By Ron McFarland


The Montréal Review, June 2024

Gary (in the center) off to church, 1961. Beside him are his sister Debbie, his brother Rick and Angie Trevino Soto, the mother.

In the brief essay “Catholics,” from his first book of nonfiction, Living Up the Street (1985), prolific Chicano poet and author Gary Soto depicts himself as an elementary school student in a parochial school “standing in a waste basket for fighting on the day we received a hunger flag for Biafra” (41). He revisits that scene in “Catholic Education,” from his 2013 poetry collection, Sudden Loss of Dignity, where he claims to have been in third grade at age ten.1 In the essay the “tough nun” is named Sister Marie, while in the poem she has been renamed “Sister Guadalupe,” whose “clicker” seems to tell him he is “worthless” (78). Soto has been renowned primarily as a poet, from the publication of his first book, The Elements of San Joaquin (1977), of the second wave of Chicanx poetry and prose following the Movement (El Movimiento) of the 1960s and 1970s, a poetry and prose of anger and protest. Beyond that Soto has authored more than forty titles directed specifically to Chicanx children and young adult readers. He has throughout his career returned to religious themes, mostly to those reflecting his personal pilgrimage.

In his YA biography, good portions of which are drawn from phone interviews and email correspondence, Dennis Abrams describes Soto’s sojourn in parochial school at St. John’s Elementary (second through fourth grades) as one of “continuous petty humiliations” (33). In the essay “Deceit,” however, from Living Up the Street, Soto claims that when he returned to public school in the fifth grade, “there were months on end when I was the sweet kid who wanted to become a priest” (37). That declaration did not constitute a vocation. By the fall of his twelfth year, he notes in the same essay, having faked attendance at Mass for much of the summer, his mother excused him from attendance. 

Commentators have reflected over the years on a passage from the essay “One Last Time,” which concerns Soto’s last days of working in the fields chopping cotton and his below average grades in high school: “[T]here were those who said I would never do anything, be anyone. They said I’d work like a donkey and marry the first Mexican girl that came along” (LUS 107). Certainly, those were not to be his last days of hard work, and as it happens, he did not marry a Mexican girl at all, but Carolyn Oda, the daughter of a Nisei farmer, and they were not married in a Catholic but in a Japanese Methodist church. They married on May 24, 1975, while he was working on the poems that form the core of his MFA thesis and of his first book, The Elements of San Joaquin (1977). He attended Methodist services for about twenty years. 

He subsequently became a Presbyterian for several years. His membership certificate, written in Spanish with an English translation provided in reduced font, is dated June 4, 1995. The opening essay in Why I Don’t Write Children’s Literature (2015) features Soto doing “guerilla gardening” as he manages “a street median outside High Street Presbyterian Church in Oakland’s Fruitvale District” (1). Later, in an essay entitled Gina, he watches the playful fouryear-old at Berkeley Methodist United, “a traditionally Japanese American church” (139).

Nevertheless, as if to confirm the old saw “once a Catholic, always a Catholic,” Gary Soto’s poems, when they focus on matters of religion, primarily concern his quondam Catholicism. That he deals so often with memories of his boyhood may be only the most obvious reason for the frequent, often equivocal references to Catholicism in his poems.

Most numerous among the autobiographical references to his Catholic boyhood are such apparently playful moments as the one featured in “That Girl,” from Who Will Know Us? (1990), where he presents himself as a “Catholic boy / In a green sweater” at a public library where a girl he takes to be a “Protestant or Jew” and who attends public school seems somehow to be in his way. He envisages her going to school “With no guilt pulling at an ear,” while he will kick his “Catholic shoes through / Leaves” and prove an inept student: “I was no good. And who do I / Blame? That girl” (37). In “Greed & the Jar of Pennies,” from Human Nature (2010), he recalls an event with his older sister Debra from 1958, when he would have been six: “This was my sister and I, / Catholic kids in green sweaters, / Both of us in love with Jesus on the cross” (12).

Despite their professed “love” of “Poor Jesus tired of holding his arms up for centuries,” the poem reveals the greed of the children who scrabble after the pennies they find on the road beside a broken jar, in the process responding to the rhetorical question posed: “When were we humans going to be nice, / So he could come down?” The 24-line poem ends poignantly: “Our faces were the color of pennies, / Our souls broken like jars.”

In one of his more openly comical references to his Catholic identity as an adult, Soto describes himself as “the Catholic / In the lingerie department” in “Shopping for a Woman” (50) from Black Hair (1985), his fourth book of poems. The title suggests a playful double entendre. In fact, Soto was by that date no longer attending Mass, but to the extent that the first-person speaker in the poem is the poet himself, readers must infer at least a lingering identity with the denomination of his boyhood.2 In fact, in his brief introduction to the spring 1995 issue of the literary magazine Ploughshares he was invited to edit, Soto writes, “Between the years 1985 and 1990, I had returned to the church with a vengeance. [. . .] For three years I went to Mass not once but twice a day; [. . .] I considered joining Opus Dei, a fundamentalist religious group” (6). Then in his early thirties, he sent his daughter Mariko to a parochial school and bought a used set of Catholic encyclopedias. 

