Leaving a Tip at the Blue Moon Motel
Richard Vargas
Casa Urraca Press

Reviewer: Shawn Pavey

Having followed the work of Richard Vargas since his first collection, 2005’s McLife, I’m not surprised to find that Leaving a Tip at the Blue Moon Motel is filled with poems that explore, in depth, that inescapable yet spirit crushing pursuit of a paycheck.

This collection also covers vast ground – failed relationships, gun violence, Artificial Intelligence, the business of poetry, the struggle for almost everything. But there is such hope in these poems, too, and moments of true presence and beauty. The poems range from narrative to surreal. Vargas shows readers the flights of his imagination on one page and the struggle to keep things together on the next.

In the opening poem, “sorting and pricing donated clothes for the local thrift store,” the narrator works part-time at a thrift store sorting donations. In one pile, he finds, unexpectedly, Victoria’s Secret lingerie.

i can see her walking
into the room
surprising her lover …

… how did it end up here?
in my hands where I price it
at $7.99 and hang it on the rack
with other second hand clothes

The narrator of Vargas’s poems operates under a work ethic known to many: Do the work. Get the check. If the work becomes insufferable, find other work. Do what they say to get the check. It leaves plenty of room for thinking. In this poem, the drudgery of the task is rattled by the surprise of a negligee, and Vargas, the poet, speculates not only on who might have slipped in and out of that silk, but the conditions under which it landed in this pile of donations. He concludes the poem “to ponder its past / and to imagine its future.”

In another work poem, “when I was a UPS man,” Vargas relates his time in two parts. The first covers a fourteen-year span and begins “i was somebody in my brown.” Vargas relates what he enjoyed about the job, being alone, just he and the truck making deliveries, getting bright smiles from receptionists. When relaying the experience of holiday delivery season, there is no mention of the receptionists’ lip gloss, but of how

a flashlight helped me read
addresses in the dark
while i ran from my truck
to their front door and then back
trying to finish the shift by eight p.m.

This takes us to his final four years with the company in the second part:

one hernia repair later
plus two bouts with pneumonia
and now laid up with a bad back
weekly computer reports informed
the bosses i wasn’t working
hard enough fast enough
to suit them

Where the story goes from there is no surprise. What is a surprise is how, using sparse, accessible language, Vargas describes what happens only. The doctor, whose insurance claims are paid by the company, provides two choices: go back to work and continue to hurt or be declared unfit for the job.

but i thought of the old guys
a few years from retirement
trying to hold on …
… the look on their faces
at the end of the long day
as they sat down on the
wooden bench in the locker
room and rubbed their knees
for a long time …
… a week later i turned in
my work shirt and pants
cleaned out my locker
signed the necessary forms
said my goodbyes

no one noticed

The frustration, disappointment, fear of unemployment and the accompanying losses, the disregard for basic human decency in corporate boardrooms: it is all in this poem. Vargas does not speak of the exhaustion, pain, and rage of being ground to pulp by a job. Rather, he shows the reader, in unadorned language, all of those things. The images are vivid – descriptions of holiday lights, running in order to make all the deliveries in time, old men after hard days rubbing their knees, the wooden locker room bench, walking away from a job after eighteen years, and the lack of ceremony that entails.

Vargas shows the reader other laborers, too. In “trickle this,” Vargas describes a solitary short-order cook navigating a restaurant with seated and newly arrived diners, flipping burgers, dropping orders of fries into the fry vats, operating the register, fulfilling online orders, and doing all of it with the grace and concentration of a professional basketball player. The icing on this short-order cake is how Vargas describes his tasty burger and fries and elevates a short-order cook to hero status. Again, Vargas’s imagery helps to create a small world and drop us right in the middle of it.

this is the real economy
forget Wall Street’s smoke and mirrors:
we show up every day
give it our best shot

with one arm
tied behind
our back

This collection is not just about working during late-stage capitalism. There are poems about trying to build, maintain, and rebuild a life, over and over, while experiencing increasingly demanding work environments, wage stagnation, PANDEMICS, ad nauseum, ad infinitum. Several of the poems in this collection deal with past, failed relationships. They are open and vulnerable in recognition of mistakes, heartbreak, and sometimes just plain bad luck. These poems show us when things started to turn bad and how the relationships failed. While the poems are specific to Vargas’s experience, they resonate with the universality of all human relationships. The reader sees the common threads of needing love while being with the wrong people. Vargas can get quite lyrical, especially when he shows us those moments when things go right.

In “three words,” he begins:

because i say them too easily
she says the words
are empty and hollow

In his response, in the poem, Vargas explains about a tough upbringing where love was rarely spoken or demonstrated, that speaking these kinds of words is not easy for him, that being able to voice them now, to her, is a powerful thing.

i say them to you
because they are
the most valuable
thing i have
to give

The most noticeable quality these poems share is how Vargas’s diction, spacing, and rhythms give voice to that constant trudge to get through the week. He does not have to address the challenge directly or prosaically as we encounter it, feel it, honest and unfiltered, via these poems. And while his lexicon is sparse, it delivers the ethos of this work from page to page. This collection explores struggle and, when we need it, displays found joy.

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