Citizen Illegal by José Olivarez
Haymarket Books, forthcoming Sept 2018. 120 pp.
Reviewed by Donna Vorreyer
Citizen Illegal is not only a commentary on timely and complicated issues of race, immigration, and ethnicity, but also a celebration, a journey toward a self and a family identity that is grounded not merely in geography but in the veined map of the heart.
The debut collection begins with the titular poem’s split identity and, despite its straightforward language, immediately places the reader on notice that there will be nothing simple about the ideas it puts forth:
if the boy (citizen) (illegal) grows up (illegal) and can only write (illegal)
this story in English (citizen), does that make him more
American (citizen) or Mexican (illegal)?
Issues of identity and race are explored in language imbued with humor, frustration, and grace. But threaded in and out of the collection is also a desire to shed the self and become something or someone new. In “River Oaks Mall,” the reader learns this fun fact: when you have to try to blend in/you can never blend in, describing a Saturday stroll at the mall trying so hard to be American//it was transparent. In “My Therapist Says Make Friends with Your Monsters,” readers meet the monster called Chubby, Husky,/ Gordito. i climbed out of that skin/as fast as I could… and in “Ode to Cal City Basement Parties,” basements become the perfect place to take the light glittering/off the disco ball/& paint yourselves/brand new and shining.
The book’s back cover calls the language of this book “everyday,” but the author’s skill with language is far from common. With odes to cheese fries, basement parties, and Scottie Pippen, and nods to Vapo-rub, Wolverine, and Kanye West, Olivarez certainly does not shy away from pop culture or its vernacular. However, moments of extraordinary tenderness and beauty are found throughout the collection as well. “My Parents Fold Like Luggage” gives the reader a border crossing narrative where
[...] my parents say
god blessed us. maybe they are right,
but i think about that night & wonder where
god was–a million miles away in the stars,
in the shared breath between my parents, maybe
everywhere. maybe nowhere.
And in the prose poem “My Mother Texts Me for the Millionth Time,” the ending image is layered, through slashed line breaks and double meanings, rendering this relationship in a lovely and reverent way:
[...]my job takes me away/from home/so i can
build a bridge back/to the living room/where my mom rests/her feet/
awash in the glow/she makes/so effortless/it’s impossible/to tell the
light/comes from her own body
Some titles and themes in the collection are recursive, each return providing the reader with distinct changes in perspective or detail. In the eight poems entitled “Mexican Heaven,” each one enumerates a layer of the speaker’s relationship with ethnic heritage and how it can make one seen or unseen in the earthly realm. Walking the “River Oaks Mall” is reprised with a fresh lens of young adult swagger, and “Boy & the Belt” becomes “Poem to Take the Belt Out of My Dad’s Hands.” These repetitions or reinventions function as refrains to love songs of growing up in two cultures. Whether addressing serious issues of gentrification and erasure or exploring personal love and loss, Olivarez speaks in a voice that moves always toward belonging.
Donna Vorreyer is the author of Every Love Story is an Apocalypse Story (Sundress Publications, 2016) and A House of Many Windows (Sundress, 2013) as well as eight chapbooks, most recently The Girl (Porkbelly Press). Her reviews have appeared in The Rumpus, Quarterly West, Sugar House Review, Cider Press Review, Tinderbox Poetry, and other journals.