about the author

Staff Book Reviewer Spencer Dew is the author of the novel Here Is How It Happens (Ampersand Books, 2013), the short story collection Songs of Insurgency (Vagabond Press, 2008), the chapbook Mont-Saint-Michel and Chartres (Another New Calligraphy, 2010), and the critical study Learning for Revolution: The Work of Kathy Acker (San Diego State University Press, 2011). His Web site is spencerdew.com.

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Citizen Illegal
A Review of Citizen Illegal
by José Olivarez

Spencer Dew

“[D]epending on the population of the room in question, / i get asked what i am,” Olivarez writes in one of the pieces here. In another—one of this strong collection’s strongest poems—he declares, “i am a Chicano from Chicago / which means i am a Mexican American / with a fancy college degree & a few tattoos.” This poem, “Mexican American Disambiguation,” celebrates the multiplicity of identities—born into, earned, and imposed, from the “diversity” colleges offer as a label (along with a picture of their advertising brochures) to the categories of legal fiction via documentation and status or racial identification via checked boxes on census forms.

This is a book about identity—a rallying cry, a prayer of thanks, a cartoon growl of rage—alternately dwelling in the tension that is the hyphen between Mexican and American (am I enough of either? the title poem asks, more pointedly) and celebrating that braided existence so (increasingly) under threat, from “daily calls to speak English properly” to ICE raids on abuelitas and toddlers. As in the poem “Interview,” the same question—“where is your home?”—repeats, seven times, generating seven different answers, encompassing belonging and alienation. At another point, the book’s narrator states “my parents were / undocumented when they came to this country / & by undocumented, i mean sin papeles, & / by sin papeles, i mean royally fucked.”

This is a book about family—locating family as the origin and end of identity, with gratitude, albeit a sometimes-ambivalent form of gratitude. Several poems here struggle to say I love you to the narrator’s father, who remains synonymous with his belt, with discipline, punishment. Other poems offer odes to unlikely wonders from the author’s childhood in Calumet City (“city of foreclosure foreclosure empty lot”), from its basement parties to its addictive trash food.

This book is also—like its vibrant, kinetic cover art—a kind of fantasia about hyphenated existence, about negotiating Chicano and mexicano and Mexican-American as valences of self, slaloming around being identified as diversity, being racialized, being upwardly mobile, heartbroken, and a poet, defiant as any claw-wielding superhero. As such, we’re given a series of vignettes, another example of multiple answers to the same query—what is “Mexican Heaven”? Is St. Peter really “a Mexican named Pedro,” waiting “at the gate / with a shot of tequila to welcome / all the Mexicans to heaven,” only to get so drunk he lets all Mexicans in? Or is St. Peter that tool of the sovereign who only allows admittance to Mexicans so they can “work in the kitchens” where “they dream of another heaven, / one they might be allowed in / if they work hard enough.” Do all dead Mexicans opt to sneak past St. Peter, suspicious of any authority with a list of names? Is God, moreover, just “one of those religious Mexicans” who will force his deceased creatures to be discreet, even duplicitous about their partying, making them sneak their weed and alcohol, pretend to be reformed? Or, as one poem puts it, simultaneously pared down and overflowing, might “Mexican Heaven” not be a lot of theological nonsense, merely “tamales. tacos. tostados. tortas. / pozole. sopes. huaraches. menudo / horchata. jamaica. limonada. agua.”

Yet another take on “Mexican Heaven” describes Jesus, heavily tatted, as, it turns out, “your cousin / Jesús from the block.” This dude, Olivarez says, “gets reincarnated / every day,” but despite the miraculousness of that, “no one on earth cares all that much.” This is a book arguing for the miraculous, not as a matter of rose petals left by the Virgen, but in terms of the everyday, from work in the steel mill fabricating auto parts to the work of the poet singing about the cosmos that is his cobbled-together self...a cosmos constantly policed, to be sure, stereotyped and subjected to (sometimes militarized) suspicion. Olivarez unleashes a grito in reaction to those questions—imposed and internal—of “what i am.”

Official José Olivarez Web Site
Official Haymarket Books Web Site

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