Almost thirty years have passed since the publication of Gary Soto’s first book; the award winning collection of poetry titled The Elements of San Joaquin. For nearly three decades, readers of all walks have had the pleasure of experiencing life’s complexities from a Chicanito’s perspective of growing up in the San Joaquin Valley. Despite the fact that his hero, Pablo Neruda, clearly inhabits a world of his own, Soto, on occasion, has crafted poems that would have pleased the 1971 Nobel Prize in Literature winner. The revised and expanded edition of A Fire in My Hands (Harcourt, 2006), a collection first published 15 years ago, boasts a handful of gems capable of making any poet happy.
While often promoted as a young adult writer, Soto’s ability to capture the daily moments of life does not fail to recall the emotions of those for whom their formative years have already become heartfelt recollections. In addition to the poetry inA Fire in My Hands, Soto provides an anecdote that attributes to the growth of each individual poem. “I don’t know if you could call it a date or not,” writes Soto. “But the first girl who allowed me to walk with her home was named Margarita,” is the tale which contributed to the last lines of the book’s highly acclaimed poem Oranges. I took my girl’s hand / In mine for two short blocks, / Then released it to let / Her unwrap her chocolate. / I peeled my orange / That was so bright against / The gray of December / That, from some distance, / Someone might have thought / I was making a fire in my hands.
Deserving of every accolade, Soto has made a world all his own.
There are very few things in life that bring as much joy as does watching a pugilist at work; bobbing and weaving, feinting and jabbing, ducking just enough to be dusted by the feathers of a right-hand, then bap, countering flush, with left-hook to an over exposed chin. You see, the sweet science is an art form and what develops upon a canvas within the confines of a ring can potentially mirror such painstaking masterpieces attributed to the likes of a Picasso or a Rimbaud. One particular opus was awarded the fight of the year for 1989; when the very game Tejano Paulie Ayala toed the line with the once undefeated champion from Albuquerque, New Mexico, infamously known as Mi Vida Loca.
The dilemmas confronted throughout the decades preceding Johnny Tapia’s most defining fight and the years that followed are almost too cruel to believe. Two pages into Tapia’s autobiography we discover the flint that sparks and continues to ignite his ever poignant flurries which have survived him inside and outside the ropes. But I lost my mother too soon, writes the champ. She was taken from me. Robbed from me. Murdered. Murdered in the worst way you can imagine. Stabbed twenty-six times and left for dead. Although it would be years before he was given the moniker Mi Vida Loca, Tapia’s crazy life began then, an orphaned eight-year old boy. Mi Vida Loca: The Crazy Life of Johnny Tapia (Volt Press, 2006) is a story of one man’s attrition and renaissance over the short span of thirty-nine years. Tapia’s willingness to sacrifice his heart and soul bear honesty so powerful, you find you are ashamed of your own struggles.