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Lost in America

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"When I write, I bid farewell to myself," Jimmy Santiago Baca said in 1992. "I leave most of what I know behind and wander through the landscape of language." This is a memorable quote from a poet whose voice, brutal yet tender, is unique in America. The landscape of language is what redeemed Baca in 1973 when, at 21, illiterate and jailed in a maximum-security prison on charges of selling drugs, he discovered the power of words. And then he let himself loose, reading anything and everything that touched his hands, writing frantically, even magically, a set of autobiographical poems that spoke of injustice and alienation. His characters were young males handcuffed by poverty, with "nothing to do, nowhere to go." Denise Levertov once talked of them as fully formed people with engaged imaginations, of the type that witness brutality and degradation yet retain "an innocent eye--a wild creature's eye--and deep and loving respect for the earth."

Baca made his name in the late 1970s when Immigrants in Our Own Land & Selected Early Poems was published. After that, he steadily developed an oeuvre, endorsed by small presses, about the tortured experience of Chicanos. The reader sensed a poet ready to denounce, and to do so angrily, but careful not to turn poetry into an organ of propaganda: "I Am with Those/Whose blood has spilled on the streets too often,/Surprising bypassers in hushed fear," he wrote in one poem. "I am dangerous. I am a fool to you all./Yes, but I stand as I am,/I am food for the future."

These poems came in the aftermath of the Chicano movement, as the country moved away from such activism. Change had been fought for by César Chávez and Dolores Huerta, and by the Crusade for Justice, but its fruits remained intangible. Baca's anger spoke to the unredeemed and nonaffiliated on the fringes and also to a mainstream audience aware of the social limitations that remained after the civil rights era. He refused to give up denunciation, exposing the tension between whites and Mexicans in the Southwest. But then came an age in which complacency was accentuated and activism was institutionalized. Poetry left the trenches to enter the classroom: It wasn't what you had done, but the expository strategies you had used, that mattered. The Chicano middle class saw this as an occasion to reject outspokenness and endorse consent. Even the term "Chicano" came under fire and was replaced by "Mexican-American."

Around this time, Baca's pathos was acquired by Hollywood. He began to write screenplays, one of which, about gang wars in California's prisons, became Bound by Honor (1993), an epic directed by Taylor Hackford, with Benjamin Bratt, Damián Chapa and Jesse Borrego. On occasion he would surface with a pugnacious reflection, and eventually he assembled these reflections into a volume with a symbolic title: Working in the Dark (1992). But silence impregnated his poetic journey, silence and detachment. That, at least, was the view of his readership. Was Baca the poet still active, or was he going mute?

Black Mesa Poems, published a decade after Immigrants in Our Own Land, showed a shift in Baca's concerns--from the roughness of crime and conflict to depictions of barrio and rustic life. There are some existential poems in that collection, but a significant number of them deal with community--in particular, with his second home in a New Mexico rancho. These poems are about the redemptive power of love, about birth and death, about motherhood--and about rivers and pinyon trees.

The move from the individual to the family, from confrontation to introspection, is apparently what has occupied Baca in all the years since Black Mesa Poems, and his resurfacing comes with a vengeance in the form of two interrelated books: a hefty series of lyrical poems, Healing Earthquakes, billed by the publisher as a love story; and a poignant memoir, A Place to Stand, that is at once brave and heartbreaking. One feels a gravitas in the poet's voice that was absent before. Impetuosity has apparently given way to fortitude. Baca seems more patient, attentive to the passing of seasons, in tune with the smiles of children and the wisdom of elders.

The style of Healing Earthquakes is at times flat, even repetitive, and the book's plot insinuates itself with the accumulation of insights. But overall the work is stunning, the product of a poet in control of his craft, one worth paying attention to. Divided into five solid, asymmetrical sections that range from adulthood to rebirth and back, the series is shaped as a quest--again, semiautobiographical--for balance in an eminently unbalanced universe. But this is no redraft of Pilgrim's Progress, from earth to hell and up to heaven. Instead, it is a downpour of passion, which leads the narrator astray as he lusts for women, tangible and chimerical, and explores myths and archetypes that come from Mesoamerican civilization. He reflects on his imperfections, runs into trouble with others and wonders: where to find dignity? Not in religion, it seems, but in morality. It is through others and through their vision that one might find a sense of self. (This reminds me of the late Pablo Neruda, ready to turn himself into a Boswell of the heart's disasters: burning with life, agitated by the confusion around, yet eager to make poetry into his metronome.)

