Jimmy Santiago Baca Poetry: American Poets Analysis
Describing himself as a “detribalized Apache”—a man born and raised outside the predominant social patterns of American life—Jimmy Santiago Baca has based his poetry on a commitment to the presentation and preservation of a marginalized, degraded, and often silent segment of American society. Speaking about his utilization of Chicano motifs in his work, he has said that one can “be successful in this society and still offer it all the resources that come from [one’s] culture.” His faith in the latent redemptive energy inherent in the production of poetry, an act that he regards as responsible for his own survival and that he feels can restore dignity to other people who have struggled with destabilizing psychic states, has enabled him to explore and express conditions of extreme mental and emotional duress. His work, frequently autobiographical in nature, charts a course from near total despair through periods of reversal and dejection toward a life of real accomplishment in literary and social terms.
In conversations about his work, Baca has consistently stressed his belief that poetry is the ultimate act of self-creation, explaining that he has been able to overcome the very grim circumstances of his youth and teenage years through a poetic process of anguished rebirth that he says “gives you a brief view of the intense beauty of life.” Because his work deals with the most sordid aspects of existence, the “intense beauty” is not reduced or trivialized by easy emotion or appeals to bogus and shallow sentimentality. Contrary to William Butler Yeats’s observation in “The Second Coming” that “the worst/ Are full of passionate intensity,” Baca’s poetry is an endorsement of the redemptive, inspiring qualities that passion communicated through appropriate language can generate. The “passionate intensity” of Baca’s work has lost none of its fiery energy or inventive brilliance.
Martín; &, Meditations on the South Valley
Denise Levertov, who was instrumental in bringing Baca’s early work into print, wrote in her eloquent introduction to Martín; &, Meditations on the South Valley that the work “draws upon elements in Baca’s own history, but does not duplicate them.”
The volume consists of two long narrative poems about Baca’s semifictionalized figure, who follows a path similar to the author’s in a quest for a stable family and a real home. Along the course of this archetypal journey, the narrator passes through a period of personal desolation; a barren, desert landscape; and then on toward a fertile valley, where he establishes a secure place to dwell. The second half of the volume opens with the destruction by fire of the house that represents Martín’s initial removal from the poverty of the past, and then proceeds as Martín returns to the barrio, the place of his worst experiences as a young man. Now, seen from a different perspective, the barrio offers a harsh but penetrating vision of beauty that Martín recognizes as one of the sources of the lyric element found in all his work. The poem closes with the reconstruction of the house destroyed by fire and the impulse to write poems to replace the ones lost in the blaze, including the separate poems in the book itself.
Baca called the poem “the rediscovery of who I was” and noted that it marked his reemergence into the world after years lost to drug addiction. He designed the poem as an attempt to portray the full scope of a Chicano civilization as opposed to the “official” depiction, “a long poem that could describe what happened here in the last twenty years.” Poet Gary Soto described the poem as “a sort of Ironweed of the West,” with many Spanish words, including abundant street slang, that conveyed the unique flavor of a region essentially invisible prior to the work of Baca and others of his generation.
Immigrants in Our Own Land, and Selected Earlier Poems
In Immigrants in Our Own Land, and Selected Earlier Poems, Baca chose a title that expressed his position as an outsider, challenging a dominant culture that had effectively forced his community into a “protective” silence. Most of the poems were written while Baca was in prison, detailing a life in jail often set in sharp contrast with dreams of “the handsome world” outside. The title poem delineates the ways in which inmates establish their own close fraternity of cooperation, and it is characteristic of the ingenuity and methods of endurance to which a beleaguered cohort of society has resorted for survival.
The poems about incarceration are candid and explicit without being brutal, as Baca is not trying to shock a more genteel audience. Their intent is to inform, and the clear-eyed way in which Baca describes his life and the people he met is intriguing without being sensationalistic or falsely romantic. Many of the poems (“In My Land,” “So Mexicans Are Taking Jobs from Americans”) are specifically political without being polemical, with Baca’s stance introducing an element of humor that ameliorates his justified anger. The exuberance of his mocking but ultimately idealistic “The New Warden” is an indication of his unquenchable thirst for a better life and of the guarded optimism that informs his accounts of hard times and hard men.
Black Mesa Poems
The Black Mesa near Albuquerque was sacred ground to the Isleta tribal group, Baca’s Indio ancestors, and in Black Mesa Poems, Baca celebrates the geological features of the land and the generations who lived there. “My book is a homage to the people of the South Valley,” Baca observed, “a gift of gratitude for keeping the culture alive.” By honoring the Chicano community that he regards as his true spiritual home, Baca traces his evolution from anger on the edge of a violence he feels will always be in his soul to a position where he can accept...
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