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Essential Mysteries


by Peggy Dobreer


Decoding Sparrows Mariano Zaro, What Books Press, Los Angeles, 2019, 126 pages, $17.95 paperback, www.whatbookspress.com.


DECODING SPARROWS LEVIES a kind of spare elegance on simple acts that elevate them to the miraculous. Mariano Zaro has given us yet another exquisite folio of resplendence made evident through language. And as with all What Books collections, the book cover by L.A. artist, Gronk, puts Decoding Sparrows in a visual category all its own.

In part, these poems reflect the sparsity that can pervade when looking for the right words in a second language (Spanish is Zaro's first language), combined with a demonstration of the silences entered into by any poet who listens deeply to the world for what needs to be said, Mariano Zaro's work delivers us into the lap of duende over and over again.

On delivering his lecture on "deep song in Andalusia," Garcia Lorca explained, "We are trying to do something worthy and patriotic. This is a labor of preservation, friendship and love." The three sections in this book recount Zaro's childhood, his years at school, and his adulthood in America. There is a preservation of personal history here, a deep loving friendship with the details of his subjects, a codicil to love in all its awkward and necessary evolution.

Reminiscent of Where From/Desde donde and Tres letras/Three Letters, his earlier work, Decoding Sparrows celebrates and revels in a life, a book both simple in structure and complex in origin. By sussing out and magnifying isolate images that are elevated to icons in Zaro's attention, we are carried with him with confident wonder in an ever-widening world of both insecurities and magnificent assurances that shape the speaker like a potter shapes clay. But there is no spinning wheel here, only the substance and malleable clarity of the clay, willing to be tooled by the author's skilled hand.

From the moment I entered the pages of this collection, it felt like reading from an ancient text or sacred geometry. The language brightens in its simplicity and grace, feels guarded, encoded, shared with caution, and hushed. For here on these pages, for all to see, are the finely sculpted details of certain essential enigmas.

In "The Philosopher," the poet himself describes this phenomenon, "He talks in that voice that / tells you Hey, you are the only one here. / A voice made of walnuts / and secrecy and surrender." And with this, we learn as readers that we must listen deeply, lean closer, to discern what is being offered. Mariano Zaro writes about life humanely, examined and performed in tiny moments, years gone by, and longings, both satisfied and refused. The thing or person right in front of this poet becomes the most important of all, magnified and verified by his absorption.

He easily straddles the mysteries between his inner thoughts and outer circumstances over which he no power or will. As in "Plums," a poem about his father, "Fruit for the winter, he says. / As if you could wrap the summer with newspapers. / As if you could wrap your father's hands / for the future days of hunger."

Or in "Red Swimsuits," as he describes his swimming coach working the knot on his trunks which he cannot untie himself. "He leans over / and unties the string with his teeth. / I feel his stubble against my belly, / for a second. Sandpaper, amber, mint, / danger at the border of flesh and fabric. Go, hit the shower, he says." In the intensity of this close-up, the reader is granted reprieve. Zaro reveals everything without an inkling of too much information. He aids the reader with acute theatrical timing on the page. He silently schools us into using our own imagination and in this way, includes us intimately and creatively in his work.

Decoding Sparrows spars with what once was and how it has become what can and cannot be disclosed. Somewhere in the "not saying" more and more is revealed behind a scrim of acknowledgement and reserve. I cannot help but admire the polite discretion of the storyteller working within this brutal and vulnerable honesty. From "Kitchen Oracle": "It's fine, I say. / We know it's not fine. / Has not been fine for a while. / You turn off the stove. // I cannot stand the symmetry of the table: / two plates, two forks, / love, pity, / two glasses, two knives."

Or from "Crown of Youth," "I could die now, you said one day. / I didn't know how to respond. // I was used to saying what others wanted to hear. / But right then, I was not sure what you wanted. // And I didn't dare to say what I wanted. / Sudden rain with no shelter."

Toward the end of the last section, the poem itself points to the consistency and strength of this work. The author's distinct lyricism sews itself into the very fabric of the book. In "The Psychiatrist," he says, "I still cannot walk that street / without the cobblestones becoming / hummingbirds or egrets, / I tell my psychiatrist. // You have eroticized the landscape, he says. / We have a strange way of talking. / Lyrical. Started in our first session."

One of the great beauties of this work is the author's ability to include the reader in his process, in the "galloping steeds" of his own evolution. We work gracefully through his dilemmas as they sort themselves out in his verse. In the final poem, "Fourteen Horses in a Small Chamber," he admits, "Me da miedo la tormenta, padre. / I am afraid of the storm, Father."

In this same final poem, Zaro leaves us with an urging that redresses and reconfirms the entire collection, "Tonight, wild horses rustle / in the small chamber of my heart. / Unquiet hooves. Lips twitching. / Teeth clacking like clean stones. / They want me to open the door, / to let them out into the night / and the smooth uncertainty /of wet grass and sharp breeze." I suspect this poet lives his life with the smell of soggy St. Augustine and the blush of an icy wind on his cheeks.

Peggy Dobreer is a poet and teaching artist in Los Angeles. She is the author of five books, including Drop and Dazzle and In the Lake of Your Bones. For more, see www.peggydobreer.com
— posted JULY 2020

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