Gary Soto's "A Simple Plan" and more
The Heritage Award, from the Hispanic Literature Foundation, is one of many honors Gary Soto has received. His work includes children's...
Special to The Seattle Times
The Heritage Award, from the Hispanic Literature Foundation, is one of many honors Gary Soto has received. His work includes children's books, plays, essays and a collection of poems that was a finalist for the National Book Award. "A Simple Plan" (Chronicle Books, 77 pp., $14.95), his newest book of verse, reflects his wide range, sometimes even within a poem.
Soto's "Pastoral" tells of a man who started riding a bicycle after his doctor told him to exercise, and then was killed by an automobile. As he tells that story, Soto paints a lovely miniature:
The tumbleweed gathers up rumors
And rolls out of town. Yanked-up roots are piled
beyond the barn,
And even now a fly with octagonal eyes
Is sipping coolant pooled under the tractor.
The first line and a half mimic the rhythm of the tumbleweed's bounce and jerk, and the repeated long "oo" in "coolant pooled" somehow sounds liquid.
In "The Artist Thinks, 'So This Is Me,' " Soto fights back against age with humor:
(We get older. The cornucopia
Of spleen, kidney, and liver bruised,
Our joints stiff, our lives a glint in the rearview
The hair on your head just that — a hair.)
All is not levity in these poems, but Soto's mastery of language hints that we might also master part of the wild world his language depicts.
Like Soto, Rodney Jones has written so much so well that it can be hard to know where to begin. "Salvation Blues" (Houghton Mifflin, 256 pp., $14.95) solves that problem by collecting 100 poems written over two decades. Most are in the first person and the past tense; each is a little story intensified by the momentum of verse.
Jones unifies seemingly unrelated events, as in "Moment of Whitman," in which he glimpses a group of people leaving a church:
Innocuous farmers with their retinues of fledgling
maiden aunts of philosophy students,
Ex-coaches of insurance salesmen and guidance
counselors ... .
What, he wonders, could unite such an assortment? He thinks of Walt Whitman, "snow-jobber and cataloguer of American dreams," who took such delight in the endless variety of human beings. But rather than resorting to Whitman's image of grass, the symbol of commonality, Jones instead looks at a waterfall, a: violent, white, transfiguring stalk of water / That seemed to rear as it drove down and shattered on the rocks and / clarified beyond / In many little streams that muddled on and vanished in the trees ...
In those "many little streams" are the many people he has seen; those ordinary souls are transfigured in his vision.
"Salvation Blues" is itself a waterfall of rich, transfiguring images.
Jenifer Browne Lawrence ventures into very deep water in "One Hundred Steps From Shore" (Blue Begonia Press, 79 pp., $15). In this Seattle-area poet's fragmented lyrics, the solid bottom is always below her feet, the water threatening to close over her head.
In the title poem, a family waits outside the emergency room where a daughter undergoes treatment after being hit by a car. Three sisters assemble a puzzle, as if putting the pieces together will also put their lives together: "We build the trees from the green down to wheat / and there is nothing left but sky." Then the door swings open, the doctor enters, and they learn that the last pieces will never fit.
In the poems that follow, various family members try to make sense of the world, but the shock waves of their loss are an earthquake that brings everything down. In "Sweeping the Sky," a moment that could bring people together becomes a drama of separation:
I haven't told her Dad's last words,
Where's your mother? Nor how, as though it were
the truth, I told him he would see her in the
that she'd gone home before it got too dark to see.
He turned his face to keep me from seeing.
In the gloom of Lawrence's poems, there is a compensatory light — the illumination of how real people confront loss.
Richard Wakefield is the author of "East of Early Winters," a poetry collection published by the University of Evansville Press. He lives in Federal Way.
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