The poems include an explanation of silence that readers should welcome. The series uses the emphatic "I" that is a sine qua non of minority letters and that is ubiquitous in Baca's poetry, a device employed as an affirmation of the self in spite of all odds. "Here I am," it announces. "You better pay attention to me, because I will not go away." But this older Baca has become philosophical with age, and his "I" is now more contemplative:

I used to party a lot, but now I study landscapes

and wonder a lot,

listen to people and wonder a lot,

take a sip of good wine and wonder more,

until my wondering has filled five or six years

and literary critics and fans

and fellow writers ask

why haven't you written anything in six years?

and I wonder about that--

I don't reveal to them

that I have boxes of unpublished poems

and that I rise at six-thirty each morning

and read books, jot down notes,

compose a poem,

throwing what I've written or wondered on notepads in a stack in a box

in a closet.

To my mind Baca's most concentrated, lucid effort is "Martín," a forty-five-page exploration about a young Chicano abandoned by his parents, whose travels from Santa Fe to Albuquerque and across states force him to confront his own limitations. After "Martín" appeared in 1987, Baca ran into trouble with Chicano critics for his portrait of Mexican adolescence--a portrait that didn't shy away from such negative attributes as alcoholism, violence and narcotic escapes. They accused him of pushing his people down by stressing the ugly and not the beautiful. His reaction, in an essay titled "Q-Vo," collected in Working in the Dark, was a welcome respite in an atmosphere of cheap ethnic pride. (The title is a phonetic redraw of ¿Qué hubo?, "Wassup?")

[In the critics' view] Chicanos never have betrayed each other, we never have fought each other, never sold out; nor have we ever experienced poverty or suffering, wept, made mistakes. I never responded to these absurdities. Such narrowness and stupidity is its own curse.... Because I am a Chicano, it doesn't mean that I am immune from the flaws and the suffering that make us all human.

The incident recalls a comment I once heard from an aspiring Chicano critic, whose teachers reiterated to him that to write a bad review of a fellow Chicano author is to be an Uncle Tom: un traidor. "Why add to the stereotypes?" he was told. Baca responded to such nearsightedness with courage. And it is that type of unremitting courage that colors A Place to Stand, his memoir, subtitled The Making of a Poet. It is, once again, a thunderous artifact. (Readers of "Martín" especially will find it a box of resonances.) It follows a straightforward, chronological pattern with an occasional detour into the realm of the fantastic, in which the author offers dreams and imaginary visions of the past. This fantastic element isn't atypical. For instance, in a chapbook of 1981 that included the poem "Walking Down to Town and Back," about rural New Mexico, a widow lights her adobe house on fire after she believes it has been taken over by snakes, and from the flames emerges the image of the Virgin Mary. The tale is delivered in a voice that once belonged to a child, and makes use of what Freud called "the uncanny": real incidents twisted by memory into supernatural anecdotes. "Miracle, miracle," the townspeople announce. Is it all in the widow's mind?

Figuratively speaking, Baca's memoir only partially takes place in his mind, as he ponders the loss of his father, mother and brother. A few passages push the narration to a more surreal level, but these are far between. Most of the memoir is not about miracles but about the summons of a life on the verge.

I was born [in 1952], and it was about this time that Father's drinking and his absences first became an issue.... The whites looked down on Mexicans. Mother's frustration began to show. La Casita, with its two tar-papered cardboard rooms, one bed where we all slept, woodstove, and cold water spigot, wasn't the white picket-fenced house in the tree-lined city suburb she'd dreamed of.

