James Whitehead reviews Richard Vargas’ book leaving a tip at the Blue Moon Motel

Toilet paper dispenser up against a wall in a restroom. Green and white and gray paint and shadows on the wall. Title in pink and white at the bottom of the book cover on a magenta background reads "leaving a tip at the Blue Moon Motel"

leaving a tip at the Blue Moon Motel

Richard Vargas.

Casa Urraca Press / ABIQUIU

ISBN: 978-1-956375-17-6

            I want to hit on about three things, all of which intersect, in praising Richard Vargas’s collection, “leaving a tip at the Blue Moon Motel.” I want to talk a little bit about what it means to do a ‘political poem,’ in the loosest sense that this means. Meaning: I want to talk about writing from direct experience, as opposed to writing from theory. This brings up Vargas’s unique sense of empathy. And last, I want to talk about style just a little bit, to remind us all that clarity and clean writing is not an abandonment of it. All these things explain why I like Richard Vargas’s poetry.

            In an anthology of essays titled “Poetry and Politics,” edited by Richard Jones, I want to say I recall the poet Denise Levertov making a succinct point about some of what we call “political poetry.” She alluded to Bertolt Brecht’s version of the political poem as something akin to “marching orders.” I remembered this and wrote it down and it has stuck with me, but I don’t have the patience to re-read her essay right now. So if she did not characterize some political poetry, like Brecht’s, as something like “marching orders,” then let me do so now, and continue to credit her with the idea, just in case.

            Don’t get me wrong. A theoretician or an academic poet who cares about humanity, without having experienced the bad jobs or prison experience he or she writes about, is still on the human and not the dehumanizing side of things. Bertolt Brecht was on the side of humanity. But when poets write about such things from some place other than their own experience, they must invariably do so in the third person, or do so in an abstract or at least imagined way. We, as readers, tend not to relate as much to such work. But Vargas only writes about what he has experienced himself, without assuming to understand worse. He wonders about it, and more on that later, but he never presumes.

            In my view, this is a better kind of political poetry: it reads more like reportage than propaganda. It does not begin with theory. It begins with personal experience. And it recounts such experience without apology or excuse. This is exactly what Richard Vargas’s work does. Such poems, even if implicitly political, for having described a horrible class-based economy, for having described the dehumanizing corporate experience of the worker crammed into a room with minions fielding an onslaught of insurance claims over the telephone lines, such poetry still somehow manages to keep the reader from saying – “aha, a Marxist,” or “aha! A liberal, I knew it!” It simply recounts the bad realities, but without the intellectual’s insistence that the way out is this way or that way or another. It is not ideological. It is human. Richard Vargas’s poems are just that, and that is more than enough. When “listening” to his poems, we are sitting next to a friend talking to us from the barstool next to our own, not listening to a party leader or a tenured professor.

            Vargas recounts the experience of working at the Goodwill, of working for the giant insurance company, of working for the chain retail bookseller. He recounts the dehumanizing experience of being baited into one job only to be subjected to terms of employment that have already been switched out, in favor of the owners over the workers. He recounts these experiences, without any calls to arms, mind you. He does this by writing from direct experience, and doing so with a rare honesty. Nazim Hikmet did it, and so did Charles Bukowski, and while it is no secret that Bukowski was not a Marxist theoretician, and Hikmet himself was a bit of a Red and as a result an exile in his own country, whose government imprisoned him, what such poets have in common is that they tell us what they know based upon what they have lived.

            Richard Vargas belongs to that family tree of poets, whether they strike us as apolitical, as Frank O’Hara was, telling us about his coffee in the morning; or apolitical but more implicitly political, like Bukowski, telling us about the broken down delivery truck that left him at Pico and Western when he needed to get home before hot Miriam left the flat; or whether they can’t hide the politics behind what they are saying, as with Hikmet. What they all have in common is that they are incapable of playing the ‘know-it-all’ games played by more academic writers. They can’t help it, this thing about their work, which is this: it is incapable of bullshit. They write from life, not theory. They are reporters and not propagandists.