Although he does not indicate what caused this religious fervor, it most likely pertains to the deep depression beginning in his late twenties that he describes in the essay “Getting It Done,” which first appeared in the anthology Fathers and Daughters (1998), edited by DeWitt Henry and James Alan McPherson and was reprinted in The Effects of Knut Hamsun on a Fresno Boy. Obsessed with “getting things done” at whatever cost personally and to his family, he became “paralyzed, listless,” and having been “raised in a chorus of God is Punishing You, I believed in waiting, expecting the gloom and confusion inside me to disappear like a scab” (Effects 188). In this essay Soto mentions being “overwhelmed” by fear to the point of dread, but surprisingly, he does not mention his return to the Church described in the earlier essay that prefaced the special issue of Ploughshares. Those “five intense years in the Catholic faith,” Soto continued in his introduction, “resulted in a new set of friends, prayer, peculiar dreams, one therapist, three overseas adoptions, and two books”: the essays of Lesser Evils (1988) and more importantly the poems of Home Course in Religion (1991). The themes of these books “concern lust, faith, childhood and disease—a hodgepodge of reactions to my Catholic upbringing” (“introduction,” Ploughshares 6). The tone Soto adopts in his introduction to the special issue of Ploughshares, written five years after his return to the Church, indicates he had moved on and had come to identify himself as Protestant.

Reflecting on his boyhood in his personal essays and poems, Soto often describes a disjunct between the person he believes himself to be and the person he is. The brief essay “The Pie,” from A Summer Life (1990) begins, “I knew enough about hell to stop me from stealing,” but in the very next sentence six-year-old Gary claims, “I was holy in almost every bone” (55). Perhaps the key word here is “almost.” “Boredom made me sin,” he tells us. In a later essay from that collection, “The Promise,” the by then eleven-year-old Gary writes, “I seemed pretty holy, inside and out” (91), the key word this time being “seemed.” And this time he blames the bad influence of his older brother Rick for his inability to keep his promises. Likewise, in “Confession to Mrs. Robert L. Snow,” from Who Will Know Us? (also 1990), Soto claims it was his older brother not he who swiped fruit and otherwise misbehaved. “I was saintly inside and out,” he proclaims, “And walked through puddles / In a Catholic sweater, / Even though it was / Summer and no school” (30). By the poem’s conclusion, however, his mother has called him out, detects not a halo on his brow but horns, and he exclaims, “To hell / With the saints!” on his way to his neighbor’s house, where he steals a dollar from her purse and scoffs at the notion of horns. 

Similarly, “Some Mysteries,” from Home Course in Religion (1991) opens with the declaration, “I was pretty holy by third grade” (15). But in church he would recall his sins and smile, “Then feel bad for remembering such moments.” He has only a boyish sense of the mysteries of the Mass, which he likens to the unseen thump of a soccer ball against a wall and “Sister Marie running around the yard” (16). “A Way of Thinking” begins, “Nothing was wrong with me in fifth grade, / Inside or out,” and following a Sunday Mass he witnesses an accident in which a boy falls from a car but is unhurt, so he feels “lucky” and concludes that “God was talking to me” (29). Identifying with the boy who survived, the first-person speaker (Soto, presumably, as remembered at age ten or eleven) feels “very good, / Something like happy.” But he then encounters his “Catholic friend” Little John, who is distressed because he anticipates being spanked when he gets home, and as the boy cries before going in, the speaker/Soto realizes “that you can cry before anything happens” and thinks “maybe this was Catholic” (30). 

Often in both his poems and prose, Soto connects Catholicism with imposed feelings of punishment and guilt. In the essay “Getting It Done,” he claims to have been “raised in a chorus of God Is Punishing You” (188). Near the end of “The Confession,” an essay from A Summer Life, Gary Soto at age eight or nine leaves Monsignor Singleton’s confessional “with a drip of holy water on my forehead. Outside, the sky was bluish-gray and the wind was ripping petals from rose bushes. I looked at my hands and a prick of guilt made me jump” (64). Saying three Hail Marys and one Our Father has not quite absolved the boy from feelings of guilt.

