teaching english from an old composition book :: gary soto

My chalk is no longer than a chip of fingernail,
Chip by which I must explain this Monday
Night the verbs “to get;” “to wear,” “to cut.”
I’m not given much, these tired students,
Knuckle-wrapped from work as roofers,
Sour from scrubbing toilets and pedestal sinks.
I’m given this room with five windows,
A coffee machine, a piano with busted strings,
The music of how we feel as the sun falls,
Exhausted from keeping up.
                                            I stand at
The blackboard. The chalk is worn to a hangnail,
Nearly gone, the dust of some educational bone.
By and by I’m Cantiflas, the comic
Busybody in front. I say, “I get the coffee.”
I pick up a coffee cup and sip.
I click my heels and say, “I wear my shoes.”
I bring an invisible fork to my mouth
And say, “I eat the chicken.”
Suddenly the class is alive—
Each one putting on hats and shoes,
Drinking sodas and beers, cutting flowers
And steaks—a pantomime of sumptuous living.

At break I pass out cookies.
Augustine, the Guatemalan, asks in Spanish,
“Teacher, what is ‘tally-ho’?”
I look at the word in the composition book.
I raise my face to the bare bulb for a blind answer.
I stutter, then say, “Es como adelante.”
Augustine smiles, then nudges a friend
In the next desk, now smarter by one word.
After the cookies are eaten,
We move ahead to prepositions—
“Under,” “over,” and “between,”
Useful words when la migra opens the doors
Of their idling vans.
At ten to nine, I’m tired of acting,
And they’re tired of their roles.
When class ends, I clap my hands of chalk dust,
And two students applaud, thinking it’s a new verb.
I tell them adelante,
And they pick up their old books.
They smile and, in return, cry, “Tally-ho.”
As they head for the door.

self-inquiry before the job interview :: gary soto

Did you sneeze?
Yes, I rid myself of the imposter inside me.

Did you iron your shirt?
Yes, I used the steam of mother’s hate.

Did you wash your hands?
Yes, I learned my hygiene from a raccoon.

I prayed on my knees, and my knees answered with pain.
I gargled. I polished my shoes until I saw who I was.
I inflated my résumé by employing my middle name.

I walked to my interview, early,
The sun like a ring on an electric stove.
I patted my hair when I entered the wind of a revolving door.
The guard said, For a guy like you, it’s the 19th floor.

The economy was up. Flags whipped in every city plaza
In America. This I saw for myself as I rode the elevator,
Empty because everyone had a job but me.

Did you clean your ears?
Yes, I heard my fate in the drinking fountain’s idiotic drivel.

Did you slice a banana into your daily mush?
I added a pinch of salt, two raisins to sweeten my breath.

Did you remember your pen?
I remembered my fingers when the elevator opened.

I shook hands that dripped like a dirty sea.
I found a chair and desk. My name tag said my name.
Through the glass ceiling, I saw the heavy rumps of CEOs.
Outside my window, the sun was a burning stove,
All of us pushing papers
To keep it going.

the drought :: gary soto

The clouds shouldered a path up the mountains
East of Ocampo, and then descended,
Scraping their bellies gray on the cracked shingles of slate.

They entered the valley, and passed the roads that went
Trackless, the houses blown open, their cellars creaking
And lined with the bottles that held their breath for years.

They passed the fields where the trees dried thin as hat racks
And the plow’s tooth bit the earth for what endured.
But what continued were the wind that plucked the birds spineless

And the young who left with a few seeds in each pocket,
Their belts tightened on the fifth notch of hunger—
Under the sky that deafened from listening for rain.

the elements of san joaquin :: gary soto

      for César Chávez


The wind sprays pale dirt into my mouth
The small, almost invisible scars
On my hands.

The pores in my throat and elbows
Have taken in a seed of dirt of their own.

After a day in the grape fields near Rolinda
A fine silt, washed by sweat,
Has settled into the lines
On my wrists and palms.

Already I am becoming the valley,
A soil that sprouts nothing.
For any of us.


A dry wind over the valley
Peeled mountains, grain by grain,
To small slopes, loose dirt
Where red ants tunnel.

The wind strokes
The skulls and spines of cattle
To white dust, to nothing,

Covers the spiked tracks of beetles,
Of tumbleweed, of sparrows
That pecked the ground for insects.

Evenings, when I am in the yard weeding,
The wind picks up the breath of my armpits
Like dust, swirls it
Miles away

And drops it
On the ear of a rabid dog,
And I take on another life.


When you got up this morning the sun
Blazed an hour in the sky,

A lizard hid
Under the curled leaves of manzanita
And winked its dark lids.

Later, the sky grayed,
And the cold wind you breathed
Was moving under your skin and already far
From the small hives of your lungs.


At dusk the first stars appear.
Not one eager finger points toward them.
A little later the stars spread with the night
And an orange moon rises
To lead them, like a shepherd, toward dawn.


In June the sun is a bonnet of light
Coming up,
Little by little,
From behind a skyline of pine.

The pastures sway with fiddle-neck,
Tassels of foxtail.

At Piedra
A couple fish on the river’s edge,
Their shadows deep against the water.
Above, in the stubbled slopes,
Cows climb down
As the heat rises
In a mist of blond locusts,
Returning to the valley.


When autumn rains flatten sycamore leaves,
The tiny volcanos of dirt
Ants raised around their holes,
I should be out of work.

My silverware and stack of plates will go unused
Like the old, my two good slacks
Will smother under a growth of lint
And smell of the old dust
That rises
When the closet door opens or closes.

The skin of my belly will tighten like a belt
And there will be no reason for pockets.


