Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 492
Jimmy Santiago Baca begins “Green Chile” with a distinctly personal statement that establishes his intimate experience with one of the staples of southwestern American cuisine, then expands his meditation on the significance of the chile pepper in the life of the residents of that region throughout the poem. In a conversational address to the reader, Baca declares his preference for “red chile over [his] eggs” in the introductory section of the poem, the first of three parts which convey the poet’s lifelong involvement with an agricultural item that has a cultural resonance considerably beyond its delectable properties.
Indicating the central aspect of chile in his life, Baca describes how “Red chile ristras decorate [his] door,/ dry on [his] roof, and hang from eaves,” before widening the focus to show how forms of the plant are evident throughout the community, lending “historical grandeur” and a “festive welcome” to the market commons. Deepening the description, Baca personifies the plant, claiming that he can “hear them talking in the wind” and likening the sound of their talk to the “rasping/ tongues of old men,” evoking the spirit of village elders whose words recall ancient customs and ways.
The poem shifts perspective in the second section as Baca reverses the outward motion of the first part by developing a warmly detailed portrait of his grandmother, who, in contrast to the poet’s taste, “loves green chile.” In an extended recollection of his visits to her in his youth, Baca describes the ways in which his grandmother prepared a favorite meal, starting with the relationship between the cook and the plant. Here, Baca presents the green pepper as a version of a “well-dressed gentleman” caller to whom his grandmother responds with an enthusiastic combination of appreciation for an impressive physical presence and a robust application of the responsive interaction that a masterful cook brings to the ingredients of the meal. Baca emphasizes the ways in which the physicality of the person and the plant becomes palpable during the process of preparation, envisioning his grandmother “with lust/ on her hot mouth, sweating over the stove,” and a “mysterious passion on her face.” His retrospective gratitude for “her sacrifice/ to her little prince” concludes this section on a note of satisfaction and achievement.
The third section widens the field again in a conclusive summary of the importance of the pepper for communities “All over New Mexico.” Speaking with a sense of a life’s observations, Baca identifies “sunburned men and women” in small towns throughout the state—“Belen, Veguita, Willard, Estancia”—who have gathered the crop and who are “roasting green chile/ in screen-sided homemade barrels” to provide a simple, delicious meal for residents and travelers. As a measure of meaning, Baca places himself directly within this “beautiful ritual,” in which for “a dollar a bag” he, and anyone who can appreciate the food, as well as its cultural relevance, can be a part of a still-vivid tradition.
Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 409
In accordance with the dynamic physical nature of the plant at the center of the poem, Baca uses sensory images of a particularly engaging nature to convey the prominent qualities of the pepper. Sound, sight, touch, and taste are brought into play, as Baca hears “rasping tongues,” sees a “swan-neck stem, tapering to a flowery/ collar,” notes his grandmother taking the pepper “sensuously in her hand,/ rubbing its firm glossed sides,” and says, “my mouth burns/ and I hiss and drink a tall glass of cold water.” These are the components of what appears as a living entity, and Baca turns the chile in his grandmother’s hands into a metaphorical version of a romantic visitor. “Ah, voluptuous, masculine,” he calls “him,” with “an air of authority and youth.”
This leads toward an extended image of his grandmother in the act of preparing the meal, which is also designed to be read as an erotic exchange between parties with an open and honest mixture of desire and arousal. The culmination of the relationship is a comparison of the chile to “a tiger in mid-leap,” with “Its bearing magnificent and taut,” which Baca’s grandmother cuts open with a thrust of her blade and “lust/ on her hot mouth.”
The personification of the plant is designed to give it a place of prominence beyond an inanimate object, to suggest that it is a sentient being containing the spirit of the culture that Baca is celebrating. In casting himself both as a youthful observer of the power the pepper exercises on the imagination and as a mature adult responding to its allure, Baca maintains a kind of dual narrative with respect to the poem’s subject. He also, in his use of a friendly, inclusive conversational mode of speech, is projecting himself as a character in the tableau.
The language that he employs from the start is open and direct, creating a mood of exuberance and permitting the reader to enter the world that the poem re-creates. His exclamation of delight in the line “Ah, voluptuous, masculine,” is characteristic of an unabashed pleasure in the word picture he is drawing. His use of familiar words from the Spanish language such as “tortilla” or “con carne,” and the less familiar ristras, which the glossary in the back of Black Mesa Poems defines as “a braided string of chiles (peppers),” gives the poem a flavor of a specific locality without restricting its accessibility.
Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 213
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