Soto revisited the episode from “A Way of Thinking” in which a boy escapes injury after falling from a moving car several years later in “Grace,” from A Natural Man (1999), where he presents himself at age nine in a poem that starts with the same Monsignor Singleton as in “The Confession” reminding him and his classmates about dying. When he hurries over to see whether there was any blood, he finds only “a sweep of sand / Soaking up the grace of that moment” (51). Whether one detects in this version of that unusual event a more hopeful conclusion than in the poem from 1991 is at least debatable. In fact, anxiety about disease and death frequently enter Soto’s poems that reflect on his childhood, predictable presumably, given his father’s death while at work when Gary was six years old. In the essay “Childhood Worries, or Why I Became a Writer,” first published in the Iowa Review in 1995 and later in Effects of Knut Hamsun, Soto writes that as a boy he “knew that disease lurked just beneath the skin” (Effects 161), and he starts the essay with an account of an uncle dying of cancer who spent his last three months with them. The essay touches on the deaths of various pets, his frightening experience with a tonsillectomy and later with a tapeworm, his father’s death, and the unsettling images of diseases, including polio, that he encountered in a medical dictionary.

In his essay on childhood anxiety over disease and death, Soto offers a paragraph on his father’s grave and a “gold-plated cannon” at the cemetery which he had featured in “The Gold Cannon,” the second poem in his 1991 collection, Home Course in Religion. What “worried” him was not so much his father’s death (elsewhere Soto indicates they were not close), but the cannon, which scared him because his “vision of death was that when you died an angel would pick you up, place your head in the cannon, and give your neck a little twist” (Effects 170). He claims to have felt “spooked by this cannon,” but his mother was grieving, so he did not tell her. “I figured there was one cannon, like one God, and all graves rolled on a hill. In time, you were asked to put your head in the cannon and die as well.”

The poem that apparently pre-dates the essay begins, “Grown-ups didn’t know more than me / About the dead” (Home Course 9). The paragraph in the essay following the passage about the gold cannon begins, “I didn’t realize that I was probably ill.” The poem that follows “The Gold Cannon” begins, “Disease happened overnight, just when you thought you / Were going to make the baseball team” (10). That poem, “The Dictionary,” concerns the medical dictionary that caused young Gary to worry about ringworms, cancer, and a boy in an iron lung, but about a third of the way through Soto rather abruptly shifts to one morning during Advent when “Sister told us about the Trinity” and instructed them to draw pictures of it. The confused Gary then shifts from the medical to the Catholic dictionary, where he reads a standard definition that means little to him (he is in second grade) followed by a more down-to-earth substantive: “Triple Candlestick.” The next day, asked again to draw the Trinity, Gary does not draw an image of three candles rising from a single base, but three happy faces, which earns him a blue star—not a gold star, after all, but sufficient to send him home feeling “light and holy” (11). He celebrates his happy day by playing marbles with his older brother and sister. Before dinner, he peeks into the frightening medical dictionary to find a lung “sitting in a white pan,” but after dinner, he looks at the Catholic dictionary and finds “Tre Ore,” a devotion on “The three hours’ agony of Christ / On the cross.” The poem concludes on what I take to be a hopeful note. It was “A year of troubled math and disease / God the Trinity, with bleeding palms and redemptive heart.” The pain, suffering, and death the seven-year-old fears is in effect transfigured.

Soto revisits his boyhood anxieties and religious confusions throughout his oeuvre, often indicating a specific age, as in “Buddha, Christ & the Clock,” from Junior College (1997), where he informs readers he (or his persona) is nine years old. A caveat: Readers should not hold the poet strictly to account on such memories as transformed in the act of poetic re-creation. But careful readers will encounter a fairly consistent “spiritual autobiography” among apposite poems. Here, for example, the boy is again “worried about disease,” and the presence of the three objects on his brother’s desk causes him to “worry about my own dying” (7), as opposed most likely to the remembered deaths of his father and uncle. He crosses himself and prays in bed, and he imagines Buddha “pulling / On an earlobe, fat as a pear on a tree” and Christ “touching one of his wounds, / Gapes like the mouths of pulsating fish.” Not surprisingly, neither image proves comforting. When he weighs the statuettes of Buddha and Christ, he finds them “light, not like sin itself / Or the furrow one wears when the casket closes / And the sobbing starts.” Then he picks up the clock, obvious symbol of time and mutability, and he finds it “Heavy with machinery.” And he experiences here a small epiphany: “I knew the clock didn’t care like Buddha or Christ, / And that my good thoughts mattered little. / It didn’t ask for prayers” (8). When he places the clock between the two gods, he becomes aware, in the poem’s last line, of “The iron-colored hours.”

