One-time Albuquerquean and nationally recognized poet Richard Vargas’s masterful fourth collection How a Civilization Begins orients us to latter-day American life at a cultural moment when the very forces that made the U.S. the wealthiest, most powerful nation in the world have crested and are no longer sustainable. Ranging from confessional, deeply personal poems to poems unapologetic in their indictment of unfettered capitalism and corporate greed, the book suggests that the “civilization” to which the title refers may only emerge once the world as we know it has long collapsed due to the rot at its core.
Yet what draws the reader back to these poems—as well as the poems in Vargas’ earlier collections, McLife (2005), American Jesus (2009), and Guernica, revisited (2014)—lies in compassion that refuses to be stifled, generosity of spirit that pervades each line and stanza, and belief in the ability of art, if not to see us safely through the end times, then to record it for a post-apocalyptic posterity and to lend comfort through its clarity of vision. Know “the difference/between a dollar bill and/a sheet of toilet paper/is the green ink,” Vargas advises in “Note to the young artists living in these dark days” before imploring them to “jump from the cliff” knowing “art will catch you,” for “it always does.”
This is the same poet who, while volunteering at a makeshift detention center on the U.S.-Mexico border, notices the six- or seven-year-old immigrant girl who has come to help him sort donated clothing—“she looks up at me/a granddaughter i never had/her dark brown eyes meet mine/and ask if this is alright”—before wondering “about all the beauty/all the horror this precious/little being has witnessed” and nodding his approval “while wishing/my sparse and rarely used Spanish/vocabulary wasn’t so elusive right now/then out of nowhere words come/‘muy bien, mija’,” and the girl runs off smiling “to rejoin her mother.”
If the poet has grown world-weary over a lifetime of heartbreaks and betrayals, the collection is even more stunning for its fearless, childlike wonder at so much needless suffering. More than calls to action, these are poems of witness, yet in the downward course of an empire to which each of the poems in some way alludes lies a modicum of hope.
At the end of the collection, Vargas includes a personal essay about his father’s heroin overdose at a time when he seemed, at last, to have overcome his addiction, but what we’re left with at essay’s end is a portrait of a father at once complex and lovely. Insofar as the essay provides context to the poems, the book becomes a cautionary tale about the life of a culture, asking us how we want to be remembered, reminding us we still have a choice.
Richard Vargas, How a Civilization Begins (Mouthfeel Press, 2022), 118 pages, with a foreword by Margaret Randall
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Daniel Mueller is UNM Professor of English and author of two collections of short fiction, How Animals Mate and Nights I Dreamed of Hubert Humphrey.