East of the sun’s slant, in the vineyard that never failed,
A wind crossed my face, moving the dust
And a portion of my voice a step closer to a new year.

The sky went black in the ninth hour of rolling trays,
And in the distance ropes of rain dropped to pull me
From the thick harvest that was not mine.


If you go to your window
You will notice a fog drifting in.

The sun is no stronger than a flashlight.
Not all the sweaters
Hung in closets all summer

Could soak up this mist. The fog:
A mouth nibbling everything to its origin,
Pomegranate trees, stolen bicycles,

The string of lights at a used-car lot,
A Pontiac with scorched valves.

In Fresno the fog is passing
The young thief prying a window screen,
Graying my hair that falls
And goes unfound, my fingerprints
Slowly growing a fur of dust—

One hundred years from now
There should be no reason to believe
I lived.


In this moment when the light starts up
In the east and rubs
The horizon until it catches fire,

We enter the fields to hoe,
Row after row, among the small flags of onion,
Waving off the dragonflies
That ladder the air.

And tears the onions raise
Do not begin in your eyes but in ours,
In the salt blown
From one blister into another;

They begin in knowing
You will never waken to bear
The hour timed to a heart beat,
The wind pressing us closer to the ground.

When the season ends,
And the onions are unplugged from their sleep,
We won’t forget what you failed to see,
And nothing will heal
Under the rain’s broken fingers.

reading biographies :: gary soto

Perhaps Frost was poking his secretary,
The apple core of his good-living chewed
To the bitter seed. Perhaps he buttoned up,
Disgusted with the dead lizard cupped in his palm.
And his woman? She was as large as Gilbraltar,
A chunk of cheese in each armpit.
She took a deep breath
And wiggled the goose of her tasty fanny
Into the kitchen. There, she poured pancakes
Onto a skillet as old as this country,
And Frost, a pioneer for all writers,
Picked up his beaver-thrashed pencil and proclaimed,
O Sweet Youth, etc.

                  I don’t know how to read
Biographies, the dead words of dead writers
Etched on my eyes, then gone. I read them,
And drive my car recklessly through leaves,
The cushion for my own eventual death.
Sure, I reflect, like a chip of mirror,
And then I forget them, these subjects,
These writers with lungs and straight-A penmanship.
They’re of no use. I’m not saved
By the repetitions of jealousy and all-day drinking.
Wind frisked the trees, hair fell like wheat,
And the liver, saddlebag of disease,
Bulged with inoperable knots.

I touch my own hip, then hobble home
Where a pumpkin glows in a window.
Birds shrug into their coats of dirt.
Crickets stop the violin action of their thighs.
A fire is built, and I’m lit in the living room.
I’m a democrat, I slur to the couch,
And add, Venus is a star and fly trap.
Thank God, I’ve learned nothing.

afternoon memory :: gary soto

Sometimes I’ll look in the refrigerator
And decide that the mustard is vaguely familiar,
And that the jar of Spanish olives is new to me.
What’s this gathering? The butter
And salsa, the two kinds of tortillas
And, in back, the fat-waisted Mrs. Butterworth.
I’ll study the plate of cross-legged chicken,

And close the refrigerator and lean on the kitchen counter.
Is this old age? The faucet drips.
The linoleum blisters when you walk on it.
The magnets on the refrigerator crawl down
With the gravity of expired coupons and doctor bills.
Sometimes I’ll roll my tongue in my mouth.
Is this thirst or desire? Is this pain
Or my foot going to sleep? I know the factory
Inside my stomach has gone quiet.
My hair falls as I stand. My lungs are bean plants
Of disappearing air. My body sends signals, like now:
A healthy fleck is floating across my vision.
I watch it cross. It’s going to attack a virus
On the right side of my body
And, later, travel down my throat to take care of knee,
Little latch of hurt. I swallow three times.
I have to help my body parts. Fellas, sour liver
And trusty kidney, I’m full of hope.
I open the refrigerator.
I’ve seen this stuff before. What’s this?
The blow dart of bran? Chinese ginger?
No, fellas, they’re carrots. The orange, I hear,
Is good for your eyes.

how things work :: gary soto

Today it’s going to cost us twenty dollars
To live. Five for a softball. Four for a book,
A handful of ones for coffee and two sweet rolls,
Bus fare, rosin for your mother’s violin.
We’re completing our task. The tip I left
For the waitress filters down
Like rain, wetting the new roots of a child
Perhaps, a belligerent cat that won’t let go
Of a balled sock until there’s chicken to eat.
As far as I can tell, daughter, it works like this:
You buy bread from a grocery, a bag of apples
From a fruit stand, and what coins
Are passed on helps others buy pencils, glue,
Tickets to a movie in which laughter
Is thrown into their faces.
If we buy a goldfish, someone tries on a hat.
If we buy crayons, someone walks home with a broom.
A tip, a small purchase here and there,
And things keep going. I guess.

looking around, believing :: gary soto

How strange that we can begin at any time.
With two feet we get down the street.
With a hand we undo the rose.
With an eye we lift up the peach tree
And hold it up to the wind — white blossoms
At our feet. Like today. I started
In the yard with my daughter,
With my wife poking at a potted geranium,
And now I am walking down the street,
Amazed that the sun is only so high,
Just over the roof, and a child
Is singing through a rolled newspaper
And a terrier is leaping like a flea
And at the bakery I pass, a palm,
Like a suctioning starfish, is pressed
To the window. We’re keeping busy —
This way, that way, we’re making shadows
Where sunlight was, making words
Where there was only noise in the trees.