In poems appearing as late as 2010 in the collection, Human Nature, Soto continues to portray his boyhood self as struggling in parochial school and sin-conscious. In “Some Ideas about Jesus” Sister Guadalupe informs the class that as a carpenter Jesus could bore holes into doors and “see how we were doing,” and she also tells them Jesus loves them, “Just before she viciously threw / A piece of chalk at me / For talking in class” (7). In his childish confusion, he imagines Jesus sticking his finger through the hole and poking him in the eye: “He was angry with his children!” (8). In “At the Stationery Store” Soto tells of the “blessed moment” he decided to steal eraser heads which he thought resembled “little turbans” (20). He wonders whether Sister Mary will grab him when he tries to slip out: “I was Catholic in my white shirt and corduroy pants. / I was skinny as a pencil, / And my soul smudged with guilt.” The poem ends playfully when he decides the erasers do not look like “an infidel’s turban” but “a tiny pope’s hat,” and he asks (forty years later): “Was this a religious experience?” (21). When he sees a reflection in a mirror of the three faces of the owners, essentially of the Trinity, watching him, he returns the eraser and proclaims himself “saved”: “O, eraser head, full of grace.”

In “Late Confession,” from A Natural Man (1999), Soto specifically establishes for his readers his distance in time from such boyhood memories. As a ten-year-old in 1952 he addresses “Monsignor” in the two opening stanzas with his anxiety about Jesus following and watching him, “and when I slept / An angel peeled an orange / And waited for me to wake up” (49). This angel could be regarded as a benign guardian, but the boy looks out his window on “clouds dirty as towels,” and he searches in vain for flocks of geese “Darkening the western sky.” In the second stanza he confesses to the Monsignor that he has drowned a toy soldier in the bathtub until its “painted-on eyes flaked off. / Then a leg fell off—surge of dirty water / Sunk him to the bottom.” In the third and final stanza he tells us he is now in his late forties (Soto turned 47 when the book was published) with no angel at his bed or “soldier / Of God” nearby, only a window between living and dying, and in his closing lines he appeals to the Monsignor, “Saintly man of this child’s wonderment, / When will I see the geese again?” 

Similarly, in the poems “Hand Washing” and “Bodily Responses to High Mass” from Junior College Soto’s anxiety about disease, about his vulnerability, is that of an adult. In the former, he tells readers he “nearly gave up going to Mass” (13) and fell into a pathological need for the lavabo, the cleansing or washing away of sins, urging his wife toward his own obsessive need. Midway through the poem, he expresses his concern over evangelical Catholics beginning to “talk in tongues” and the “new Catholics who held hands in prayer” (14). The poem looks back in some ways to “Pink Hands,” the opening poem of Home Course in Religion, to be considered hereafter. In “Bodily Responses to High Mass” Soto claims to have been bored during the homily, feels he has “wept sweat” until he has become “a jungle of pagan smells,” and believes he has aged and grown a beard during the Mass. In the final lines he descends into the basement to enjoy “White powdery donuts, those stacked halos,” which he accepts as his “heavenly reward” (31). Here, as elsewhere in his poems on religious themes, the profane invades the sacred with an impact that is simultaneously humorous and portentous.

The humor of such poems seems strained at times and suggestive not only of childhood and adolescent confusions, but also of adult reservations pertaining to Soto’s Roman Catholic upbringing. The most salient book of poems with respect to these matters is the 1991 collection, Home Course in Religion, which Frank Allen in his review for Library Journal described as “a spiritual autobiography about growing up Mexican American in Fresno, California in the 1960s” (79). Perceptively, Allen observes, Soto accomplishes his ends “in compassionate poems that define the holy in terms of everyday life.” I think the tension between the sacred and the profane in Soto’s writing, while often comical, bears more significant intimations of self-doubt and uncertainty to the point of alienation.

Two poems from Home Course in Religion apropos these observations stand out in quite different ways, “Pink Hands” (7-8) the always important opening poem, and the ambitious title poem, “Home Course in Religion” (49-52). The pink hands of the title refer to Soto’s hands as a boy. He remembers looking down into them when the priest (again Monsignor Singleton) raised the Host during Mass. The poem begins, “I miss not eating fish on Friday,” a surprising bit of nostalgia inasmuch as most of the poem concerns changes in the Church that began with Vatican II (1962-65). For instance, he misses the use of Latin in the Mass, which had mostly ceased by 1963, the year Soto turned eleven. As an adult who is no longer a practicing Catholic and who, even if only playfully, resents many changes in the Church, one would expect him to miss eating fish on Fridays. The poem is playfully serious throughout. Soto insists he (I) “never understood / The Trinity, and still have doubts, / But was happy for the Father, Son, and Holy Ghost” (7). Much of the first section, which runs 33 lines, concerns boyhood memories like that of his home in which “a crucifix hung in almost every room.”

