Content warning: racism, police violence, mental illness, prison, torture.

THERE WAS SO MUCH BEAUTIFUL LEFT is the powerful debut book of poetry by Southern California-born Raul Alvarez, published by Boost House, an independent publisher working out of Tucson, Arizona. It is an intelligent, heartbreaking and playful work with an impressive thematic range, dealing with love, trauma, police violence and Mexican-American identity. 

THERE WAS SO MUCH BEAUTIFUL LEFT” is composed of four sections, each centered around an aspect of Alvarez’ life in Fullerton, California. Alvarez offers brave eyewitness accounts of his mother’s schizophrenia and bipolar disorder. His exploration of the love that defines their relationship informs his inquiries into love, memory and loss. 

Populated by religious figures, the book’s second and fourth sections invite us into a world of familiar characters cast in an entirely new light. They are more dynamic, perhaps more human than we are used to seeing them. The devil appears as a pet, an overeager friend, a war criminal who dropped the atom bomb, an anxious lover. God gets divorced. 

In the book’s third section we encounter US racism toward immigrants as Alvarez explores Mexican-American identity. The title (or epigraph — it’s unclear) of the first poem cites a comment on a Fox News web article: “THE SMELL OF ROTTING CORPSES FROM THOSE WHO FAILED TO CROSS THE BORDER AFTER THEIR ATTEMPT WOULD DETER OTHERS I BET!” As he counterposes this kind of racist vitriol to excerpts from his life, even the most sepia-tinted childhood memories can’t avoid expressing an awareness of violence: 

Dios Mío this one is very hot / she (his grandmother) whispers as she / smashes it in her palmthe red water running / into a bowl of gutted tomatoes.”

The book climaxes with the devastating, infuriating prose poem “MAKE ME A HOOTOWL, SWEETHEART.” Alvarez describes the 2011 killing of Kelly Thomas, a homeless, bipolar, schizophrenic man, by three police officers in Fullerton, California. Alvarez’s mother, whose own struggles with bipolar disorder and schizophrenia are central to earlier sections of the book, often gave cheeseburgers to Thomas, or “Kelly”, as Alvarez calls him. Alvarez recalls his mother pulling over in the car to have “mostly one way conversations at Kelly” before his death. Thomas’s killers were not brought to justice, as a jury unanimously ruled them “not-guilty” of second-degree murder three years later. 

The poem, which contains graphic descriptions of the murder, can be read in full here. Alvarez underlines the relevance of his questions about love and memory to our political moment by artfully framing them within the context of the crushing carceral state: 

“I felt ashamed for not stepping out of the car and putting my hands on both sides of his face and mouthing the words I love you and I will remember you when I am older and living in a city you’ve never been to and when I remember you I will remember an article in the Atlantic I read about the systemic torture of mentally ill inmates in South Carolina prisons […]”

Alvarez’s reflections on love and regret in these lines stand in sharp contrast to the function of love elsewhere, where it acts as a “rhetorical device”: “I know I’ve said I love you too many times in this poem but it’s okay because it’s a rhetorical device. Rhetorical devices are language tricks you can use to tell people you love them.” Or where he charts unthinking, bubbling love as a form of ethics: “Bless everybody, call everyone friend. Trust stupidly and brazenly. Tell everyone you pass quietly and gently that they are so very lovely.” These and other instances form the complex constellation of love and lovings that make up “TWSMBL.” 

Alvarez knows that love is messy business. A complicated, impossible, failing business that unfolds in impossible, unjust, violent historical circumstances. “THERE WAS SO MUCH BEAUTIFUL LEFT” is an incredibly powerful debut book that shows just how sweeping Alvarez’s emotional and political intelligence is. It is also a very funny and playful book. Alvarez’s project unfolds with force, humor and the knowledge that an affirmation of love means riddling its boundaries and contradictions.

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