A Fire in My Hands

by Gary Soto
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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 899

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 and the general problems of youth. “Brown Girl, Blond Okie” is a case in point. The speaker and his crony, Jackie, each with a different ethnic ideal of the beloved, sit together trying to imagine whom they shall be able to love enough “to open up to,” so that they may express the awfulness of their crooked teeth and dirty hair. They are poor, ungainly kids who are stuck, in puberty, with the feeling that they are irredeemable. Yet, their sense of being “in trouble” is comic in its preadolescent hyperbole and suggests their human bond more than a psychological crisis. The Soto that readers meet in “That Girl” is still overwhelmed by this feckless yearning and the appropriately exaggerated notion of a girl not being like himself. (Nevertheless, the twelve-year-old Soto of “Oranges” skillfully wins a girl, and the Soto of “Kearney Street” is well established with a girlfriend.)

“How to Sell Things” is a lesson in salesmanship. Readers must respect the innocent connivance of a boy with nothing but a bag of oranges for his fashioning of a successful social life. His knowledge of how to break down any “Grandma,” even the hard ones, with the help of a compatriot dog’s tricks is winning. So is his understanding that Sunday is the best day, because that is when “God is looking around/ For something to do.” Readers see that he has “made it” and have been amusingly and sanely coached in how to do the same. This poem precedes “Oranges,” whose line of epiphany provides the volume’s title. The speaker gets a lovely ten-cent chocolate for his girl from a saleslady by offering her all his money—a nickel—and an orange and by gazing straight into her eyes, which the woman understands precisely. Holding the beautifully wrapped gift, his date is transformed from “a girl” to “my girl.” Recurrently, such moments of intimacy and understanding in the poems redeem the world’s coldness.

“Pepper Tree” follows the poem about the homeless couple. It is pivotal, representing the best that Soto has learned from his past and what he would wish on the future, a future made cogent and meaningful through the presence of his daughter. This knowledge is affective and passionate, not academic. He remembers coming to “a rough area” of Berkeley, California, and planting a pepper tree by staking it to a piece of lumber that was once a part of a house, aided both by literal rain and by the “rain” of his little girl’s steady utterance to the tree, “Get Big.” He wants the tree “Heavy with sparrows.” In an even more telling image, because it mixes Soto’s senses of hardship and grace so economically, he wants the tree’s branches, “if a gull has an off day,” to “bear its screams” and, under such “weight,” to “be here tomorrow.”

Through the remaining poems, Soto communes with his daughter, giving her good advice and knowing that at times she is and must be deaf to the tenor of his counsel and the re-creation of his past for her benefit. Readers relate to someone whose parental shortcomings are common, which he accepts with amusement and survives with love and good sense.

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