In the second part (40 lines), he begins by asserting that in parochial school he did not “mean to be bad” by talking back; now he is quiet and “The nuns would be proud of me, / And so would Monsignor Singleton” (8). The changes in the Church, he teases, involve such matters as “folksy guitars / And an electric bass to thump our hearts, croissants / Instead of donuts, and three kinds of coffee.” Essentially, he is complaining about what might be called the gentrification of Catholicism, or perhaps the Protestantization of the Church. Now, he carps, there are “Young Adult groups, spaghetti dinners / For parents without partners, / Five-mile runs for priests and nuns,” and “At the altar of Mary, we have electric bulbs, / Not candles, sitting in the votive cups” (8). In effect, Gary Soto as a man in his late thirties who has been attending Methodist services for many years and who will become a Presbyterian in 1995, may be looking at the Church as he rediscovered it in the late 1980s, when he suffered the years of depression described above. 

In the poems that look back to his would-be orthodox youth, there seems always to be considerable doubt as to the nature of the deity. “God is at least that voice / Inside us that says yes and no,” he declares in “Apple” (13). Midway through the first section of Home Course in Religion, the poem “Some Worry” expresses the religious confusion of young Gary Soto: “Sometimes when I prayed my shoulder tingled, / And other times I only felt the rub of cloth” (26). That was his condition as he presents it when he was about seven years old (in second grade), and his desire to feel “that tingle” in his shoulders persisted for about eight years and its disappearance filled him with worry. One summer, however, when he turned sixteen, he began to feel that sensation return, although by then he “had stopped praying” (27). When his “feelings returned” he “got in the habit of / Walking around and singing / Made-up prayers,” and the trees began to seem “special.” He starts to do better in school because he has begun to understand things: “Always when I got to the verb is / My face burned a little and I became happy” (27). That is, he has begun to comprehend something about the nature of his being. But during his senior year he loses “these feelings,” his face no longer responds to a verb, formerly “special” trees no longer seem so, and “The words to prayers seemed silly” (28). In this seemingly casual fashion Soto records the gain and loss of faith on a personal level. 

The following poem, “A Way of Thinking,” discussed above, concerns an incident during which Soto at about age ten (fifth grade) believes God is talking to him, and momentarily he feels “very good, Something like happy” (29). The next poem, however, begins, “I was hoping to be happy by seventeen” (30), and it triggers a series of eight poems largely concerning Soto’s senior year in high school and his decidedly secular adventures with his Okie pal Scott, which involve the generally fruitless pursuit of girls, aimlessly driving around in Scott’s Ford Galaxy, and poems like “Drinking in the Sixties.” Not to understate the matter, Soto has moments of fun, but not of happiness. In “The Levee” he asserts he is “tired of home” and “the glow-in-the-night Christ on the windowsill” (38). 

In effect, these poems prepare readers for the first poem of the second section, “Not Moving,” where Gary stubs his toe on the La-Z-Boy recliner which has in other places been connected with his despised stepfather and where Soto’s mother insists on a God of punishment by reiterating four times some version of the statement, “God punished you” (47). As the poem ends, Soto refers to “now,” his present circumstances, casually reflecting, “God, of course, is here” and he is “not moving from this chair” (48). 

“Home Course in Religion,” the 125-line title poem of the book, follows. Set up in four distinct movements, and unlike nearly all of Soto’s poems, this one requires glosses for a broad range of allusions, biblical, theological, and otherwise. The poem features Soto as an eighteenyear-old student in junior college reading Jacques Maritain’s Existence and the Existent (1947) and struggling with its abstruse metaphysics. In the initial 41-line section he also cites (also without identifying the sources) a more accessible passage from German theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s The Cost of Discipleship (1937) on the nature of grace: “Costly grace confronts us as a gracious call / To follow Jesus” (49). But after reading ten pages he falls asleepwith cracker crumbs on his lips, and after a dinner of Top Ramen he and his brother Rick and their two roommates record a comically disjointed conversation about Nixon and Watergate, confusing him with LBJ in an incident that involved lifting of a beagle by its ears. This ironic juxtaposition of contexts sets the stage for the poem. 

In the eighteen lines of the short second movement, Soto reads a few pages about a French mystic, eats a bowl of cereal, and goes to a PE class where his karate instructor offers him some Asian wisdom to the effect that “Pain doesn’t exist” but is all in the mind, which ostensibly Zen sort of lesson he finds disproven by the empirical evidence of a swollen eye and red welts on his chest (50). 

The Bible, he declares at the start of the 29-line third movement, is “much clearer,” citing Matthew 17:17, KJV, which begins, “O. faithless and perverse generation, how long / Am I to be with you and bear with you.” But without elaboration on the scripture concerning his disciples’ lack of sufficient faith or of their confidence in the power of their faith to heal an afflicted boy, Soto segues to his roommate’s book about Zen master Xu Yun, who reputedly lived nearly 120 years (1840-1959) and who “could go three years eating only grass / And pine needles” (50-51).

