Wednesday, April 2, 2008

Gary Soto - Oranges


The first time I walked
With a girl, I was twelve,
Cold, and weighted down
With two oranges in my jacket.
December. Frost cracking
Beneath my steps, my breath
Before me, then gone,
As I walked toward
Her house, the one whose
Porch light burned yellow
Night and day, in any weather.
A dog barked at me, until
She came out pulling
At her gloves, face bright
With rouge. I smiled,
Touched her shoulder, and led
Her down the street, across
A used car lot and a line
Of newly planted trees,
Until we were breathing
Before a drugstore. We
Entered, the tiny bell
Bringing a saleslady
Down a narrow aisle of goods.
I turned to the candies
Tiered like bleachers,
And asked what she wanted–
Light in her eyes, a smile
Starting at the corners
Of her mouth. I fingered
A nickel in my pocket,
And when she lifted a chocolate
That cost a dime,
I didn’t say anything.
I took the nickel from
My pocket, then an orange,
And set them quickly on
The counter. When I looked up,
The lady’s eyes met mine,
And held them, knowing
Very well what it was all
A few cars hissing past,
Fog hanging like old
Coats between the trees.
I took my girl’s hand
In mine for two blocks,
Then released it to let
Her unwrap the 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.

-Gary Soto

Gary Soto’s Oranges

There’s a sweetness about this poem that far exceeds anything one might receive from the candy mentioned in the poem, or even the fruit that lends its name to the poem’s title. Gary Soto is a magician, whipping up images and stringing them into a story that could be taking place at any time, anywhere. We can relate to the boy and “his girl” in the poem because we, too, were once children in the wide hug of first love. I’ve treasured this poem for many years because of the rich texture of its images; they seem to contribute to a tapestry of longing. The girl’s house is “the one whose / Porch light burned yellow, / Night and day, in any weather.” I challenge anyone to say they didn’t grow up on a street or in a community with a house like this. The store has rows of candy “tiered like bleachers,” and outside the store “Fog hangs like old / Coats between the trees.” Not only can I see the fog, but that image allows me to feel its weight. With an eye on the “frost cracking beneath my step,” Soto begins the poem and invites us to join him in the December cold. Soon after, we’re witnessing a splendidly transcendent moment where in this cold that initially seemed so bleak, the boy has peeled his orange and “from some distance, / Someone might have thought / I was making a fire in my hands.”

Why is it that poets feel consistently invited back to childhood? If we are lucky our childhoods are a simpler time protected from death, stress, and broken hearts. Very few eight year olds walk around denouncing their mortgage payments, the heating bill that needs to be paid, the parent that needs advanced hospice care, or the wife that wants to consider a separation. Children live in a world that has yet to close in upon them. Their imaginations are boundless and their hopes swell with each new fascination. Strangely, kids always want to be older than they are, while adults often long to return to their youth. The boy in Oranges bobs on the cusp between adulthood and childhood. In the end innocence wins out, and the poem’s world, colored with a confident goodness, is better for it.

The situation driving the poem is simple: nearly a teenager, a boy is taking his first walk with a girl. In an effort to impress the girl, he has brought her an orange, but when they reach the candy store she chooses a chocolate that costs more than the boy can afford:

“I fingered
A nickel in my pocket,
And when she lifted a chocolate
That cost a dime,
I didn’t say anything.
I took the nickel from
My pocket, then an orange,
And set them quickly on
The counter. When I looked up,
The lady’s eyes met mine,
And held them, knowing
Very well what it was all

The poem expands from the simple set-up and revels in an exchange of everyday gallantry between the storekeeper and the boy. The boy is admirable for trying to treat “his girl” to a chocolate. The clerk is courageous for recognizing the boy’s intentions and silently validating them with an all-knowing stare. How much better would the world be if there were more moments like this, more people like this? The boy leaves the store with the confidence to actually hold the girl’s hand, feeling he has accomplished a great deed in her honor. The oranges (which he brought for both of them) are no longer a consolation prize. While the girl eats her chocolate, the boy peels and eats his orange in a scene that is tinged with brilliance---before our eyes the first seeds of manhood are germinating within the boy.


Carrie M said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Carrie M said...

Hey, Matt, I think it's very cool that you're doing this, and I hope you keep it up. I know how difficult it is to find time to post to a blog every day, so I'll take what I can. :) Your analysis on these poems reminds me that I came down to New York with all fiction people. I miss you poetry fans and writers!

Also, have you checked out Knopf's poem-a-day e-mail subscription?

This is the second year I've received it, and they have exceptionally great taste.

jamekay said...

There is a definite innocence with youth that when captured by the pen as with “Gary Soto-Oranges” offers genuine warmth to the reader. Being a female I especially enjoyed the reminder of how much courage it takes a young man, risking rejection or embarrassment in his pursuit of a young lady. I could have easily envisioned a male store clerk understanding and relating even better to the boy’s situation. Thanks Matt – I enjoyed this and can’t wait for the next.

Kung Fu Monkey said...

As Matt states, Oranges goes beyond telling the story of a childhood crush. In the poem, we are also reminded of our own childhood. One way Soto accomplishes this is through the saleslady. When the boy doesn't have enough money for the chocolate he wants to buy for the girl, the saleslady knows there's no way she can put the boy on the spot. This is his big moment. In letting him slide, she acknowledges the greatness of moments like this, when a crush dominates a young life. In a way, she recognizes her own childhood. So this poem is about those moments is childhood that make us say, "Oh, those were the good ol' days."

The P said...

Great poem!

Matthew A Kaberline said...

Thank you Kung Fu and The P for your comments. Kung Fu, your analysis is spot on and I couldn't have said it better myself! If you both haven't already done so, check out the movie I made of Oranges it's on the front page of the blog. I made it this past fall for a class and it was a fun experience of bringing a poem to life through pictures, narration, and music.

Anonymous said...

Thxs for sharing, I learnt a lot from the comments you guys have posted :)

Amanda Griffith said...

Hello Matt. I am a teacher and found this preparing the poem for Socratic seminar today. Beautifully written. I will share your blog with my classes today. I'm sure they will appreciate your passion for excellent poetry as i did. I love this poem too!

Matthew A Kaberline said...

Amanda, thank you for stopping by and checking out the blog! I've actually used this blog with some of my classes in the past too! If you love Oranges, you'll have to check out the movie I made of the poem. It's in the 2011 year of the blog.