Logo

'Citizen Illegal' by Jose Olivarez is a poetry for this moment -The Asian Age


Kathleen Rooney

The word "ode" gets thrown around a lot in relation to poetry, so it's worth taking a look at Merriam-Webster's definition of the term: "a lyric poem usually marked by exaltation of feeling and style, varying length of line, and complexity of stanza forms." A cross-check with the Poetry Foundation adds that an ode is "a formal, often ceremonious lyric poem that addresses and often celebrates a person, place, thing, or idea."

Jose Olivarez's indispensable debut poetry collection, "Citizen Illegal," is a boisterous, empathetic, funny-yet-serious (but not self-serious) celebratory ode to Chicanx life in the contemporary United States.

In fact, it's an ode that contains many odes within itself. Take "Ode to Cheese Fries," in which he writes "say it with me -/ cheese fries please -/ give me everything artificial including cardboard fries,/ the bread fresh/ out of some Walmart cloning experiment -/ throw in/ a cold pop -/ I want a joy so fake it stains my insides &/ never fades away." Or "Ode to Cal City Basement Parties," in which he writes, "lovers tag walls/ the deep blue/ of Levis. Hands on/ hips. hips on hips. red/ Solo cups. smoke hides./ touch reveals." 

There's even an "Ode to Scottie Pippen," in which the speaker declares "Scottie, you made it look easy,/ the way your legs ate air,/ found every escalator up.// i was watching your game. working my own factory/ trying to build my way out."

Moreover, many of the poems exhibit odic qualities, such as "My Mom Puts on Makeup," where the speaker imagines that "for the next few hours she will not worry/ about me & my brothers," and instead "all she will have to worry about is the color of her lips/ and the handsome men admiring them."

Admixed with the joy is undeniable sorrow and anger, for the book is an act of emotional and intellectual rigor, one that makes an unsparing examination of race, gender and class, particularly as such categories relate to the struggles and complexities of immigration and gentrification.


The title of the book is 'Citizen Illegal', the writer is Jose Olivarez, published by Haymarket, published in  September 4, 2018 , total pages is 120 pages, price is  $16

The opening poem, "(Citizen) (Illegal)," uses the persistent parenthetical repetition of those two labels to invite the reader to see how, like a pair of malevolent ghosts, the categories - and all the fear, confusion and discrimination that accompany them - haunt the lives of those to whom the words are applied: "Mexican woman (illegal) and Mexican man (illegal)/ have a Mexican (illegal)-American (citizen)./ is the baby more Mexican or American?/ place the baby in the arms of the mother (illegal)./ if the mother holds the baby (citizen)/ too long, does the baby become illegal?"

The son of Mexican immigrants, Olivarez graduated from Harvard University and lives in Chicago, where he works as the marketing manager of Young Chicago Authors and as the lead teaching artist for the Teen Lab Program at the Art Institute. He is also the co-host, with Aziza Barnes and Jon Sands, of the podcast "The Poetry Gods." 

The program's mission statement declares: "You don't have to love poetry to love the show." One could say something similar about Olivarez's book, which is very much in keeping with how the podcast describes the kind of poets it likes to feature: "joyful and absurd, with stories for days."

Olivarez is far from subtle in his interrogations, as one can tell simply by flipping through his table of contents, populated by such arresting titles as "My Therapist Says Make Friends With Your Monsters," "The Voice in My Head Speaks English Now," "I Walk Into Every Room & Yell Where the Mexicans at" and "White Folks Is Crazy." But this lack of subtlety - this courageous, head-on bluntness combined with exquisite lyrical clarity - feels bracing and apt, given the subjects he chooses to discuss possess such urgent intensity.

In one of the eight brief poems all titled "Mexican Heaven" scattered throughout the book, he writes with characteristically cutting 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."

There are hard arguments in here that might be difficult for some, but they need to be hard and they need to be heard. Olivarez has just the right voice - compassionate, dynamic and irreverent - to deliver them.


Kathleen Rooney is an author