Again, although Soto as a junior college freshman is impressed with the master’s odd diet and likens it to his own of Top Ramen, cold cereal, and occasional oranges, he does not reflect either on his remarkable age or on his abnegation of the flesh, which is reminiscent of the advice of his karate instructor. Instead, he mentions his girlfriend coming over that night with a gift of peanut butter. In short, although he is surviving on a modest student diet, Gary has not been reduced to grass and pine needles.

After his girlfriend leaves, Gary crosses himself and prays, then turns his attention to The Problem of Evil, presumably the collection of essays published in 1991 by the Oxford University Press.3 There he encounters the following passage from Horace in Latin, which he offers without translation: “Oderunt peccare mali formidine poenae, oderunt peccare / Boni virtutis amore” (51). (Bad men hate to sin from fear of punishment, good men hate to sin from love of goodness.) Again, Soto provides no elaboration except to indicate that he found the passage difficult, read nine more pages, and fell asleep. The next morning, he eats his cereal and reads a paragraph on animal suffering and the question of whether they are consciously aware of their pain. In this case as in one prior instance in the poem, Soto ends the italicized passage with a dismissive “etc.”

By this point one might justifiably wonder how seriously readers are invited to take this poem. Soto goes to elaborate extremes here to stress the tension between the sacred and the mundane. His religious, spiritual impulses seem to impose on his secular interests in politics, basketball, karate, and increasingly—notably during the fourth movement—on his love-life. That movement begins with a phone call from his and his brother Rick’s mother, who tells them as long as they don’t end up in prison, she will be proud of them. Gary responds, “God knows what I was thinking / When I picked up the book What Is Man?” (51), possibly the work of Yale theology professor Robert Lowry Calhoun (1896-1983), published in 1941, but perhaps more plausibly a reference to the essay of that title in the form of a Socratic dialogue by Mark Twain published in 1906. Both texts take their point of departure from Psalms 8:4: “What is man that thou art mindful of him?” 

Perhaps most readers would not go to the extent of consulting the texts they encounter in reading this poem, and were they to do so, they would most likely find little direct application. The poem turns on the disjunct between the young Soto’s uncertain and sporadic spiritual or moral quests and the lure of the quotidian. In this poem he abandons inquiry into such vexing issues as the problem of evil and the nature of man for a passionate interlude with his girlfriend, who comes over with a bag of oranges. She complains she is lonely when he is not there, to which he replies with a dash of the wisdom of Socrates, “I said that people feel / Like that because they don’t know themselves” (52), before adding, “I said just be mellow, just think of / Yourself as a flower, etc.” It is difficult to say what speaks louder here: the line break, or the “etc.” ironically echoing two prior appearances of the word in this poem. After a rather explicit account of their sexual play, the speaker concludes the poem it was then “That I realized I might be in the wrong line of belief” (52). 

Religion for young Gary Soto has passed from being a matter of “feeling,” as in “Some Worry,” to erudition—to abstract and abstruse speculation or intellectualization that he abjures in favor of sensual pleasure. After his girlfriend leaves, however, he reads the Bible “About Jesus touching each of his four wounds,” presumably a reference to John 20:26-29, when Jesus invites Thomas to touch the wounds as confirmation of his faith. Verse 29 reads in part, “Thomas, because thou hast seen me, thou hast believed: blessed are they that have not seen, and yet have believed.” Feeling ashamed, Soto washes his hands in what may be intended as a lavabo. But does the phrase “wrong line of belief” refer to his spiritual or to his carnal direction in life? To a vita spiritualis or a vita sexualis? Reference to a few subsequent poems may provide some form of resolution.

“The Asking” begins, “That prayers are not answered / Means very little. It’s the prayer itself, / A chill from he shoulders” (59). Per the title, its “the asking” that matters. The phrase “chill from the shoulders” recalls the “tingle in my shoulders” from “Some Worry,” his sense that spiritual rightness is accompanied by a physical manifestation. In this poem Soto depicts himself teaching karate at a Boys Club, where free lunches are provided for his disadvantaged “kids.” Driving home he thinks of certain skills they “need” along with love and “Something like Christ but not Christ.” That, he thinks, will come later. What he needs is a nap, a chance to sit down and read, and dinner with his family. “Grace,” Soto writes, “is a long sentence with lots of ‘ands.’” He mentions his daughter Mariko and wife Carolyn by name, and he reflects on differences between Japanese and Korean styles of karate but thinking again of his “kids” he returns to the major premise of the poem: “They need love, Christ but not Christ” (60). Here, as elsewhere in his writing, we encounter his growing awareness of the failure, for him, of orthodox or conventional Christianity. For some readers Flannery O’Connor’s short novel, Wise Blood (1962) may come to mind: the church of “Christ Without Christ” as propounded by the believer-despite-himself Hazel Motes. 

