While these lyrics stand on their own and do not rely directly on one another, they are nevertheless governed by a gently encompassing order. The first thirteen are recollective of a more distant personal past than the final ten. They move from Soto’s eighth through his nineteenth year. Even when the present tense is used, it immerses readers more directly in the past. The fourteenth poem, “Morning on This Street,” begins with the poet listening to a brother talking about love’s ephemeral nature. Soto then walks into the street and witnesses an old homeless couple, the wife in a cart and the husband pulling it. He conceives of the cardboard with which “Earl the Cartman” has surrounded his wife as a “rough Temple.” He concludes that, “It’s for his wife/ That he lives and pulls a rope/ To its frayed end.” He believes that “This is marriage.” From this poem through the twenty-third, Soto writes about his immediate family, about living as gracefully as possible with his wife and daughter in a trying world. The daughter becomes the focus, allowing Soto to remain in touch with childhood and link his past to his daughter’s present.
In “Black Hair,” the first poem, Soto recollects being a scrawny eight-year-old living vicariously through an older boy. The sanctity of baseball is subsumed by the speaker’s regard for Hector Moreno, who “lined balls into deep/ Center.”
The poem shows how Soto’s earliest feelings of inadequacy yielded to self-esteem, even “in the presence of white shirts,” clothing set against the boy, described as a “brown stick/ of light.” Living Moreno’s home run, Soto imaginatively joins the older Mexican boy rounding third and “coming home/ to the arms of brown people.” The poems that are specifically about ethnicity—this one and “Kearney Park”—are celebratory, despite the difficulties presented by the “white shirts.” More often, however, it is the hardships of Soto’s community, only indirectly caused by his being Mexican, that stand as obstacles in the poems about his youth.
These pieces are noteworthy for Soto’s ability to capture, simultaneously, both the problems of Mexican Americans...
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Nothing special contextualizes this skillful verse; in form, nothing is experimental. Yet, what is attempted in A Fire in My Hands is mastered. Gary Soto’s strategy of attaching anecdotes to the poems is a good one, both because it suggests to the reader how ordinary experiences, not extraordinary adventures, give rise to poetry and because it impresses the reality of Soto himself into the poems, which are narrative in form but not confessional. The speaker may interest readers in the United States because he is Mexican American and has life experiences common to a large minority group. It is more significant, however, that readers hear an exquisitely humane voice speaking for and about all people. His is a very American voice, a voice made universal by its command of native idiom. Soto has neither sugar-coated the facts of youthful life in the United States nor betrayed its positive features with a predictably ugly realism. Life in these poems is whole. Readers will not find them significantly different from the rest of Soto’s poetry even though they touch so much upon youth. His is always a down-to-earth way of speaking, of exploring ordinary ground with an eye, and an ear, for rarity.