The charges that Baca’s poetry is prosy and self-engrossed are, to some extent, justified; he has also been accused of misspelling the Chicano Spanish that his poems include. Some readers might also feel that Baca’s empathy for convicts and members of youth gangs overlooks an important factor: What about their victims?
These criticisms should not be allowed to obscure Baca’s achievements. He is largely a self-taught poet who has shown tremendous development, and indicated the capacity for more, over his career. It has been said that Baca taught himself to read and write in prison. He got his schooling primarily from the streets and prison, so it is not surprising that his early work should reflect this background. Nor is it surprising that his early work should be prosy, documentary descriptions of his experiences.
The remarkable advances made by Baca are apparent in Martín: &, Meditations on the South Valley. There are prosy passages, especially when Baca provides exposition and narrative transitions, but the description is sharper, more selective, and filled with striking, even surrealistic, metaphors:
The lonely afternoon in the vast expanse of Ilano,was a blue knifesharpening its hot, silver edge on the distanthorizon of mountains, the wind blew overchipping red grit, carving a pre-historic scar- scaledwinged reptile of the mountain.
His subject matter, while still grounded in his own life, has also become more inclusive. It has even assumed, as Levertov notes in the introduction, a mythic quality.
Black Mesa Poems shows development in other directions. Here Baca takes on machismo, the cult of aggressive manliness, and redefines it. He depicts a man who grows out of his violent concept of machismo, exemplified by killing a bull, and accepts a nurturing, caring role, represented by fatherhood. In an interview in the Albuquerque Journal, Baca stated that “I see a sort of feminism permeating the Chicano male now.”
In the same interview, Baca said that in raising his children he was “learning how to reparent myself because I was so brutalized” by growing up on the streets. Baca’s efforts to reparent himself and to redefine machismo are part of his overall poetic project to reclaim himself, his heritage, and the Chicano culture.
In this context, Baca’s autobiographical poetry is not simply self-engrossed; it takes on wider, even archetypal, meaning. The efforts of Baca and his hero Martín to reclaim themselves necessarily include identification with their culture, the Chicano culture, which must also be reclaimed. Therefore, the work of reclamation is interrelated, occurring along a spectrum that involves individuals, language, culture, history, and land.
Immigrants in Our Own Land
First published: 1979
Type of work: Poetry
Baca surveys his thoughts and experiences in prison.
Immigrants in Our Own Land provides samples of Baca’s early work, which is indeed prosy. The collection includes a number of so-called prose poems, description divided into prose paragraphs. Other poems are in free-verse lines. In both kinds of poems, however, the description is somewhat flat, including too much direct statement and metaphors which are commonplace or trite.
Similarly, the point of view in the poems is limited. Centered on Baca’s prison experience, the poems dwell on the plight of the inmates—on how Baca and the other inmates are ground down—but there is remarkably little concern with how they got there in the first place. It is as if readers are to assume that all these men are victims of mistakes and injustices. Baca may have even thought so at the time; he repeatedly expresses his solidarity with the other inmates and condemns the forces that oppress them.
The point of view,...
(The entire section is 1698 words.)