Too many dolores & not enough dollars, that line alone speaks to those of us who grew up in an immigrant or working-class family. “Promises of Gold” by José Olivarez examines the distant relationship between Mexican fathers and their sons, the relationships between Mexican mothers and Catholicism, and the effects of wealth (or lack thereof). When you flip the book upside down and open it from the back cover, you experience Olivarez’s poems in Spanish. “Promesas de Oro” was translated by David Ruano González. Olivarez, who grew up in Calumet City, shares with us a glimpse of his beliefs as an adult and of his memories as a child.
The poems I appreciate the most are those that show his perspective as a child and his experience as a college student at Harvard. In “Regret or My Dad Says Love,” his father never told him and his siblings that he loved them, but he showed his love through his actions. In other cases, like in the poem “My Sociology,” he would hide from his father when he would open the bills. When parents stress about making ends meet, that stress can be passed on to their children. In “Wealth,” a poem after Lucille Clifton, Olivarez writes about feeling out of place as a Harvard student. Although he was a student at a prestigious university, he finds himself relating more to the people who work there:
josé, the only people to turn their heads are me
& the janitors. line cooks. waitstaff. yes, landscaper
Other poems that stand out are the ones that acknowledge small and precious snails. In “Poem Where I Learn to Eat Escargot,” he compares the butters dripping from an escargot to the cheap puffy winter coat he had as a child. At that time, it may have been hard to imagine that the coat was foreshadowing a future trip to Paris. In “Escargot,” he compares himself to the snail:
now, i understand the look
admissions officers gave me as a teenager
when i showed up to interviews in my too-big suit.
calumet city & my parents & all my homies
seasoning my stories. it wasn’t respect
in their eyes, it was hunger.
Olivarez’s poems touch on the fears that we all had during the early stages of the pandemic. The Latinx community, in particular, was heavily affected and suffered so much loss. In “More, Please,” Olivarez worries about his parents’ health while he’s in a different state. In “Perder,” Olivarez experiences a realization, one that at some point we never had until the pandemic disrupted our lives:
& once the losing begins
it won’t stop
until it has taken everything.
Other notable poems include “Ode to Tortillas,” “Poem Where No One Is Deported” and “No Time to Wait.” His poems continue getting clever and have continued adding whimsical elements beyond the snails, like the worms at the bottom of a bottle. The best part about reading Olivarez’s work is that his language is cordial toward the reader. He is one of the few poets who uses accessible language, and everyone regardless of educational background can enjoy his poems. The fact that this collection is in Spanish allows me to share his work with my family and I hope that one day we discuss his poems, maybe before we start karaoke and sing Vicente Fernández songs.
“Promises of Gold”
By José Olivarez
Henry Holt and Co., 320 pages
Angelica Flores is a Mexican-American writer and Dominican University graduate. She enjoys working on English-Spanish translations and has created the Southwest Nest Series for the online arts publication, Sixty Inches From Center. She also writes for The Gate Newspaper, where she has reviewed books, films, and theater performances. She works for the Poetry Foundation and is the owner of the blog, The Macaron Raccoon.