“A Sunday,” which like the title poem is organized into four distinct movements, apparently concerns events that occurred in 1988, in the midst of what could aptly be described as Soto’s spiritual crisis. Here he recounts his desire to ask a friend named Katie “about God” (71), and he says he is trying to behave “like others in the church” (70). The poem suggests a flirtation that does not quite evolve into an affair but that involves his religious doubts, what might be described as a state of anomie, a sense of communal dissolution and alienation, of confused values and lack of purpose. “I want to ask about God but don’t know how,” he writes: “Katie doesn’t know either” (71). He then draws the reader’s attention to a cross that “Hides behind her top button, sparkles sometimes / When she turns or bends to slip into a shoe.” The innuendo appears obvious here. And at this point the poem pivots from issues of the flesh to this: “God troubles me with the same questions. / I want very badly to know how to talk about Christ.” As they lean against the kitchen counter Katie tells him “God is someone who is with you, / Like now.”

Following a textual gap, Gary leaves Katie early in the afternoon as she reminds him that he is married, at which point he drives home reflecting that he has been married for nearly thirteen years (Gary married Carolyn in May 1975). When he gets home, he finds his wife “watering the begonias” (72). She asks him about Mass, which indicates his brief return to Catholicism, as noted above. He says he is “fine,” but adds: “The priest was looking at me / When he spoke about sin,” to which his wife responds, “He knows his parish.”4 After dinner he plays chess with his daughter, but being, as he admits, “a kind of fool with dead bishops,” he loses. The double entendre is both playful and serious. Then he takes a shower and sings “A Christian hymn. It’s not that I feel that close / To Christ, it’s that I like the music.” 

In the third movement, Soto firmly reestablishes domestic tranquility and secularity when he reads to his daughter about a town in France, after which she bids him goodnight in pig Latin “with a hug and a crazy kiss” (73). It is at least tempting here to speculate that Mariko’s use of pig Latin looks back mockingly to the Latin of the old Latin Mass. The poem might well conclude with that scene of paternal love and gratification on Sunday night, but it does not. The fourth and last movement returns Soto to the classroom (presumably at University of California, Berkeley, where Soto taught for several years) on Monday morning, where he is distracted by the sight of his female students crossing and uncrossing their legs, which he finds scary: “I want to be nice, of course, and Catholic, / But not so Catholic that I can’t at least glance” (74). In the opening lines of “A Sunday,” Soto declares he is “trying / To be like others in the church” (70). After the uneasy Monday in class, which happened “months ago,” the poem ends on another Sunday evening, with Gary and Carolyn contentedly in bed together and their daughter in bed as well. “I like Katie,” he affirms, “And love my wife and daughter, / And believe a dirty face / Is the same as a washed one to God” (74). That may seem an unusual credo, but it may be read as belief in the premise that God loves both the unwashed, the sinner, and the righteous. He then echoes his initial assertion with greater confidence: “I’m going to be like others in the church / And good in the meantime.” He also vows he will not even glance in the direction of temptation.

The poems in Gary Soto’s recent gathering, which appear in the limited-edition collection of essays, poetry, and a novella, Behavioral Medicine (2021), only briefly return to religious themes. In the title poem of the poetry section, “Failure’s Walk-In Closet,” he confirms his departure from the Catholicism of his boyhood and the crisis referred to above: “I’m ridding myself also of the immaterial— / The Catholic guilt, the envy of the green crayon, / The mirrored illusion of success” (90). The concluding lines of that poem touch on the conventional Seven Mortal Sins; that is, he also intends to rid himself not only of envy, but also of gluttony, lust, and the others. 

An email dated June 6, 2021, indicates the direction of Gary Soto’s recent decision to move away from the Christianity of either Catholicism or Protestantism: “I left the Christian faith three years ago and am now a believer in the Konko faith, which is very close to the Shintoism in decor, practice, and celebrations. It’s a faith that looks up (literarily) to Kami. It’s very much like what we might imagine is a Native American religion. There are about twenty churches, all small, in the United States, and about 1400 in Japan, with 450,000 followers.”5 He offers further observations on the Konko faith in a brief essay he prepared for a Zoom talk he prepared for the Konko Spiritual Center of South San Francisco, focusing on how he applied his avid interest in gardening to the needs of the garden at the Japanese church. He begins his comments by observing that his boyhood nickname was “Goyo,” and he discovered that goyo refers in the Konko religion to one’s “personal commitment to the church’s maintenance, or any task sincerely and wholeheartedly offered in appreciation of Divine Parent Kami’s blessings.”

