New and Selected Poems

(Literary Masterpieces, Critical Compilation)

In this collection, which includes twenty-three poems gathered here for the first time, Gary Soto records the textures and meanings of his life and those of friends and strangers with whom he shares the San Joaquin Valley and Fresno, California, and trips to Mexico as a tourist. He seeks and finds evocations of meaning in the details of those lives, those places, those avatars of the quotidian, exploring themes of childhood awareness; of place—fields, lots, streets, houses, and nature in mostly quite small segments—and its impact on people; of work, particularly the hard physical hoeing and picking work of the Mexican field hand, often in contrast with the hard mental labor of the poet; of the consequences of that work on the people and the community; of nature expressed in rain, insects, clouds, heat; of the life of poverty; of eating and feeding; of religion and belief, the manifestations of something beyond the physical. In its close and attentive observation of the details of nature both urban and rural, Soto’s poetry is full of such images as “a windowsill of flies,” “the leaves of cotton plants/ Like small hands waving good-bye,” “an unstrung necklace/ Of dead flies,” and ants, many ants, “a leash of ants,” “the scurry of red ants at my feet,” “words like the march of ants,” and statements such as “A scurry of ants searched for a living.” Taken together, it seems clear that the insect images, especially those of the ants, suggest the Mexican-Chicano workers themselves and the complex of meanings that they have as a result of society’s particular construction of them and their construction of themselves.

Another recurring image is embodied in the verb “unravel.” In “The First,” an elegy offering tribute to Native Americans, descendants of the first human inhabitants of the land, Soto images

The beaver curling
Into handbags;
Their lakes bruised
Gray with smoke
That unraveled from cities.

The coming-apart force is both active and passive in its destructiveness. In another poem, “Chuy” (Chicano) sits,

Spoon in hand,
Striking the ants
That unraveled
From spools of dark

In “Mission Tire Factory, 1969,” the contrasts between the affluent and the working class are figured ironically, with images from television shows such as Ozzie and Harriet and The Donna Reed Show contrasting with the gut-busting work the laborers do in the tire factory:

And today the world
Still plots, unravels with
Piano lessons for this child,
Braces for that one.

The tire factory worker, the field worker, the packing-plant worker grow old, as in “The Seventieth Year.” “We hear you want to die,” the speaker says to “Grandpa,” an old man who has been without work since Sun-Maid closed. The speaker assures him, ironically, that life goes on, that “ants unravel/ From their dark holes in the trees.” Yet even the poet in the poem “Old Prof with Both Hands on the Rail” sees that “now, at this age, burst veins unravel/ On my nose.”

Another quality of Soto’s verse is a strong narrative line. An excellent example is the dramatic monologue “The Tale of Sunlight,” from his book by the same name. The narrator tells a memory to his nephew, a story of his personal encounter with the supernatural. The poem opens with a natural, direct injunction:

Listen, nephew.
When I opened the cantina
At noon
A triangle of sunlight
Was stretched out
On the floor
Like a rug
Like a tired cat.

The light was no ordinary light, and as the speaker tells the story, he opened the shutters, but the “pyramid/ Of whiteness/ Was simply brighter.” Astonished, he did not open the cantina for business but sat down at a table to watch the light silently as it crossed the floor to hang on the wall. A fly settled on it and disappeared in a puff of smoke. The man tapped it with a broom and spat on it; “the broom vanished./ The spit sizzled.” He avows the truth of this encounter to his nephew and as testament offers his finger:

This pink stump
Entered the sunlight,
Snapped off
With a dry sneeze,
And fell to the floor
As a gift to the ants
Who know me
For what I gave.

The power of this poem lies partly in the spare simplicity of the narration and partly in the clarity of the images of the spiritual force, evoking at once ecstatic visions of the Godhead...

(The entire section is 1950 words.)