March 18, 2013

Richard Vargas


we turn off our computers at noon
carry a box with our personal items
framed family pics and employee
of the month coffee mugs
small potted plants and clock radios

we are led down the hallway
with its antiseptic floors and offwhite
walls to the free lunch
they are providing before we
are shown the door one last time
some hold on to their boxes as
if they are naked and are
trying to hide their genitals

we march by the HR table
in order to pick up our severance
we must sign release papers that
prevent us from telling
others what was done to us
how it made us feel
to be blackmailed
into silence

we stand in line
we are given
one rib
one piece
of chicken
a small plastic
container of
cole slaw
one-third of
a cob of corn
a tab of butter substitute
wrapped in foil
packages of salt
and pepper (one each)
BBQ sauce also in
a small plastic cup

a roll
a cookie
one white plastic fork
and knife
a crisp neatly folded
white paper napkin

one can of soda
(off brand)

from Rattle #37, Summer 2012

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April 14, 2012

Richard Vargas


it’s been 4 yrs since my last one
so my gut was queasy
as i sat there in the lobby
wearing my navy blue blazer
trying to look serious and
job worthy
when this baby face
showed up
introduced himself
shook my hand
took me to a room
where a young woman
joined us and i was thinking
both of them are old
enough to be my kids
if i had any

since i was being interviewed
by the mickey mouse club
and i had more work
experience than the two
of them put together
any semblance of being
nervous went out the window
my answers were well
thought out as i took
their questions like fastballs
which i easily hit out of
the ballpark

then the girl, er, woman
asked me which would
i rather be: a hummingbird
or a woodpecker?
we all laughed but then i
realized they actually wanted
an answer and i was thinking
what’s next? would i rather
be a dung beetle or a wart
on a fat guy’s butt? a piece
of cheese or a brand new
penthouse magazine in a
men’s prison?
i began to think of all
the possibilities when
baby face cleared his throat
letting me know they were
waiting for my answer

my first thought was i’d rather
peck than hum and since
i too have a pecker and
frequent woodies one could
say my choice should be obvious

but i knew that wasn’t what
they wanted to hear
they had pens in hand
ready to write down
my answer
and all i could think about
was getting the
hell outta there alive

and how good a
cold beer would taste
right about then

from Rattle #25, Summer 2006
Tribute to the Best of Rattle

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October 18, 2011

Richard Vargas


maybe it’s me
but when sticking something
up my ass i like to know
what are the ingredients
so imagine my surprise
when flipping over the box
of preparation h and reading
that it consists of 3% shark
liver oil

it’s one thing to end up
fillet’d on some celebrity chef ’s
cooking show who screams
BAM as he orgasmically rubs
you down with rich aromatic

there are worse ways to go
if you know what i mean
like being hunted down
chopped up and processed
as vital organs are wrung and
squeezed for the precious oils
coveted for the relief they provide
a baby boomer’s itchy anal orifice

so the next time you’re
on a cruise
riding the glassy surface of
a calm, romantic sea under
a full Bahaman or Mexican moon
holding your significant other’s
hand as you snuggle on deck
making one of those memories
that will give you comfort in
your old age–

at the same moment just a
few feet below the surface
like a pack of nazi submarines
waiting for the right moment
to strike
they are watching
waiting for you to fall in

don’t flatter yourself
you don’t taste good
for them it’s the practical
thing to do
ripping you apart
just means

one less asshole
in the world
to worry about

from Rattle #26, Winter 2006
Rattle Poetry Prize Honorable Mention

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December 10, 2010

Review by Richard VargasMissing You, Metropolis by Gary Jackson

by Gary Jackson

Graywolf Press
250 Third Avenue North, Suite 600
Minneapolis, Minnesota 55401
ISBN 978-1-55597-572-2
2010, 85 pp., $15.00

Gary Jackson’s collection, Missing You, Metropolis, (selected by Yusef Komunyakaa as winner of the 2009 Cave Canem Poetry Prize) explores the impact pop culture, as defined by the rise in stature of the comic book superhero, had on individual and generational development in the United States during the years following the Vietnam war. The world of the superhero is the cultural component many male adolescents turned to as they attempted to reconstruct new icons to fill the void left by those erased or radically altered after the war. (Think John Wayne in The Green Berets before the military escalation, being replaced in the aftermath by Robert DeNiro in The Deer Hunter.)

Although DC superheroes Superman and Batman had been around since the late 1930s, it was the introduction in the 1960s of Marvel’s comic book anti-heroes Spider-man, Iron Man, the Hulk, etc. (all plagued with enough personal and psychological baggage to make them appear just as dysfunctional as the rest of us), that raised the bar on character development, introducing a complexity unheard of in what would gradually evolve into the graphic novel. Suddenly the good guys had girl troubles, struggles with dual identities, addictions, regrets and guilt…a lot of times they didn’t like who they had become.

