A Brief Introduction to the Poems of Jimmy Santiago Baca
Immigrants in Our Own Land & Selected Early Poems
Martin & Meditations on the South Valley
Black Mesa Poems
(all published by New Directions paperbacks)
By Ricardo Reis
Let’s hear it for Jimmy Santiago Baca!
He put the chicano into American literature; he put the bare-foot street kid into the American Library; he put the ex-con into the Academy.
It started like this: FBI drugs bust, and he in the middle; for once, as the usual story goes, not involved. Ok, a first. No matter, it put him in Maximum Security prison for six and a half years.
By the age of twenty he started to teach himself to read and write. By the time of his Parole Board hearing he had a hand-made attaché case full of poems accepted by magazines to show. Denise Levertov had a hand in this.
From ‘Immigrants in Our Own Land…’
The cell doors racked open, time for work
field crews on the athletic field unravel warm hoses
water gurgles out bubbly white. A warm breeze
yawns over the tawny grass, dry, stiff, crunchy.
Inside the walls, main-yard crews
gather up shrivelled leaves, crumbling flowers, scrape
cracked bits of twigs, white powder on their brogan boots
Chain gangs line up, load themselves into the white trucks
The fields we pass along the road
frothy with pungent odours, juices in roots and leaves
evaporate in shimmering heat waves
It is windy today. A wall of wind crashing against,
windows clunk against, iron frames
as wind swings past broken glass
and seethes, like a frightened cat
in empty spaces of the cell block.
Immediate; loud; atmospheric; deeply sensual. The hard consonants evoking the dry, hard sounds of New Mexico; the aridity; the timelessness; the detail that nails the scene.
In the same book we come across deeper layers, nocturnal soul-scapes:
I Ask Myself, Should I Cry? Or Laugh?
I am a glossy green leaf, sticking out
in midnight moon, waxy drum-skin the moon pounds with wind….
Guilt itches my heart, as though a grasshopper,
chewing half, or a thick lazy caterpillar spinning silk nets,
hanging blue raindrops, baskets that invisible rocks,
that crack their stomachs, making wings of my eyelids.
I ask you to particularly note the last stanza’s strung-out clauses, reaching out further and further. Do they conclude? Is the sense: ‘Guilt itches my heart, like a grasshopper…’, or is it: ‘Guilt itches my heart…’ and the clauses, that cannot close?
The self is consumed by outside agencies; yet they are natural agencies, transforming the self into like: ‘making wings of my eyelids’. Shamanistic.
This losing of the self is one of Baca’s main themes, to break from the destructiveness of the built-up social, racial, cultural roles one must change the self. In a prison environment there is only the self; four years in solitary for not conforming. He says, “I finally destroyed myself in this huge cemetery called the prisons of America.”
One of the many remarkable things about these poems is their restraint. Born out of extreme adversity, their rancour is subsumed by the need to identify specific Chicano legacies in the lived out lives of the people. It is in the language. Later he incorporates more and more Hispanic phraseology, especially in places of heightened emotion.
The need is to remake the self in an image outside of the one of “oppression and…
racism and…indifference and…ignorance and anger that we’ve traditionally been treated with…”
And so he set up youth group projects for dealing with violence. There is a poem in the 1989 book ‘Black Mesa Poems’, called ‘From Violence to Peace’ that illustrates this. It is a poem based around a narrative. He bought a young bull calf, raised it. Then had to have it butchered:
‘Perfecto shot it.
Rasping on a black rope of blood
round its neck,
it gave a tremendous groan, tremendous groan
a birth-letting groan… a moon groan…
and I turned and said aloud to myself,
“That’s the moon’s voice.”
“That’s the moon’s voice.”
Full of self-hate for his betrayal, he gets fighting drunk, harasses a neighbour, who shoots him in self defence. Convalescing, he nurses the feud before realising it’s peace he needs, ‘to dismantle the bloody wheel of violence/ I had ridden since childhood.’ This poem to pay the cost of the bull’s death.
‘Interested groups’ had wanted to turn the Black Mesa into a national monument, with fences, rights of way. No, Jimmy said: “(it is) a dormant volcano…all the people… before me and lived their lives…have lived in reverence to this volcano…I think…of Rito who was murdered there by the sheriffs, how his blood fell onto the stones and how it…became the minerals of that stone.”
“All the sacrificial victims who gave their blood to the sun, the sun is now giving us back….We are now taking light back to the people.”
He doesn’t just mean the Chicano people; primarily yes, but also all victims, all people.
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