISN’T THE MOVIES: 25 YEARS IN THE CLASSROOM, and teaches high school English in Cleveland, Ohio. He lives in Shaker Heights, Ohio with Kirsten, his wife, Zoe, their daughter, Ezra, their son, Lincoln, their dog, and Chocolate Scales, their snake