            In the case of Richard Vargas’s collection, ‘Blue Moon Motel,’ what is most remarkable upon reading it is the extreme, really super-human empathy that constantly emerges. Richard’s empathy for others does more than punctuate the collection; it effectively defines it. Vargas somehow manages to do two things at one and the same time: he manages to write from his own discombobulating economic experience of this culture, and yet manages to write almost exclusively about other people. I italicize it to emphasize it. This is so even in the most autobiographical works in the collection: “time traveler’s advice” comes to mind, in which Vargas is still addressing other people. He is speaking about another person when he speaks about the ten-year old and twenty-year old versions of himself. The reader is reminded of a particularly touching Buddhist lesson:  that we all both carry all of these stages of ourselves around with and within us, but that we are obligated to love these “other people” we carry within. But the reader of this particular poem can’t help but also conclude, given the surrounding collection, that it is written in large measure as a gift for those who have shared similar trying experiences.

            To go further with proof of this great capacity for empathy: when Richard writes about stocking clothes at the Goodwill store, it’s not ever about his long hours, not ever about his low pay, and even if he mentions it, it’s not about his blushing face. It’s about the donors, their lives, and what they meant, or, better still, what they could have meant. His poems about his own grind turn out, in practically each instance, to be about his humanity, because they are about all of us, his brothers and sisters, and the grind any one of us can live. That ability, whether honed or innate, to both write from one’s own experience yet simultaneously address so many experiences of so many others, is itself a kind of style.

            Ezra Pound, in the “ABC of Reading,” wrote about the need to bring subject and form together, to make the poem’s topic and its language match. This is a horrible oversimplification. Then again, so is fascism. But if Pound’s premise is correct, then “leaving a tip at the Blue Moon motel” is a successful book. Leaving bullshit off to the side means writing clearly, cleanly. When I think about poets like Frank O’Hara or Charles Bukowski (who must have a place in Vargas’s own family tree, lineage traceable back through Gerald Locklin as it could be), or even the few poems Hemingway left, I realize that being a reporter before being a propagandist, and being understood, unlike so many experimental poets, language poets, or surrealist poets, does not mean an abandonment of style. It simply makes for a clear, understandable, and, because personal, a unique expression. After all, as Isaac Bashevis Singer once said in an interview, a writer does not attain originality by coming up with a new style, or by writing about a new subject; he or she attains originality by giving everything of themselves. I paraphrase. But you get the idea.

            This is a very, very good book, by a very, very good poet. Richard Vargas, in this book, manages to connect, empathically, with more of us in sixty-some pages than other poets merely speak to in the hundreds they produce. He does it with clarity and clean prose. He manages to inform our politics without preaching about them. And he does it with a remarkable and, unfortunately rarely-seen, sense of empathy for his readers and their own lives.

            Please buy and read this book. Then place it on your shelf alongside similarly honest works.

                                    – J.T. Whitehead

(may be cut as needed)

About the Reviewer

          J.T. Whitehead earned a law degree from Indiana University, Bloomington. He received a Master’s degree in Philosophy from Purdue, where he studied Existentialism, social and political philosophy, and Eastern Philosophy. He spent time between, during, and after schools on a grounds crew, as a pub cook, a writing tutor, a teacher’s assistant, a delivery man, a book shop clerk, and a liquor store clerk, inspiring four years as a labor lawyer on the workers’ side.

          Whitehead was Editor in Chief of So It Goes: The Literary Journal of the Kurt Vonnegut Memorial Library, briefly, for issues 1, 2, 3, 4, and 6.  He is a Pushcart Prize-nominated short story author, a Pushcart Prize-nominated poet, and was winner of the Margaret Randall Poetry Prize in 2015 (published in Mas Tequila Review).  Whitehead has published over 350 poems in over 125 literary journals, including The Lilliput Review, Slipstream, Nuthouse, Left Curve, The Broadkill Review, Home Planet News, The Iconoclast, Poetry Hotel, Book XI, Gargoyle, and The New York Quarterly.  His book The Table of the Elements was nominated for the National Book Award in 2015.  Whitehead lives in Indianapolis with his two sons, Daniel and Joseph, where he practices law by day and poetry by night.

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