By: Ruben Rivera
Published by: Atmosphere Press
Publication Date: February 28, 2022
Reviewed by: Barbara Bamberger Scott
Review Date: March 1, 2022
Professor and poet Ruben Rivera writes about events and feelings that have illuminated and shaded his life, from childhood as a “brown Latino boy” in a culture that was rapidly changing its stance toward the racial divide, to the present day when some strides, but certainly not all, have been made in that area in Z Is for Zapatazo.
The collection opens with “The Palsy” - a portrait of a woman – young, pregnant, and alone, seated in a “Gotham tenement,” one side of her mouth permanently turned downward, the result of a childhood accident. The title work is a prose presentation, briefly recounting life in his youth, moving from the Bronx to California with its many “social contradictions.” Studying and quickly grasping the alphabet, Rivera noted, and years later laughed about, the designation of A for Apple that curiously concluded with Z for zapatazo, a slang term for, as Rivera styles it, “Shoe Missile,” implying an object for beating an enemy – or a child. Yet the same recollection includes the pleasant memory of “Puerto Rican laughter, the world series of laughter.”
Such paradoxes pervade this wide-reaching work, adding touches of amusement along with poetic bemusement and spiritual insight such as is found in “Sachem” in which the poet takes a boat ride with a holy man who transmits to him “the secret of fire” and other things “that belong to none and meant by all to share.” A second long prose chapter attempts to explain why, in his teens, he connected with an outlaw kid named Homeboy and willingly became a vato, a gang member; later he realizes that he and Homeboy share a love for fine words and high thoughts and begins to wonder if their vato persona is holding them back. A powerful message regarding skin color emerges in several aspects, such as the three poetic statements in a group entitled “for those who hate blm but claim they would have loved mlk.” “I Don’t Mean” opens a forum for questioning and concluding,
I don’t mean to doubt your faith but
Why doesn’t it make you good to me?
In a significant intellectual yet feeling-laden proposition, “Heaven Is Other People,” Rivera enumerates the changes that must occur to perfect America. Its repeated mantra is “This will be hard”:
There will be lands but no fences, space
But no distance, favor but no preference.
Rivera is offering most of these works for the first time, though some pieces in the collection have garnered prizes separately. He recently retired from his work as an educator, recognized for his work as Vice President Emeritus for Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion at Bethel University.
Quill says: In Z Is for Zapatazo, Rivera presents his poetry as, to some extent, a healing balm for society’s ills, a solace to the senses, and a potentially helpful guide to readers capable of pondering eternal truths wrapped within lilting lyrics.