Typically, but with some exceptions indicated above, Soto avoids any inkling of what might be called “high seriousness” in expressing his religious or spiritual views. Consider, for example, the opening lines of “Fate as a New Religion” from Behavioral Medicine:

If neither Jewish nor Christian,
Buddhist nor Hindi,
Or follower of a minor bloodletting faith,
Then God in our late years
Might just be Fate,
Who is omnigender,
Long-haired, not picky
As to who will live, who will die. (94)

This disesteem for the broad options of world religions does not propose that Konko is fatalistic in nature, but it does propound that such ostensible “godsends” as the discovery of a twentydollar bill occur without “the presence of the Almighty.” He touches upon such sins as lust, greed, and gluttony before retelling a story about a window washer who on Good Friday fell from a scaffold uttering as “his last memorable words, ‘Holy Shit.’” “For nonbelievers,” Soto ends the poem, “this might sum it up” (95). 

Perhaps the strongest of the 36 poems in this new collection is “Miracles,” in which the everyday miracles of life predominate: “An orchid falls into your hair” (98), springtime, puberty, sunrise, babies nursing, a robin in flight, a falling leaf. Typical of the playfully irreverent Soto: 

The faithful praying to the face
Of Jesus on a tortilla.
Miracle? Happenstance? Hoax?
A TV host informs us on the late-night show. (99)

“When you’re in your late sixties,” he concludes, “It’s never an ordinary day. / If nudged awake, the dead would tell you so.”

The last poem in the collection, while political, also hints at Soto’s new interest in Konko, “After His Election, I Make a Zen Garden.” Components of the minimalist garden include “five cups of sand” and “A thimble with water.” By noon he has constructed his garden and declares, “Let me go inside a tree for the next few years” (137). This “sanctuary on a windowsill” may not suffice, however, as in the closing lines Soto feels “a terrible force at work” after the president has been only a hundred days in office, “And already not enough sand to bury his deeds.”

An epilogue of sorts might be drawn from a passage in Mark Twain’s What is Man? (Old Man speaking to Young Man whose friend Burgess is not identified; the cerebral Henry Adams [1838-1918] might be described as Twain’s “un-kindred spirit”): “Both of these men [Burgess & Henry Adams] have been Presbyterians, Universalists, Methodists, Catholics—then Presbyterians again, then Methodists again. Burgess has always found rest in these excursions, and Adams unrest. They are trying Christian Science, now, with the customary result, the inevitable result. No political or religious belief can make Burgess unhappy or the other man happy. I assure you it is purely a matter of temperament. Beliefs are acquirements, temperaments are born; beliefs are subject to change, nothing whatever can change temperament.”


Ron McFarland is an emeritus professor of English at the University of Idaho (Moscow) where he taught for nearly 50 years. 



Abrams, Dennis. Gary Soto (Who Wrote That?). New York: Chelsea House, 2008.

Allen, Frank. Review of Home Course in Religion. Library Journal 116.8 (May 1, 1991) 79.

O’Connor, Flannery. Wise Blood. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2007.

Soto, Gary. Behavioral Medicine. Berkeley, CA: Las Lomas Editions, 2021.

---. The Effects of Knut Hamsun on a Fresno Boy. New York: Persea Books, 2000.

---. Home Course in Religion. San Francisco: Chronicle Books, 1991.

---. Human Nature. North Adams, MA: Tupelo Press, 2010.

---. “Introduction.” Everyday Seductions. Ploughshares 21.1 (Spring 1995) 5-8.

---. Living Up the Street. San Francisco: Strawberry Hill, 1985.

---. Sudden Loss of Dignity. Nacogdoches, TX: Stephen F. Austin State University Press, 2013.

---. Who Will Know Us? San Francisco: Chronicle Books, 1990.

Twain, Mark. What is Man? The Project Gutenberg EBook of What Is Man? And Other Stories,  by Mark Twain (Samuel Clemens). Release Date: May 11, 2009 [EBook #70] Last  Updated: February 24, 2018. Accessed July 2021.


1 For the record, the secessionist state of Biafra broke from Nigeria in May of 1967, the year Soto turned fifteen, and after a ruinous war its independence ended in January 1970. Some two million are said to have died of starvation during those two and a half years. Presumably, Soto’s memory was flawed in his essay; in the poem he does not mention Biafra but does refer to Kennedy’s presidency which began in 1961. That spring Gary Soto would turn nine (not ten) his actual age in third grade.

2 Since at least the advent of the New Criticism in the 1930s and 1940s, commentators have been wary of identifying a first-person speaker or persona in a poem with the poet, no matter how autobiographical the context appears to be. In “Some Worry,” however, from Home Course in Religion (1991), Soto inscribes his name in line 36, when relatives tell him at age sixteen, “Gary, you’ve grown tall” (26). Unless otherwise indicated, I will identify the first-person speaker in Soto’s pomes with Gary Soto himself.

3 While 18-year-old Gary Soto could not have known this book in 1970, he might well have been acquainted with it as a 39-year-old. 

4 In an email dated July 4, 2021, Soto confirmed that he and his wife had stayed with Methodist United in Berkeley from 1981 until only two years ago.

5 See here




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