Friday, April 02, 2010

Poem: Gary Soto

Back when I was teaching schoolchildren about poetry, one of the poets I would dip into was Gary Soto (1952-), a poet they instictively grasped and could both follow and model their own work after.  I started reading Soto intensively then, and really grew to appreciate his work. I also learned that some 20 years before, during the mid-to-late 1970s, Fresno-native Soto had become one of the best known and most popular Latino poets, in no small part because of his powerful skills as a scene-setter, his story-telling skills, his simple but never simplistic and effective use of imagery, his deft and subtle control of meter and rhythm, and the deep feeling that infuses his best work. I hadn't looked at his work in many years, but when I knew my poetry month postings would be rolling around, I made a note to post a Soto poem. So here you go, "A Red Palm," which includes all of the elements I mention above, and more. Enjoy!

A Red Palm

You're in this dream of cotton plants.
You raise a hoe, swing, and the first weeds
Fall with a sigh. You take another step,
Chop, and the sigh comes again,
Until you yourself are breathing that way
With each step, a sigh that will follow you into town.

That's hours later. The sun is a red blister
Coming up in your palm. Your back is strong,
Young, not yet the broken chair
In an abandoned school of dry spiders.
Dust settles on your forehead, dirt
Smiles under each fingernail.
You chop, step, and by the end of the first row,
You can buy one splendid fish for wife
And three sons. Another row, another fish,
Until you have enough and move on to milk,
Bread, meat. Ten hours and the cupboards creak.
You can rest in the back yard under a tree.
Your hands twitch on your lap,
Not unlike the fish on a pier or the bottom
Of a boat. You drink iced tea. The minutes jerk
Like flies.

It's dusk, now night,
And the lights in your home are on.
That costs money, yellow light
In the kitchen. That's thirty steps,
You say to your hands,
Now shaped into binoculars.
You could raise them to your eyes:
You were a fool in school, now look at you.
You're a giant among cotton plants.
Now you see your oldest boy, also running.
Papa, he says, it's time to come in.

You pull him into your lap
And ask, What's forty times nine?
He knows as well as you, and you smile.
The wind makes peace with the trees,
The stars strike themselves in the dark.
You get up and walk with the sigh of cotton plants.
You go to sleep with a red sun on your palm,
The sore light you see when you first stir in bed.

"A Red Palm," from New and Selected Poems by Gary Soto. Copyright © 1995 by Gary Soto. Used by permission of Chronicle Books.

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