We sat huddled in a hot dorm room on the fifth floor of a New York brownstone, listening to a small black fan blow its warm breath on the room. We perched on chairs, the mattress against the wall, or an old footrest as we rotated treble & bass, smoke, and water vapor in the cypher. The soft glow of a lamp lit the room just enough for us to see what was in front of us, and soon we arrived at the best part of these nights, when the most valued currency is a radical imagination.
“Really though, whole time? Borders don’t even exist—all that shit’s imaginary,” one of us said on a deep exhale. The rest of us looked around the room, but I remember looking at each of our Black faces, knowing now that we’d all be confined, on one day or another, by the manifestations of a historically violent imagination, but only knowing then that I’d spent too much time in life to that point focusing on lines that don’t exist.
That night was over three years ago, but what remains clear years later is the feeling of jarring dislocation I felt as those words died in the quiet of our college apartment. At that moment, something that I was taught and had accepted as a simple truth was exposed. Being uprooted in this way should feel displacing to an extent because unlearning violences that have been painstakingly normalized probably should feel disorienting.
I felt that same feeling on the first page of Citizen Illegal. José Olivarez’s debut collection of poems (published September 4) makes it clear on the opening page that the conventions we hold onto will be upended. On September 7 as I write this, It should at this point be painfully obvious why it is crucial that we reflect on broader themes of citizenship and legality. Non-white immigrants have been targeted and criminalized for centuries, but the brazen way in which current ruling administrations—perhaps most notably in the United States—display structural neglect and/or contempt for those deemed “not American” makes this work all the more insightful. The book’s first poem, “(Citizen) (Illegal)” lets you know from the title alone that what you know about citizenship and legality will be interrogated.
More still, the way in which Olivarez invites the reader to this destabilization is one of the book’s most thought-provoking angles. Citizen Illegal contains poems that on their own contain multitudes. In “Note: Rose that Grows from Concrete” we as readers are shown a resolute anger appropriately aimed at the ruling class in the final lines, “fuck it. / be a rusty nail. / make the emperor howl.”
“My Mom Puts On Makeup” is one of several times that Olivarez provides an inside perspective on the relationship between him (or maybe just the poem’s protagonist?) and his mother, lending thought and care into her perspective as a character in other poems, and as the subject here:
my mom puts on makeup & she is not my mom,
so for the next few hours she will not worry
about me & my brothers, so for the next few hours
all she will have to worry about is the color of her lips
and the handsome men admiring them.
Just as quickly as his mother is granted the undoubtedly deserved grace of adulthood unencumbered by nagging husbands and children, we are surreptitiously prodded in the last line with the unavoidable contemplation that the “all she will have to worry about” might be something legitimately worrisome, if not deadly.
In “Boy & The Belt” we receive the first glimpse into Olivarez’s positioning relative to his father, the complications that arise from that proximate distance, and the fear and hurt that comes from a boy trying to understand why his dad beats him this way, loves him this way. “When the Bill Collector Calls & I Do Not Have the Heart to Answer” brings forth the visceral emotion that lurks beneath financial insecurity in recounting a phone conversation with a bill collector. (“i am the adult after all. / the boy starts to cry. / i imagine the bill collector lost, trying to comfort the boy who sounds like a man / because he speaks with my bass, the boy / who will inherit my bad credit, & all the mistakes.”)
“Ode to Cheese Fries” is an ode to fried potatoes drenched in gooey cheese, sure, but it also is a swansong to being nourished by what is often billed artificial—Apple Jolly Ranchers (though growing up we always just called them “green”), dollar store-brand Wolverine action figures, and gooey, melty, not-quite-Velveeta that brings “a joy so fake it stains my insides & never fades away.” And on the flip side, “My Therapist Says Make Friends with Your Monsters” lifts the lid on someone yoked equally forcefully by conflicting feelings on food, body positivity, and mental health therapy.
The point is that in each of the poems in Citizen Illegal there are myriad pressing and relevant matters that demand our attention, from institutionalized sexism and racism to the ramifications of corporal punishment. And then there’s “Mexican Heaven.” Or, to be clear, there are the multiple “Mexican Heavens” that occur throughout the work, effectively tilting our experience as readers and guiding us toward a more dynamic place altogether.
