By Gary Soto
The Montréal Review, August 2023
Image: Alexandria Smith (2022), Gagosian Gallery, New York
In memory of Jon Veinberg
What’s the legal speed limit for clouds?
From where I stand on a dry front lawn
My guess is twenty-miles-an-hour,
Fifteen near a school crosswalk.
But you, amigo, the second
Of three friends to die in a drought year,
My guess is the speed of a gondola,
A slow paddling, with dust in your eyelashes
As you reached the edge of town.
Never knew you to be in a hurry,
Just the puttering sort feeling for your car keys
And pausing on the lawn, looking back at the house,
Thinking, Did I forget to put the cat back in the fridge?—
No, the milk I mean. This was our joke,
Two Fresno poets leaning toward forgetfulness.
I said, “Jon, let’s live not only
Until the cat is in the fridge
But also the dog and the bilingual parrot!”
I don’t know where you’re buried,
Or if sunshine outlines your grave.
But on the headstone inside my head
I chisel, “Loved cheese and bread,
Had kind words for blood sausages.”
And so where are you, anyhow?
Friend, I intend to set cheese and bread on a picnic table,
Grill sausage but let the trotters get away.
I’ll toss a salad, uncap a bottle of Estonian beer,
Rework the joke about the Greek doctor and the Irish patient,
Slap my knee and say, “That’s a good one.”
I have more to say to the dead than the living.
I sigh at this truth, finish my beer.
And when I open the fridge
I may find the cat. Forgetful me,
I’ve aged since you rowed away on a cloud.
If I find the dog and bilingual parrot
Next to the milk and ketchup,
Then—and only then—I may shiver
From the cold rolling out the open door.
And the legal speed limit for a cloud?
Not sure. But the face in the cloud, budged along
By wind, belonged to my friend.
Image: Alexandria Smith
Won’t get to Peru. Bolivia is out of the question.
Mongolia? I won’t live to tell the grandkids
Of the sand that creeps along the steppes.
Can’t say I’ll suck on a hookah in Cairo
Or sample grasshoppers in Chiapas.
A toboggan ride in Greenland?
Reindeer meat in Estonia?
How I would love to spear a bunny in the Highlands
And later choke on a plate of haggis.
The Taj Mahal is off the radar
As is flyfishing in Nepal—
Tempting, but no. And no to Argentina
And Spain, no to the Azores at twilight,
The sunsets on the water, then not on the water.
I grasp my limitations.
Won’t tap a toe to accordion street music in Paris,
Pet a duck in the Cotswold,
Or retrace my ancestral steps
Up Teotihuacan. I have no plans to visit
A country that I can’t spell—is it Lechenstein?
Shake the hand of a comrade in Bulgaria? No can do.
Cuba? Ay, papi, to ride shotgun in an old Chevy,
A convertible of course, my hair loss
More evident when we pick up speed,
My cigar glowing redder than ever.
I’m not much of a traveler.
Like poet Philip Larkin, I would love to go to China
If I could come back on the same day,
Belly full, eyes filled,
Cymbals on my fingers to announce my return.
Image: Alexandria Smith (2022), Gagosian Gallery, New York
What secret did a minor god breathe into my ear?
Buy low on Monday, sell high on Thursday?
Check your zipper before leaving the house?
I sit up from my nap on the couch, look around—
Pairs of reading glasses on the two armchairs
In our mid-century living room.
I lay back on the couch,
Hands behind my head.
I consider my splayed feet
(Physical evidence of indecision?)
And watch my belly rise and fall.
I sleep, I wake.
When I sit up again
Coins fall from my pocket.
One coin, I note, is large as a pocket watch,
And Greek, it appears.
Have I been to that island country?
Then a noise I’ve been waiting for all day.
I tiptoe down the hallway
To the door that leads to the garage.
I flick on the light.
A mouse looks up,
Head caught in a throw-away trap.
I close the door on him—
Sorry, I sigh, very sorry for your trouble.
But where was I?
That’s right, the couch.
I return to the living room,
Where several pairs of reading glasses
Follow my steps.
Sunlight pours through the window.
The curtain lifts like a skirt.
I’m 71, with splayed feet,
My scalp itching for a single idea.
And as for the mouse in the trap?
After my lunch of soup and two crackers,
I’ll shovel a small hole and roll him in,
His front teeth bucked, grains of sand in each paw,
Tail stiff as a twig, fur the color of rained-on earth.
The three poems are from Downtime, published Spring 2023 by Gunpowder Press, Santa Barbara, CA. Used with permission of the poet and the publisher.
Gary Soto is the author of thirteen adult poetry collections, most notably New and Selected Poems, which was a finalist for both the Los Angeles Times Award and the National Book Award. He has received the Discovery-The Nation Prize and the California Library Association's John and Patricia Beatty Award, as well as fellowships from the National Endowment for the Arts and the Guggenheim Foundation. In 1999, he received the American Education Association's Human and Civil Rights Award, the Hispanic Heritage Foundation's Literature Award, and the PEN Center West Book Award for his collection of young adult stories, Petty Crimes. The Gary Soto Literary Museum is located at Fresno City College, where he began as a poet in the early 1970s.
ArtWork: Alexandria Smith
Alexandria Smith’s art addresses issues of identity as informed by autobiography, fiction, myth, collective memory, and history. Combining figuration and abstraction, her works imagine hybrid figures comprised of limbs, eyes, breasts, and hair in distinctive configurations that embody physical, emotional, and metaphysical growth and transformation. Smith works across various mediums, making drawings with collage elements, paintings with sculptural assemblages, and immersive installations.
Smith was born in the Bronx, New York, in 1981. She earned her BFA in illustration from Syracuse University, New York; MA in art education from New York University; and MFA from Parsons School of Design, New School, New York. From 2017 through 2018 she served as co-organizer of the collective Black Women Artists for Black Lives. She lives and works in New York, and is assistant professor in painting and printmaking and director of undergraduate studies at the Yale School of Art, New Haven, Connecticut.
— Gagosian Gallery