The Adirondack Review
FALL 2017
My Zócalo Heart
reviewed by TOTI O'BRIEN

Finishing Line Press, 2017

My Zócalo Heart is Mary Torregrossa’s first published collection of poetry, soon to be released by Finishing Line Press.

The title celebrates the idea of essence, center, nucleus. Twice, as it names the individual core (signified by the heart) and the communal hub (symbolized by the Zócalo, the town square where all exchanges occur and society is formed). The Zócalo corresponds to the Greek ‘agora’, where democracy, long ago, came to life.

Open the book in the middle. Be careful. Something might fall off. A small miscellanea of wonders will scatter itself on the sofa, on the carpet, under the coffee table. Petals, beads, scent, fragments of tunes, maybe old stamps and a flattened golden coin. Pick them up. Make sure you gather them all.

Open about halfway. There’s a fountain from which the poet is rising, like Venus or like less known female sacred figures. A mosaic she has put together by hand, pressing multicolored tiles into muddy grout, lines the basin and shines under the sun. Water multiplies its reflections with kaleidoscopic effects. 

The mosaic is the book. Let it “diffuse from the center” as the evening does in “The Box That Is Night”. Turn the pages. Hold each poem between index and thumb, lift it high to see how it catches the sunbeams, which strange iridescence you’ll capture if you shift it. It will change as you move, as you watch again. There are cutting edges, sometimes—they have a different shimmer.

Each poem is a soap bubble in which the universe mirrors itself, a small world saturated with sounds, tastes, aromas, visual and tactile elements so precisely drawn that they pierce the page. And each hides a figure at least—silhouette so embedded into the sensorial fabric you need honing your focus in order to capture it—gradually zooming in. Rest assured, though, each poem hosts a human being (or more) to whom something is happening both subtle and crucial. Even the most descriptive vignettes (“Summer Tree”, “Undedicated Street”) conceal presence—a young girl mesmerized by the sensuousness of mock-orange in bloom, the hiding or forgotten inhabitants of a nameless street. 

This gallery of portraits irradiating from the Zócalo forms the village, which in spite of the title isn’t only Mexican. It is a virtual one, stretching geography and chronology to embrace distances and decades. It is everywhere and nowhere. Locations are not insisted upon. Place significantly interplays with humanity, but its labeling doesn’t matter. A few different idioms are scattered through the lines. Spanish, Italian, Portuguese words create echoes and resonance—curious arabesques embroidered here and there, flavoring the whole like a pinch of spices. 

Who exactly are the people portrayed? A variety of men and women, children and elders, relatives and neighbors. Common people (isn’t it what forms a ‘community’?) made uncommon by the poet’s empathetic gaze—even those passers-by she met once but remained indelible in her mind, bearer of some unique revelation. A variety—yet they share a few unifying traits, besides being all highlighted by the love the author pours on them from her Zócalo heart.

Come back to the fountain. Here black braided women meet birds, borrowing their grace and freedom (skirts fluttering like wings in the breeze). Tehuanas painted by Rivera immediately come to mind, burdened with calla lilies or crushing corn into a stone mortar. As the anonymous mother-and-wife does in “Nixtamal”, transforming her labor into meditation by the means of patience and care. All the people portrayed in the book have vivid, intense colors, witnessing their belonging to some South-of-The-World they inhabit still, or they shield with nostalgia in a secret chamber of their soul. And all people in these snapshots are poor, with two exceptions: the upper class woman discreetly meeting her lover in a parking lot, caught for a split second without her frozen mask, and the villa where pit bulls beyond iron gates—ghosts and replicas of their absent masters—lazily survey territory. Thus we learn other, richer, less colorful people also inhabit this borderless town. They don’t leave a very significant mark. 

There’s one border, alas, which a husband-boy tries to trespass in “Desert Crossing” along with his baby-wife, who will not be able to endure the exhausting, endless, thirsty odyssey. She will arrive a corpse as many like her do. She also has a black braid, and a white shell necklace. 

An undercurrent of death coexists with vitality, life-affirming beauty, bursting sensuality—as it is true in many traditional cultures where the living and dead nonchalantly get along. They are linked and reversible like the back and the palm of your hand.  

Death is in the silence of the “Undedicated Street”, is the invisible carrion vultures mutely fly upon. It is foreboded in the picture of Father sitting on the stairs, some undecipherable darkness in his eyes. Death is the negative space that absence designs—a word not said because “this is not a crossword puzzle”, meaning not all the blanks must be filled. The reader will complete the picture as she likes.

Death of course is in the cemetery of the last poem, symbolically reuniting the crowd the author has displayed through the pages. A poor graveyard, always lit up since nothing separates it from the streets, the traffic, the cars—woven into the urban fabric, unprotected. There’s no marble, no stone, glass, brass, urn, plaque, chapel. Graves are holes in the dirt decorated with flowers. Here the lives of common people also come together. Here they finally come to rest.

TOTI O'BRIEN is the Italian Accordionist with the Irish Last Name. She was born in Rome then moved to Los Angeles, where she makes a living as a self-employed artist, performing musician and professional dancer. Her work has most recently appeared in Paper Earth, Fishfood, Sunlight Press, and ZIN Daily.