Reviewed by Luis Alberto Martinez
Today, it seems difficult, or at least unpopular, to write poetry with plain language. Gary Soto, in Sudden Loss of Dignity, his twelfth and finest collection of poems since his National Book Award finalist, New and Selected Poems, reminds us how plain language can create great poetry, how simplicity can stretch the lyric. Soto crafts imagery that makes one see love, aging, and nostalgia—all of which hover through the book like a fly over a dying thing—as new. He challenges the familiarity we feel with these experiences, proving that we were only acquainted, that there is more.
Poetry can give a reader an experience that person hasn't lived. Soto's poems did that for me. A man continuously watches himself age and does not like it. I do not like it. Soto’s poems teach. They warn. He grapples. He loses. His youth is, “Miles downstream.” He sings with a casual melancholic tone but that doesn’t mean he’s left his iconic wit. He surgically installs humor in his poems and shows us how; in the middle of one, he’ll jab at his misery and make the reader ask if part of the solution is being able to laugh at one’s self. I once heard an old adage from an ancestor that goes, “We are the only race that can laugh at our own disgrace.” Soto says, “try it.”
In “Millennium Bridge” after encountering some youth throwing up after heavy drinking, the speaker finds himself yearning to be like his surroundings:
Later, I stood On the wobbly bridge, My pint of Fosters In a paper bag.
…The bridge swayed, A few of the passerby swayed. I looked into the Thames, Far from drunk, Far from the rage Of summer, my youth Miles downstream.
“My pint of Fosters,” he says. His hand holding what the youth are holding. His hand not holding youth. Imitation was never so futile. We are all headed this way, to this bridge, to this quick sudden fading, but what is most interesting is how the speaker offers no solution. One must live with nostalgia, which is an unwanted truth, which is perhaps Soto’s greatest gift to the reader, and be forced to watch what is lost, floating downstream.
This continues in “An Odd Moment,” as Soto, with elegant simplicity, perceives losing not just his youth but other fragments of his life too, as he, a writer, finds himself with no audience:
I was reading From an old book of poetry When the 9th grade class of Catholic girls Began to yawn, each of them A little bird wanting to be fed Something other than sweet John Keats. …Some moaned and reached Into their sleeves for cell phones. How long would this fossil go on?
Failing to reach the young, I left the school and sat in a park
…Clouds passed, birds passed. I looked at my face in the public fountain— Truth and beauty had passed as well.
He finds himself no longer worth listening to, forced to ask, what is a writer without an audience? He is at loss but these moving poems tell us there is beauty in loss: it confirms we once held something. Here, you’ll also find the aforementioned humor, “How long would this fossil go on?” It’s self-deprecating yet it successfully brings light to a dark room where candlelight burns.
In, “An Afternoon at the River,” we see the speaker see himself through a dying trout:
I extracted from the river A trout that had been sad all its slick life, Mouth pulled down, gills like a slash, The rainbow dying on its sides.
Six months hence. The river flowed With its haul of light and fish eggs, And left three men huddled in plaid, Their own rainbows dying.
One searches, often subconsciously, for sameness in the external. It is done beautifully here. Again there is no relentless hand reaching for what is leaving. There is an admission, a compliance, saying, “okay, but at least I can remember.”
A Sudden Loss of Dignity is a farewell to youth. A style of perfect longing. These poems are conversational, palpable but most importantly deftly lyrical. One finds answers here, “ink fails us…in time love’s fractured face becomes whole—.”
Gary Soto is the author of eleven poetry collections for adults, most notably New and Selected Poems, a 1995 finalist for both the Los Angeles Times Book Award and the National Book Award. His poems have appeared in many literary magazines, including Ploughshares, Michigan Quarterly, Poetry International, and Poetry, which has honored him with the Bess Hokin Prize and the Levinson Award, and by featuring him in the interview series Poets in Person. He has received fellowships from the National Endowment for the Arts and the Guggenheim Foundation. For ITVS, he produced the film “The Pool Party,” which received the 1993 Andrew Carnegie Medal for Film Excellence. In 1997, because of his advocacy for reading, he was featured as NBC’s Person-of-the-Week. In 1999, he received the Literature Award from the Hispanic Heritage Foundation, the Author-Illustrator Civil Rights Award from the National Education Association, and the PEN Center West Book Award for Petty Crimes.
Luis Alberto Martinez is a CantoMundo Fellow. A graduate from University of San Francisco, he is the recipient of an Academy of American Poets Prize and a fellowship from the Stadler Center for Poetry. He lives in San Francisco.