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‘Promises of Gold’ Review: José Olivarez’s Bilingual Celebration of the Mundane

5 Stars

Cover of José Olivarez's "Promises of Gold."
Cover of José Olivarez's "Promises of Gold." By Courtesy of Macmillan Publishing
By Selina Lin, Contributing Writer

“I tried to become American, but America is toxic. I tried to become Mexican, but México is toxic,” award-winning poet José Olivarez writes in “Ars Poetica,” a poem in his new collection “Promises of Gold.”

“My work: to do more than reproduce the toxic stories I inherited & learned ... My work: to write poems that make my people feel safe, seen, or otherwise loved,” he finished.

As the son of Mexican immigrants, Olivarez’s voice has often focused on his experience in a Mexican family. His highly acclaimed 2018 debut poetry book, “Citizen Illegal,” touched on both political and personal topics of immigration, citizenship, liberty, and dreams. After experiencing Covid-19 and changes in both interpersonal and living circumstances during the last four years, the content of Olivarez’s writing changed too. In “Promises of Gold,” he documents and celebrates the ordinary aspects of life while continuing to speak on the lingering effects of immigration on the experiences of individuals and families alike.

"Promises of Gold" is split into eleven sections, each containing between four and 13 poems. The sections are given titles such as “Gold,” “Glory,” and “God,” again tracing back to Olivarez’s Mexican roots and inspirations. Despite the sorting of poems into sections, Olivarez's poems are not chronologically ordered or thematically categorized. Even in each section, poems jump back and forth between different stories and emotions, though most speak specifically to experiences with family and friends, with an underlying appreciation for such figures in Olivarez’s own life. Occasional poems scattered throughout the book illuminate the instabilities of love and politics, but as Olivarez writes in his book introduction, the majority of the poems are “for the homies.”

With this intended audience in mind, Olivarez does an excellent job of capturing ordinary interactions with people in his life, creating poignant short stories, and connecting them to larger themes and ideas. In poems like “Regret or My Day Says Love,” “Nate Calls Me Soft," and “No More Sad Mexicans,” Olivarez paints portraits of family members and friends, brothers and lovers, musicians and taco-makers — all while lingering on the little things that he notices about each, from the emotions that pour from his quiet relatives’ mouths after a few drinks to the nonchalant responses from friends when asked about their wellbeing.

Furthermore, Olivarez’s distinctive colloquial writing style within the poems of each section brings a sense of informality to the experiences he writes about, which helps him further connect with readers. Instead of rigid stanzas or sentences, Olivarez embraces structural freedom. This freedom appears in the poems’ content as well, effortlessly moving back and forth between his experiences and his reflections. The poems are offered like stories to the reader, and if read aloud, one could imagine each as a story shared by a close friend during a casual conversation. “Promises of Gold” becomes an immersive experience, allowing readers to intimately experience conservations with Olivarez and glimpse his innermost thoughts.

It’s not only Olivarez’s excellent storytelling and unique poetic voice that makes “Promises of Gold” stand out as a one-of-a-kind poetry book. Spanish poet David Ruano’s Spanish translations of Olivarez’s poems into “Promesas de Oro” — accessible by flipping over the book and starting from the back cover — open the book to a larger audience. Olivarez’s choice to provide a translation of his book also captures another defining second-generation immigrant experience: translating for family members and other loved ones who cannot speak English. Olivarez explained in an interview with The Chicago Review of Books that he was specifically inspired by an experience in which the parents of students in his poetry workshops had expressed their wish to read his poems alongside their children. He then took the initiative to advocate for a Spanish-friendly version of his writing, which “Promesas de Oro” soundly delivers.

Ruano’s translations of “Promises of Gold” are overall direct translations in both meaning and voice, presented in a colloquial tone and easily understandable. While all of the intentions and meanings behind Olivarez’s poems are kept, Ruano occasionally makes small changes to better adjust Olivarez’s story to a Spanish-speaking audience. In the translator's note, he makes distinctions between the different options he faces when translating English words into Spanish ones. One such example was the translation of “Mexican” into either “mexicano,” which means a Mexican who lives in Mexico, or “Mexican,” which means a Mexican who has migrated from Mexico to America. These little nuances in Ruano’s translations make “Promesas de Oro” much more authentic to read, and they likely also make Olivarez’s ideas more approachable to Spanish-speaking audiences.

Ultimately, “Promises of Gold” is a uniquely bilingual celebration of life and the mundane. Both Olivarez’s works and Ruano’s translations do an excellent job of capturing the essence of celebrating and appreciating life — despite its imperfections — for what it is. The writing in “Promises of Gold” and “Promesas de Oro” is clear and simple, yet easily navigates complex ideas and reflects on real-world experiences. While inspired by Olivarez’s distinctly second-generation Mexican immigrant experiences, “Promises of Gold” expresses themes of hope, dreams, family, and friendship that can apply to anyone, regardless of their background. It’s filled with all types of stories and promises — big and small, vague and specific, organized and messy. It’s a promise that life is more than just constant success, and more than happiness, sadness, or grief. It's a promise that Olivarez understands his readers, acknowledges the hardships they may have overcome, and wants them to “feel safe, seen, or otherwise loved.” And it’s also Olivarez’s personal promise to his readers that life is never just simple, but rather — if they embrace the right mindset — an experience that can offer overwhelming growth, appreciation, and happiness.

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