Poetic Justice

Cristián Gómez Olivares’ writing is personal and political

Cristián Gómez Olivares standing in his office amongst stacks of books and bookshelvesPhoto: Matt Shiffler Cristián Gómez Olivares

Growing up in Chile during the violently repressive dictatorship of Augusto Pinochet, Cristián Gómez Olivares struggled to make sense of his country’s tumultuous political situation.

“I had many unanswered questions; naively enough, I thought literature might provide some answers,” said Gómez Olivares, PhD, a poet and Case Western Reserve associate professor of Spanish.

Nine collections of poetry later, Gómez Olivares—who signs his books Cristián Gómez O.—continues to explore how national and global events mark individuals.

His 2020 award-winning La pérdida de las colonias de ultramar (Loss of the overseas territories) is a meditation on the different forms of estrangement written before the COVID-19 pandemic began. “The timing was paradoxically spot on,” he said. “If there’s anything that better defines the idea of estrangement than this pandemic, you name it.”

Gómez Olivares came to the United States in 2002 for a residency at the International Writers Program at the University of Iowa, where he later earned his PhD in Spanish. In 2011, he joined the Case Western Reserve faculty.

Working with his students—many of whom aren’t native Spanish speakers—to parse the nuances of Spanish literature inspires his work. “The experiences of my students talking about language, about how we read, about how we communicate, inform my own poems,” he said. “I don’t see myself as a teacher and then a poet. They’re all the same.”

Bare Knuckle Fights*

an excerpt from a poem about two opponents


of the two’s going to fall soon, because of course
the fight is fixed, the way Destiny’s fixed

in Greek tragedies: the Oracle already knows
which of the two is going to lose, and which of the two
will have to ask Fortune for a fortune

I’m still waiting for my fight with McGregor,
I still want to get out of these godforsaken holes, lost
in the middle of amphetamines and this life which isn’t

even middle class, my American Dream consists of
getting my nose broken for a couple more dollars:
a forest’s nothing more than the possibility of being a forest.

A fight the chance of being a tree.
But a tree after winter.

The branches fallen and the trunk bare.
But standing
still. But still standing.

By Cristián Gómez Olivares with translation by David McLoghlin

La pérdida de las colonias de ultramar (Loss of the overseas territories) won the 2020 poetry prize from the International Latinx and Latin American Book Fair at Tufts University. The English translation is forthcoming.

— Jennie Yabroff