Gary Jackson’s poems incorporate the mythology of the contemporary superheroes and illustrate for the reader how it became integrated in his search for self-identity, thus provided a coping mechanism that helped define the ever-changing boundaries of adolescence and even adulthood.

The inability to influence or direct the events in our lives, the realization of being powerless, is a major theme of this collection.

The book opens with a poem titled “The Secret Art of Reading a Comic,” which begins:

The old comics were never wrong.
Right always defended
by the hero—polished like Adonis.

Jackson acknowledges the naive “good vs. evil” maxim that established our simplistic view of the world and the global tensions within it during the years leading up to the country’s involvement in Vietnam. But his tone changes in the second half of the poem, as he conveys how the comic book superhero has evolved into a tragic figure, subject to failure; and even death.

But what we don’t see
before the miraculous resurrection
is Cap losing his grip on the plane,
falling and helpless
to watch Bucky
fragment into pieces.

The great fall does lead to “the miraculous resurrection,” and Captain America’s fate becomes the metaphor that blurs the line separating man from entity and sets the scene as the subjects of these poems wrestle with their humanity and what sets them apart from it. The superhero does not become what he is by choice, but by circumstance. The poet successfully cultivates the reader’s empathy by employing a universal theme shared by many, if not everyone, at some point in our lives.

The feeling of being powerless is further expressed from the narrator’s personal experience in the poem “After the Green.” He describes his young sister’s disability as:

                                                         Her body ticked

like a broken watch, arms moving staccato,
muscles jerking limbs to their own order.

And after her death, he writes:

                                                         Even now

when I think of her, I am filled
with a hollow rage. When all you can do
is watch a body fail,
what words are there?

The narrator grapples with his own helplessness as he watches the physical demise of a sibling and questions perhaps the only sense of power he has available to him at his young age: the power of language, which cannot begin to make sense of what he has witnessed.

The struggle to establish a sense of self-determination throughout this collection is most powerful when the poet addresses the politics of race inherent in the world of the comic book superhero.
The narrator’s voice of the poem “Luke Cage Tells It Like It Is” belongs to Marvel’s first black superhero. But appearances on and just below the surface are two different things:

Sometimes, you want to be him,
Crave his brand of desire,
his form of righteousness,
bringing a little black to the world
one motherfucker at a time.

But the ironic twist reveals who is really in control when the narrator goes on to say:

No matter how three-dimensional he seems,
know that behind every jive turkey uttered
there is not a black mouth, but a white one,
one that dictates who he calls Nigger

The first line of the last stanza of this poem immediately follows: “This is the cruelest trick.” The narrator has no control over how he is portrayed as an outsider among outsiders. The thing that makes him truly different from the other superheroes, the color of his skin, is created and manipulated by the white world. The mannerisms, the speech, his very essence is an extension of stereotype. The poet’s calculated maneuver of having the persona speak in the third person creates the illusion of distance between the narrator’s voice and his self-observation, creating a psychological split that can only be described as unhealthy for Luke Cage. When he utters, “I’m not as black as you dream,” there is a sense of self-loathing in his admission.

Jackson continues this thread with the poem “Storm on Display,” again employing a rich sense of irony as he describes Marvel Comics’ first black, female mutant, a member of the very popular X-Men series. The diction of a carnival barker comes to mind with the opening line, “Step right up, ladies and gents, come witness the marvelous/wonder of a woman genetically confused.” Her “almond skin,” “furious blue eyes,” and “silken white hair,” ad up to a statement about being black in a race-conscious society that controls the standards of beauty for women of color. The poet makes it clear who has the upper hand, ending the poem with the following lines:

We’ve brought her here, all the way from her home,
just to show you folks a true and authentic

African Goddess. For a small price, take her
home, show your friends this ebony beaut of a creature.

“Storm” has been turned into a commodity, put on display and offered to the public with the intent to make a profit. With one powerful image, Jackson puts a focus on how pop culture influences and perpetrates perceptions of race, sex and class.

The book draws to an end with poems of reflection that brings the poet’s journey full circle.

The poem “The Silver Age” tells of the poet’s final, bittersweet farewell with the Amazing Spider-Man. While meeting his hero over drinks at a local bar, the narrator realizes:

But as years pass you find
it’s only you growing
old. Your beloved hero is still
in his twenties, despite the decades
spent together.

On the surface, Missing You, Metropolis is a nostalgic trip back into the sanctuary the world of comics provided for several generations as they searched to make sense of where and how they fitted into the scheme of things. But it is also a richly layered commentary about the positive and the negative effects inherent within the ever-changing beast we call “pop culture,” and the importance of knowing the difference between being entertained and being manipulated.


Richard Vargas is the author of two books of poetry:  McLife, Main Street Rag Press, 2005; and American Jesus, Tia Chucha Press, 2007. He currently edits/publishes The Más Tequila Review and received his MFA in Dec. 2010, from the Creative Writing program at University of New Mexico.

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