I do not have the heart to dissect each of the eight “Mexican Heaven” poems because I don’t have the heart to deprive you of discovering each for yourself. But what is most crucial about these poems, including four that headline sections II through V, is how they orient the reader in space. It is not an accident that in a book about legality and citizenship, about instances in which we decide who does and does not belong—in our schools, in our neighborhoods, in our countries—that who belongs in heaven is also questioned.
The importance of situating the reader in this way cannot be overstated. Citizen Illegal will be rightfully explored as a work that exists within a larger conversation about immigration. But if we are to truly understand the impact of how peoples move, and how that movement is impacted by white supremacist capitalist violence, we must begin to understand all the ways in which those resisting that violence occupy space.
Ok, I cannot resist, here’s one of the Mexican Heavens:
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.
Excluding white people (or, shoot, whiteness entirely) from the heaven narrative demands, at the very least, a reexamination of what space is and who is allowed to define each one. But more important within the confines of Olivarez’s collection, it opens up the possibility for “space” to include more than only physical locations.
Including heaven in the venues in which Olivarez grapples with larger ideas is like including the Rainbow Road Mario Kart level in the Triple Crown: it fundamentally alters the lens through which we examine themes of belonging and inclusion, as well as tactics rooted in violence and expunction. If nothing else, who decides who belongs in a space can have far-reaching consequences for how we view that space or any space at all.
If we then examine some of the poems mentioned earlier, spaces in which Olivarez wrestles with the world include a therapist’s office, a crack in proverbial sidewalk, an alternate reality in which his mom is not actually his mom (but is still, very much, his mom), the space between the phone of someone calling demanding money and someone answering that demand with sorrow, a heaven that doesn’t allow white people inside, and one’s own body.
The last one, the body, is the most important of all, as it is the connective tissue of each of the poems. One’s relationship to family, city, or country will always exist in conversation with the relationship between that person’s body and the space it inhabits. Olivarez’s inclusion of poems about growing up ashamed of being fat or of appearing “too white” absolutely belong and shine in a series of poems about movement. Too often, conversations about identity turn into conversations about belonging and access. More often than that, conversations about identity don’t take into account that it (and in turn, who has access to space and resources) is often built upon borders that are drawn, lines that are imaginary. If those lines are to exist at all, and they shouldn’t, the undeniable brilliance of Citizen Illegal is that it draws those lines on the terms of the people who have been violated by the imposition of those boundaries.
I hadn’t thought about that time in the 5th floor Harlem walkup when my homie told me borders weren’t real until I read “Note: Vaporub.” I hadn’t read the word Vaporub on a piece of paper since 2010 when cleaning out my grandmother’s dresser. She had passed the week before, and as I sifted through the pins, cushions, loose pearls, and assorted fabrics in her dresser, I inhaled what I can only describe as the smell that emanates from every Black grandma’s dresser drawers—a mixture of nail polish, hair grease and cocoa butter, and, yes, Vick’s vaporub.
After that moment, I don’t think I’d heard the word at all again, but upon meeting my partner’s family for the first time, became introduced to, as pronounced in “Note: Vaporub,” “vah-po-ROO.” I’d caught some sort of bug, and my partner and her mother were concerned, but not so concerned, they told me, that they couldn’t rely on vahporoo. I was excited, mainly because I felt like garbage, but also because this would be an opportunity to connect with someone who I wanted to like me even half as much as I liked her daughter. So when she scurried back into the bedroom from the bathroom down the hall and tossed me a small jar of Vick’s, I had to assure her that my laughter was not directed at her and that I really appreciated her help and kindness.
On page 52 of Citizen Illegal, I remembered these moments in concert. Growing up, so much emphasis was placed on how I would be raced, classified, as a Black boy. But not enough was made of the idea that there is a connection between struggles. It is heartbreaking to watch Black American folks specifically (though we are far from the lone culprits) detach when discussing issues of immigration policy, mainly because I remember being similarly disinterested in a problem I was taught was distant from me. That notion is demonstrably false.
We need more work like José Olivarez’s. We need more poetry collections. We need more chronicles of the experiences of those pushed to the margins, the allegedly illegal citizens relegated to parentheticals, at the unmistakable forefront of the conversation. Because the idea that any issue, much less the policing of moving bodies can be compartmentalized upon only a certain group of Black and/or Brown folks, that what binds and chokes our neighbors, friends, and colleagues won’t also clamp our throats, or the idea that the designation of any human being as a criminal for the lone offense of existing is one that won’t be weaponized against the next group of people hegemonic whiteness decides doesn’t belong?
“All that shit’s imaginary.”