A Place to Stand begins here, with Baca's Indian father leaving the family and his Chicano mother having a romance with a man who persuades her to leave her children behind, mask her Mexican ancestry and begin a WASP family in California. Baca went to his grandparents first, then to an orphanage. He soon found himself destitute on the street, afraid of the deceitful manners of adults. By then he was already a school dropout. His race, obviously, reinforced his status as pariah--Mexican was synonymous with slime. Perennially harassed by the police, he was adrift, disoriented, a stranger in his own land; eventually, he was incarcerated on murder charges for a crime he did not commit.

Upon his release, Baca sought to find his center, to turn himself into an honorable man. But he stumbled, and in flight he sold drugs, rambling without direction through San Diego and Arizona. The narcos' and the FBI's tête-à-tête in a bullet-infested crash the scene is vividly described in the memoir. Arraigned again, he ended up in solitary confinement, and after defying the system that purportedly sought to reform him ("prison did not rehabilitate me. Love for people did"), he learned to read. From that moment on he read, and read, and read, and then turned ink to paper, at which point he surprised himself a poet--and he surprised others too: His gifts were pristine, unadulterated from the start.

I was often overwhelmed by the sorrow and commiseration conveyed in Baca's memoir. It is a luminous book, honest to a fault. Every so often the author indulges in epiphanies that sound like clichés: for instance, "I didn't know what I'd done to deserve my life, but I'd done the best I could with what I had." But those platitudes are what people less interested in literature and more in the rough-and-tumbleness of life are likely to respond to fully. A Place to Stand is about place in the largest, most flexible sense of the term: as home, but also as the soil of one's roots and as the literary pantheon in which one fits. In that sense the book belongs to the subgenre of prison tales for which the twentieth century was fertile ground. From The Autobiography of Malcolm X to Vaclav Havel's diaries, the central paradigm doesn't change: involuntary confinement as a ticket to enlightenment--and even messianic revelation. In the Americas, this subgenre is obviously substantial, filled with names like Graciliano Ramos and Reinaldo Arenas; north of the Rio Grande, figures like Piri Thomas, Miguel Piñero and Luis J. Rodríguez have also heard the sound of their voice behind bars. Baca too enters jail as a lost soul and leaves it empowered; in the early fragments of the book he is a vato loco, a crazy dude. But after the imprisonment he is an unapologetic, ideologically defined Chicano. "Most people might assume that cons spend their time thinking about what they're going to do when their time is up, fantasizing about the women they're going to fuck and scams they're going to run, or planning how they're going to go straight and everything will be different," Baca writes. "I did think about the future sometimes, but more and more it was the past my mind began to turn to, especially during those first days and nights in solitary." Those nights led Baca to a debacle with his own phantoms, and to the conviction that life has a purpose only when one devises one for it. The epilogue of A Place to Stand is especially moving: In it Baca's mother returns to her Mexican identity, but her second husband stops her short with five bullets in her face from a .45--a mesmerizing image of defeat, which Baca successfully turns around in his telling.

Maturity... For years I've been looking for an accurate definition of the word. What does it really mean? "Fullness or perfection of growth or development," announces, tentatively, the Oxford English Dictionary, but this is an unsatisfactory explication. The purpose of any artist who takes himself seriously is to make the best of his talents fit the condition in which he finds himself. Is maturity the capacity to change and still remain loyal to one's own vision? Earlier in this review I referred to Baca's work as an oeuvre, which isn't the same as work. Oeuvre implies mutation, the desire to change from one mode to another, the willingness to comprehend nature and society from contrasted stands. Baca's poetry is monochromatic, but the same might be said of any poet of stature: A set of motifs and anecdotes reappears under different facades. But every time, the reader reaches a depth unlike the previous one.

Baca's latest books are about anger, but he seems to be less angry than before. Time has allowed him to zoom in on his mission: to travel outward and inward as a Chicano in America, with all the complications that the identity entails; and to use language to bid farewell to his many selves. In Healing Earthquakes he describes his search as

leading me back across the wasteland of my life

to marvel at my own experience and those around me

whose own humbled lives graced me with assurance

that if I stayed on the path of love, of seeking the good in people,

of trying to be an honorable man,

that I too would one day have the love of family and friends

and be part of life as it spun like a star in the dark

radiating light on its journey--.

This search, it is clear now, is a towering legacy.

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