on March 16, 1999
I find it sad that Gary Soto has been labeled by some as a "Mexican-American" poet. He is an American poet, or, better yet, a poet. From this book, I'd recommend these poems to be included in the Western canon: "At the All-Night Cafe", "Drinking in the Sixties", "Home Course in Religion", "Oranges", "Some Worry", and "Taking the Movies to the Streets".
on April 14, 2004
A Review of Gary Soto's New and Selected Poems:
"Clearing a path / Through the forest / A path that closed / Behind them / As the day opened / A smudge of its blue / They were the first / To leave, unnoticed / Without words / For it no longer / Mattered to say / The world was once blue" ("The First," 29-40).
So eloquently representative of Gary Soto's New and Selected Poems as a whole, these lines capture the essence of the book's journey through growth and understanding. Deeply connected to his roots, Soto's poems are an intimate portrayal of his perception of the world. Unabashedly tackling some of life's greatest mysteries, the poems grapple not only with God and death, but with the meaning of life in general. Beginning with the contemplation of a young boy, Soto's readers grow with the poems, bond with the persona, and ultimately feel a part of the poetry itself. Through keen detail and the virtues of a true poet, Soto does not tell, but rather shows, his readers who he was, and more importantly, how he has come to be.
Making direct reference to the pivotal point in which his life was changed forever Soto writes, "And the moment our father slipped / from a ladder our mother / Reached the door / That opened into a white room / A white nurse / It was the moment / I came down from the tree" ("The Evening of Ants," 35-40). Describing the day his father died, a common theme throughout the work, he openly states, "It was the moment / I came down from the tree" (29-30), meaning that it was the day he lost his innocence. Later, reflecting on the death, he sates, "He fell / From the ladder with an upturned palm / With the eyes of watery light / We went on with sorrow that found no tree / To cry from" ("Another Time," 32-37). It is this frankness and overt display of emotion that so intimately welcomes the reader into the poet's self. Describing not the death itself, but the consequences and its psychological toll, one becomes transfixed with the struggle and often finds oneself questioning if not they would react in the same way.
Drawing from the incredible loss at such a young age, this theme is continued as Soto's journey progresses with questions about God, and about faith itself. In a reflection on Heaven he writes, "Maybe you sit in a chair / Maybe earth is far below / Or maybe the new home is much closer / Just above the trees. / A sea howl at the window / - or you're those hangers banging / Quietly when the closet door opens / Conjectures. Little clues / Really. But we're hopeful we'll wake. / The chair is for us" ("Heaven," 9-10, 14-21). Clearly seeking understanding, perhaps for a reassurance is not final, Soto ponders the question of faith. In a darker reflection we read, "By the time I was eighteen and in junior college / Religion was something like this: The notion / Of "project" is an ambiguous substitute for the notion / Of quiddity, and that situation is / An ambiguous substitute for the notion of an / Objective condition resulting from the causes / And natures interacting in the world" ("Home Course in Religion," 1-7). This disconnected jumbled confusion of faith greatly contrasts a younger description in which he writes, "I was a pretty holy third grader... / I sat in the front pew / Among old Italian women hunched together / Like pigeons, happy because it was only a matter / Of time before Monsignor would say, we are sinners / I would look at my shoes / And nod my head Yes. / I recalled my sins." ("Some mysteries," 1, 6-11). An ongoing discussion in a quest to understand faith, Soto displays both blind understanding and acceptance, and an intellectual pursuit for answers. Not reaching any specific destination, the quest is left to the reader to embark upon him/herself. As for God Himself, Soto writes, "God, I see is bringing out his book / His tongue black from licking his pencil / Again and again" ("Planet News," 22-24). This idea of providence seems important to Soto as he writes, "So I went on, did not / Look back, but thought / That God was testing me" ("The Journey," 28-30). With the hardships experienced as a youth and a troubled young adulthood, it seems fitting that Soto would describe his life as "a test," and sensible that it was made endurable through the belief that despite hardship, God was still there "with his pencil," and that He hasn't been forgotten. This revelation of how to cope leads directly into his understanding of life in general.
He states, "A friend says, be happy. Desire. / Remember the blossoms/ In rain, because in the end / Not even the ants / Will care who we were / When they climb our faces / To undo the smiles" ("Between Words," 30-36). Gruesomely stating the necessity to carpe diem, Soto's entire collection is a description of examples. Overcoming adversity and fighting life's most difficult quandaries, one of the most delightful aspects of his poetry is a continual appreciation of the small things. Whether is be oranges, sparrows, flowers, or family, a simple joy of life is never absent from the poetry.
In conclusion, I present this collection of poetry as highly recommended. The subjects are real and the writing is human. In this poet, it is easy to find one-self. For those tired of tongue-tied poems with obscure meanings, this collection is for you. Soto is clear, concise, and a poet you won't soon forget. As he says, "How strange that we can begin at any time" ("Looking Around, Believing," 10). Begin today by buying this book!