Book Review: Guernica, Revisited

Zachary Kluckman
4 min read
Sing the Bruised Heart
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Art is an individual experience, like life. When shared, a thousand glittering mirrors are turned on the universe.

When Picasso declared that his iconic anti-war painting “Guernica” would never be delivered to Spain until that country was restored to peace, he demanded that we consider the experience of the individual in a sometimes frightening world. With a title inspired by Picasso’s depiction of the suffering inflicted by the Spanish Civil War, Richard Vargas’ new poetry collection,
Guernica, revisited, tackles similar themes. Cultural identity, enduring violence and struggle, love and stubborn hope for growth resonate from every page.

A pastiche of reverential imagery, this is an homage to the unpredictable experience of living. A wolf song sung from the author’s lips, these poems ring across moonlit sand to identify and demolish borders both physical and spiritual. Often this means envisioning a world where the worst-case scenario has already come to be. In “the end of Superman,” a familiar heroic figure detained as an “illegal alien” meets an inglorious but all-too-plausible fate. Capable of refusing detention, his quiet surrender speaks volumes to ideas of power. In ‘the road taken,” every person of color is driven from the country, and the nation falls into decay. Awash in its own excess, society reaches its nadir. Only when there is rebuilding to be done are immigrants safe to return—and literally clean up the mess. In several poems, such as “with friends like these,” the poet addresses intolerance and privilege directly, turning the looking glass on those people that embody them.

Some of life’s inexplicably bleak realities are explored in poems like “I wouldn’t wish this on anybody,” where we share a horrific experience with author: “if you ever have to tell a man/his wife was raped the previous night/there is no way you can prepare.” A vivid portrait of an elite class who watch impassively as those who try to earn their favor victimize a peaceful protestor, the poem “when you beat me” is dedicated to Occupy and explodes open with: “does your arm tire/as you swing your/baton into the thud/of my flesh and bone.”

However, struggles with unemployment, inequity and simple survival are balanced by exquisitely subtle themes of love and optimism. In the poem “waking up,” the poet describes an embrace in the rain with “she nuzzled my neck/as a rolling thunder/shook our listless senses/awake.” Luminescent poems like “song for Shenandoah” and the short series of four poems titled “milagro” celebrate love and nature—the very things Vargas begs us to turn our eyes upon.

This celebratory impulse elevates the collection beyond simple lament. Rather, the poet’s song crawls down the scales to become at times guttural and urgent in its demand for change. Still he sings of the
gente, the shimmering souls existing nearby, to remind us that the individual in the mirror reflects the universe.

Incorporating sharp lyricism with sometimes staccato line breaks, the poems showcase and urgency and preference for accessibility. Evoking an exquisite emotional rawness, this is a collection that will leave you somewhat heart bruised as you reach the last page. The beauty of this bruising, perhaps, is that it means you have been touched powerfully and that now the healing can begin.

Zachary Kluckman is a multi-award-winning poet and spoken word artist living in Albuquerque, New Mexico. He is the author of two collections of poetry, Some of it is Muscle and Animals in Our Flesh.
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