I recently had the opportunity to read an advanced copy of Crossing the Border: Collected Poems (2017) by Daniel A. Olivas. Pact Press schedules the book to be released in November of this year, and if you’re a fan of Chicano poetry, it will be well worth your investment.
Olivas, who is an accomplished prose writer, confirms his place in verse with this publication. The poems touch on historical moments, such as “St. Francis Dam, March 12, 1928” which details the dam bursting, spilling 12 million gallons of gushing water into the adjacent region, killing up to 600 people. The writer’s haunting tribute to the lost lives in this tragedy, many of whom were migrant farmers, is done from the perspective of two Mexican American men: “We learned later that the water washed / away whole towns: Castaic and Piru, / anything near the river” (16). The poem serves to memorialize the deaths of those people on a personal level, all the more significant given that no physical memorial exists to this day.
While Olivas describes himself as a Xicano, and to that end, the poem “Xicano!” tackles the history of the term, it would be reductive to say that he follows in the footsteps of his Chicano predecessors. Olivas is unique with his verses. One such example is “Tezcatlipoca’s Glory.” This poem hearkens back to pre-Columbian Mesoamerica. While this is common among Chicanx writers, Olivas puts an interesting spin on it, using the legend of Tezcatlipoca to subvert the reverence often afforded to Quetzalcoatl in Mexican American literature: “I made a fool out of you / Back in the bright days / Of the Aztecs and Toltecs. / I made a fool out of you, / And it was easy” (22). In “Blood, Frogs,” Olivas continues to explore identity and make unique connections. Herein that connection is between indigeneity and Judaism.
Crossing the Border is an ambitious first collection of poetry from Olivas and I recommend it wholeheartedly. It transitions seamlessly between personal contemplation and larger socio-political commentary. If you’d like to learn more about him, check out his bio at Pact Press’s website: http://pactpress.com/daniel-a-olivas/