by Gary Soto
“I have always admired Gary Soto’s poems for their energy and clarity, but he is hitting even higher notes in Human Nature. His singing is brilliant and playful, joyful with a vein of melancholy (also called real life), and his poems take turn after turn, each one as astonishing as it is inevitable.” — Thomas Lux
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Gary Soto’s eleventh book of poems for adults, Human Nature is full of arresting images and surprising scenarios — and probably more uncanny opening lines than in any book you’ll read all year. These poems pretend to be “simple” portraits of remembered youth and of life at the other end, where a man is walking into old age. Yet their surface transparency gives way to burrowing (often troubling) insights. Over and over he finds arresting, surprising cause for pausing and looking further, deeper, in the motley comedy of street life and family life and the erotic realm of memory. There is comedy on almost every page, but also the sadness of perceived futility. As a poet, Soto’s characteristic vantage is bemused and amused, both. He has long been praised for his rich descriptions and strange imaginative leaps; he is well known for poems of childhood that are really open and exposed, and his work has connected powerfully with teenaged readers and their teachers. New in Human Nature are the bittersweet poems of aging, as an artist wonders aloud how something as quiet and delicate as a poem can hold its own in the raucous, rude, careening mayhem of our national public life. What should a poet do? Keep singing, of course. The muse must be given homage, no matter how worn out she looks. And even in his bruised uncertainty, Soto always brings a distinctive verbal mischief and descriptive beauty to the task of praising our not always very pretty world.
“I have always admired Gary Soto’s poems for their energy and clarity, but he is hitting even higher notes in Human Nature. His singing is brilliant and playful, joyful with a vein of melancholy (also called real life), and his poems take turn after turn, each one as astonishing as it is inevitable.”— Thomas Lux
“To contend honorably with the dishonor that dogs both our dodges and avowals is an act of grace. Gary Soto… sees into the heart of many scrambled matters with compassion, humor, and perfectly pitched feeling.” — Baron Wormser
“Soto looks back at his hardscrabble Chicano youth in ‘bored Fresno’ and forward to the struggles of the present day with brilliant clarity.… His sense of humor is fiercely egalitarian; not even ‘poor Jesus’ escapes, ‘tired of holding up his arms for centuries.’ More often than not, he turns that satiric scalpel on himself, as in the fable of humility entitled ‘The Poet No Longer Dreams of Greatness, Just a Slender Space at Barnes and Noble.’ To be sure, Human Nature deserves much more. The book closes with a stirring ode to Pablo Neruda called ‘The Fountain Pen.’ Somewhere, right now, there is a young poet dipping a pen ‘Into the still dark but eternally wet ink’ to write an ode to Gary Soto.”— Martin Espada
“Once more Gary Soto demonstrates that remarkable combination of sensitivity, quirkiness and craft that has made him one of his generation’s finest poets. He does that, moreover, while ranging over a variety of subjects—jumper cables, geese, condums, even the stock market—captured with his unique eye capable of seeing their potential magic.”— Gerald Haslam
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The Way It Is
I’m hunkered before an early-bird special,
My eye on a glass of the lowest-priced red.
I promise to pace myself,
One sip for every third bite of overcooked pasta.
What does this mean that I bring
These little tubes of pasta to my mouth
By quick jerky motions?
Later, at the Rose Garden,
A youngish man comes up, snaps his fingers,
And says excitedly, “I had your class. You’re professor…
Professor… What was the class?
It was so good.…”
I should have had a pricier second glass
Of Zin. After all, wine makes you nostalgic,
Warms us to offer up a smile that’s all dentures,
Something not true, something like,
“Oh, yes, that class, it was…”
Both of us snapping our fingers,
Both of us without remembered names.
The Gritty House
Wind whipped sand and sent a spray
Onto the just-painted wood siding.
My father, an angry man, dipped his brush
Into the ground, stirred it, and howled, “Why not more!”
The paint dried on this plain-faced house.
The kitchen light was turned on, then off,
A desperate signal for help.
There was distress in every banged pot,
In the coded slap of the screen door, in the squeak of an oven door,
In the nails rising like tombstones from our ancient floor.
Smoke unraveled from a lopsided chimney.
None of us was happy, none of us knew love.
Scared of the inside, I ate mostly on the back porch.
After playing with the paint bucket’s lid,
Like my angry father I cursed wind and sand—
Flecks of paint staining my knuckles.
I raked them across the gritty wood siding,
A sort of sandpaper, to smooth things out.
When I was Sixteen
I asked Richard, “What did you do yesterday?”
He said, “I helped my brother hang Barbara
Over the balcony.” I could see this,
Richard’s older brother, mean at heart,
Holding his wife Barbara by one leg
And she screaming, “Stop it! Stop it.”
Her dress would be around her head
Like a parachute, and he and Richard
Laughing at the sight of her girdle.
This was 1965, no hippie fun at all,
Though we had drawn happy faces
In the dirt yard. I ate an orange,
Tossed the peels to the chickens,
Slowly got up, and left on my bicycle.
In truth, I loved Richard’s brother’s wife,
But destroyed in my mind
From then on she was the young bride
Hanging over the balcony,
Her crying muffled by the dress
Around her face, a veil of shame.