Friday, October 17, 2008

Hispanic/Latino(a) Literature: Neighborhood Odes

Soto, Gary. 1992. Neighborhood Odes. Illus. by David Diaz. NY: Harcourt Inc. ISBN: 9780152568795.

Through the collection of twenty-one poems, Gary Soto presents celebratory vignettes of life in a Mexican American neighborhood.

Neighborhood Odes is a wonderful collection of poems that celebrates everyday life from running through the sprinkler como un chango – like a monkey, snow cones, eating delicious pomegranates from the tree in an old lady’s yard, tennis shoes, the library, a wedding, a weeping ghost, and much more. Written in free verse, each ode has a different child sharing a story. There is a great presence to each poem that sets the mood and feelings. One perfect example of this is “Ode to La Llorona” (Waling Woman):

They say she weeps
Knee-deep in the river,
The gray of dusk
A shawl over her head.
She weeps for her children,
Their smothered faces
Of sleeping angels…
Normaaaa, Marioooo, Carloooos.
They say she calls
Children, offering
Them candy
From her sleeve.
They say she will
Point a long finger,
Gnarled root of evilness,
And stare a soft
Hole in your lungs:
The air leaks
From this hole
And climbs in the trees.

If you’re on your bike,
Ride faster.
If you’re on foot,
Run without looking up.
In these times,
The sliced moon hangs

La Llorona is the mother
Of drowned children.
Beware a woman
Dripping water in July
When no rain has fallen. (p. 23, 25).

Other moods seen in the poems also reflect excitement, love, and happiness. Though the setting of the odes is in a Mexican American neighborhood, the stories that they tell are universal in nature. All the readers would be able to relate to stories of running in the sprinkler, “The helicopter/Of water/Slicing our legs.,” being stung by a bee. Telling the story of a ghost, the love of a pet, the love for a pair of tennis shoes, and the love of the family photographs taken by Mamá that not as perfect.

Soto also does a beautiful job in capturing the descriptive imagery. This seen in the poem “Ode to Los Raspados” in which a girl’s hair is described, “With hair that swings/Like jump ropes,” (p. 4), a pet cat that is so white that “He’s white/As spilled milk” (p. 30), and eating pomegranates, “The blood/Of the fruit runs/Down to their elbows,/Like a vein,/Like a red river,/Like a trail of red ants.” (p. 57).

There are many cultural markers that illustrate the Mexican American aspects of the collection of poems. The first is the use of Spanish terms and phrases in the each of the odes. Many of the titles have the subject’s name in Spanish, such as “Ode to Los Raspados” (snow cones), “Ode to Mi Parque” (my park), “Ode to Mi Gato” (my cat), while others use the English equivalent. The actual text of the poems is written in English but there are the Spanish words and phrases that included. Family members are called Mamá, Papá, tío, tía, abuelo, abuela or abuelitos. There are also many food names like chicharrones (fried pork rinds), frijoles (refried beans), huevo (egg), and tortillas. There are also several phrases used like ay, ay, mi vida (oh, oh, my life). Though is a great amount of Spanish words and phrases used what makes the poems affective in their craft is that the words and phrases are not translated into English, which would take away the reading experience of those who speak both Spanish and English.

The illustrations that are sprinkled through out the collection of odes add another level of creativity to overall book without overshadowing the poems. David Diaz uses a black and white paper cutout technique that is crisp and detailed in their depiction of some of the poems. Readers will enjoy studying these illustrations due to the contrast of the black and white coloring and all the hidden details that are given.

The final feature presented in Sotos’ collection of odes is a glossary in the back that provides the definitions of the Spanish words and phrases used in all of the poems, which allows readers new to Spanish to learn a new translation of things that they already know.

Neighborhood Odes is a great collection of poems illustrating the love and joy of everyday subjects that everyone can relate to and is perfect for both Spanish and English speaking readers. A must book for any junior poetry collection.

The memories and experiences of Hispanic children are celebrated in a collection of short-lined poems from the author of Baseball in April (1990). With the one exception of the deliciously shivery ``Ode to La Llorona'' (a weeping ghost), the mood ranges from tired happiness to downright exuberance. A girl boasts that she doesn't have to pay for raspados (snow-cones) because her father drives the ice-cream truck; Pablo goes to bed without a bath because ``he wants to be/Like his shoes,/A little dirty''; a child eats a spoonful of ground chile pepper from the molcajete (mortar), to his huge regret; others fondly recall picnics, a wedding, the library, running through the sprinkler, and similar pleasures of a California neighborhood. Diaz's occasional illustrations, with the sharp-edged black areas of woodcuts or paper silhouettes, are angular and stylized to near abstraction. Soto's language leans slightly toward the formal (as befits an ode) and is sprinkled with Spanish words, clear in context but also translated in a glossary. (Poetry. 10-12)

Grade 4 Up-- The rewards of well-chosen words that create vivid, sensitive images await readers of this collection of poems. Through Soto's keen eyes, they see, and will be convinced, that there is poetry in everything. The odes celebrate weddings, the anticipation of fireworks, pets, grandparents, tortillas, and the library. Although Soto is dealing with a Chicano neighborhood, the poetry has a universal appeal. A minor drawback is that the Spanish words are not translated on the page, but in a glossary; to consult it interrupts the reading. Still, children will surely recognize the joy, love, fear, excitement, and adventure Soto brings to life. It is the same sensitivity and clarity found in Baseball in April (HBJ, 1990), his collection of short stories. Black-and-white illustrations blend well with the astute verbal imagery. Each selection is an expression of joy and wonder at life's daily pleasures and mysteries. --Renee Steinberg, Fieldstone Middle School, Montvale, NJ Copyright 1992.

*Read more books by Gary Soto: Baseball in April and Other Stories, Canto Familiar, Gary Soto: New and Selected Poems, A Fire in My Hands, Living Up The Streets, Accidental Love, and Chato’s Kitchen.
*Have the readers write their own odes to their favorite pastime, pet, or anything that they thought of when they read the odes.

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