“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.