Richard Vargas
Mouthfeel Press
Reviewed by Marc Olmsted

In Margaret Randall’s foreword to How a Civilization Begins, she writes that Richard Vargas’ “use of language reminds me of Charles Bukowski in the 1960s and ‘70s.”

I’m more interested in an indirect objectivist aspect to Vargas’ work, and that lineage can be traced from William Carlos Williams’ friendship with Ernest Hemingway to Hemingway’s influence on Charles Bukowski. By the time it finds Bukowski, we see a mix of image and editorial language, or more simply put, show and tell. This continues in Vargas’ work. The editorial is a harder form to pull off well. Even Bukowski himself doesn’t always hit that target, but Vargas has enough going for him that he’s way better than many of those influenced by him, mainly because of continual grounding in snapshot reality. Not surprisingly, the most Bukowskian poem here is called “what would Buk do” – but Vargas is a very different poet than this one exception, and at best his departure from Bukowski, as I said, is closest to Williams, a major influence on Allen Ginsberg. In this sense, Vargas is also aligned with PostBeat. (Even if Beat anthologies often feature Bukowski, it is an arguable inclusion.)

There is Vargas’ haikuesque precision…

new normal

walking past parking lots
littered with blue masks
and latex gloves tossed
to the ground

the new used condoms
no one wants to touch

There is the voice’d sharing of our mutual breath-held doom and gloom suspicions…


at noon the siren goes off
the one the city will use
to warn us to take cover
from approaching twisters
or nukes sent same day
delivery from an international
trading partner who is sick of our shit

There is ordinary experience turned poignant…


i cut off the bottom
of a plastic bottle
filled it with bird seed
stuck it to my kitchen window
waited for over a week
nothing happened

There is childhood compassion and its prophecy of the inevitable wounding to come…

1st time fishing (age 5)

someone saw a shark
prompting me to throw
a donut

we unwrapped the aluminum
foil and ate the burritos still warm
from my mom’s stove
as a dead seagull floated by
going back towards the land
i hoped the shark wouldn’t
get him

There is brilliantly focused portraiture from both sides of the tracks…

Chicano Viking, Paramount Jr. High, 1969

Henry Obregon was hardcore
a 9th grade loner with an icy gaze
and the quiet bulk of someone you just knew
you never wanted to run into in a dark alley
both local barrios
PV 13 and Dog Patch
knew enough to leave him alone
word had it that Henry kept a gun in his locker
on weekends he hung out with a real gang
from Montebello or somewhere in East L.A.
no one fucked with Henry
no one could figure out why he attended our school
and no one had the balls to ask

the investment company’s president visits the job

….wearing a salmon-colored business suit
librarian glasses and conservative pumps
she carries a small purse over her shoulder
the internet estimates her net worth at 17.4 billion

There is directness with the one taste of humor and pain…

cinco de mayo

everybody’s Mexican
kiwi-mango flavored margaritas
chips made with organic non-GMO corn
mild salsa from Trader Joe’s
designer tequilas costing
mucho dinero
everybody’s Mexican
fake moustache
guacamole and
oye como va
everybody’s Mexican
job stealing drug dealers
rapists and criminals
no good for nothing
house-cleaning car-washing
lawn-mowing crop-picking
cooks and nannies
easy to be a Mexican
for just one day
hard to be a Mexican
24/7 in the USA

Vargas ends his collection with “A Father’s Gift,” a prose piece about his deceased junkie father. It is a complex relationship, to be sure, and in this piece we watch Vargas sort out these complexities and move into both forgiveness and appreciation. It is certainly one of the strongest writings herein.

My childhood transformed into a blur of memories; weekend visits to various jails or the men’s state prison in Chino, and always remembering to reply that my father was in the navy and out to sea whenever strangers asked of his whereabouts.

Vargas’ willingness to escape resentment is his major contribution beyond his well-honed images of a world sacred even without a god. It comes at a time when resentment and a lack of sacredness may kill this country, even the world. May his journey elevate us all.