i should apologize–
it’s true my dad stopped hugging me,
but i never say the other part:
i stopped hugging him too.
Chicago native Jose Olivarez returns with an unflinching exploration of pandemics, family and healing in Promises of Gold, his second full-length collection. Olivarez, a Ruth Lilly and Dorothy Sargent Rosenberg Fellow, writes in an author’s note that this collection was born of his desire to write poems that celebrate love and healing. Crafted almost entirely during the first two years of the COVID-19 pandemic, Promises of Gold is a poignant, astute collection that carefully balances the sometimes fraught realities of being a second generation immigrant with the deep, persistent love of family and friends.
Promises of Gold is a bilingual collection that connects Olivarez with David Ruano Gonzalez, an author and translator living in Mexico. Both Olivarez and Gonzalez address the act of translation and its relevance to the collection in a pair of notes that precede the collection. Gonzalez points to two of Olivarez’ early poems, “Mexican American Disambiguation” and “Ode to Tortillas,” which confront the divergent experiences of mexicans and mexicanos. This distinction pervades the collection as Olivarez works to process the distance between himself and his family during the pandemic, as well as the limitations of accessing parts of his lineage as a second generation immigrant.
Questions of belonging appear early in the collection, as Olivarez remarks in “Folk,”
i wasn’t fluent in this belonging. my folk
came from the southwest of Mississippi & Alabama.
when my classmates said “folk,” i thought they meant
“kin,” the kind my parents left, so i could leave them
to go to school. is all kin a type of exodus? ask Moses.
The poem concludes with an image of the speaker and his friend, Darius, sharing a dap and going their separate ways. This exchange is complicated by the speaker’s confusion at something that Darius says after pulling him close. Olivarez centers his relationship with his “homies” frequently, demonstrating the ways in which sometimes disparate cultures collide and develop shared experiences in childhood. “Ojala: My Home” describes how the speaker and his friend, Oscar, witness someone “get jumped for their shoes.” The final lines are a haunting indictment of how the culture of violence can perpetuate problematic manifestations of masculinity as the speaker laments, “this is how we learned to be boys:/we kept everything we loved close by/& out of sight.”
Olivarez is at his best when he writes of family and the myriad ways that people express love without saying the words. In “Regret or My Dad Says Love,” the speaker admits that “my dad rarely said love,/but he always left the bar,” a powerful contrast to frequent depictions of Chicano fathers who surrender themselves to alcohol at the expense of their families. Olivarez digs deeper into this trop in “Pedro Explains Magical Realism,” where ancestors visit the speaker. He acknowledges
i mean they’re always there, but like,
they let me see them. they let me hear them.
& they told me that all the men in our family
sabotage their relationships using alcohol.
The poem closes with the speaker recognizing that he has lived with this truth his entire life, but he could now feel it more explicitly.
Promises of Gold includes a series of poems entitled Mexican Heaven, recalling a similar set of poems from Olivarez’ debut collection, Citizen Illegal. In one of those poems, Olivarez directly interrogates the titular phrase. The poem opens with a sharp rebuke as the speaker declares, “forget heaven & its promises of gold–” The poem proclaimed that “heaven is just a museum of all the life/we have extinct,” before closing with the wrenching revelation that “we wanted to made in god’s image–we imagined/gold & not the melting that gold requires.” Though the poem is a brief and searing consideration of the afterlife, it also works to highlight the layered understanding that Olivarez holds about how grief and joy are often interconnected.
Olivarez is particularly masterful at writing from a place of vulnerability, exposing his flaws without ever leaning into self-deprecation. The poems are approachable and timely, reaching toward readers with compassion and grace. Promises of Gold shows remarkable growth from Olivarez, who has quickly matured into one of the most important poets writing about living in diaspora as a second generation Mexican American.