On Singing at the Gates: Selected Poems by Jimmy Santiago Baca

Ronald A. Sharp

New York, NY: Grove Press, 2014. 254 pages. $18.00.
(Click on cover image to purchase)

The publication in 2014 of Jimmy Santiago Baca’s Singing at the Gates: Selected Poems was, like that of most books of poetry in America today, scarcely noticed in the larger culture and barely noted even in poetry circles. Aside from a brief interview with the poet about the book on National Public Radio, and a tiny handful of even tinier reviews in obscure publications, the book quickly became part of that loud silence to which even serious readers of poetry have become sadly accustomed. Over the last four decades Baca has published dozens of collections of poems and stories, essays and memoirs, even a novel—both at small presses and at his two major publishers, New Directions and Grove Press.

Abandoned by his Chicano and Apache parents, Baca spent his childhood in a variety of orphanages and on the streets of Albuquerque and Santa Fe; at eighteen he began serving a six-year sentence at the Arizona State Prison, half of it in solitary confinement. As he recounts in his remarkable 2001 memoir A Place to Stand, he taught himself how to read in jail and eventually began both reading and writing poetry. When some of those early poems fortuitously found their way into the hands of Denise Levertov, she immediately recognized Baca “as one of the most naturally gifted poets I’ve ever known.”

“What makes his writing so exciting to me,” she said in her introduction to his 1987 volume Martin and Meditations on the South Valley, “is the way in which it manifests both an intense lyricism and that transformative vision which perceives the mythic and archetypal significance of life-events.”

Poets as diverse as Garrett Hongo and Carolyn Forche have praised Baca, Hongo arguing that he is a “force” in American poetry whose “words heal, inspire, and elicit the earthly response of love,” and Forche claiming that he “has written some of the most lyrically beautiful images I have encountered. . . . This is poetry taking all the right chances for all the right reasons.” Nearly thirty years ago, Liam Rector praised Baca for drawing “portraits of barrio life with great telescopic accuracy and precision,” and Ilan Stavans, general editor of The Norton Anthology of Latino Literature and perhaps the most prominent American voice in the critical discussion of Latin American poetry, not only edited an edition of Baca’s selected poems translated into Spanish  (Selected Poems of Jimmy Santiago Baca, N.Y.: New Directions, 2009) but also himself published three of the poet’s most recent books.

Baca’s mixed relation to fame is of course not unique among contemporary poets. But what strikes me as distinctive in this regard about his new collection of selected poems is that it embraces this paradox boldly, lovingly, even comically. Like many volumes of selected poems from poets before him, Baca’s selected is not his first or only book of selected poems. Nearly twenty years before Stavans’s Spanish edition of selected poems, New Directions published Immigrants in our Own Land and Selected Early Poems in 1990. What is most striking about Singing at the Gates is that Baca not only passes up the opportunity of choosing from among his whole body of work what he considers his most important poems for this new selected, but that he does so without saying a word about that bold strategy in the long introduction that prefaces this new volume. Instead Baca reprints in this book many of his earliest poems along with some of his more recent work that has perhaps not received the attention it deserves.

Baca is now in his early sixties. I cannot imagine any other poet passing up this golden opportunity of looking back over forty years of poems, and selecting what he considers his very best work. But for Baca, whose entire life has had so little in common with what we conventionally imagine as a “career,” it seems entirely in character for him to ignore such easy developmental narratives and seize instead the opportunity to make available to a wider audience many of his first exuberant efforts as a young poet, when he was coming into not just the exciting discovery of his vocation, but of his very literacy—and in an atmosphere utterly at odds with everything that poetry represents. Knowing intimately what was entailed in teaching himself how to read and then teaching himself how to write, in an environment that could not be less hospitable or more hostile to such an ambition, Baca wants to keep the emphasis on that unimaginably persistent creative spirit and drive rather than its products—not because he does not value the achievement of a completed work of art but because, given his experience, he cannot turn a blind eye to its context, which is assumed to be not just a curious or fascinating biographical background but a highly significant component of the very life and meaning of his poems. There is in this choice a heroic combination of chutzpah and humility, a comic engagement with the conventions of what constitutes a career or a success on the one hand and what constitutes truly original or genuinely heroic action on the other.

At the very beginning of his fifteen-page author’s note introducing his selected poems, Baca writes about the importance of the “Mariposa Letters,” a group of his earliest poems written as letters to a poet he had not yet met who was living in North Carolina. Baca devotes twenty-five pages of his selected to these passionate first efforts, which simultaneously reveal his enormous gifts even as they rely on the erotic fantasies of a jailed man:

I want your hips to shake
like a fish flapping out of water
your hips slapping and whipping
from side to side
as if your womb lips were gills
sucking feverishly at my oxen-thick cock
prodding you, your womb unfolding
like a butterfly from the golden petal of the afternoon,

The eroticism, of course, is counter-pointed to the hellish realities of prison life that surround the poet:

I have silenced my poetry and tongue to hear the clear
screams in the night of men slicing their throats
of victims being beaten by men I know,

Among the poems from the late seventies and early eighties, three seem particularly strong: “Walking Down to Town and Back,” a complex narrative poem from 1981’s Swords of Darkness; “Just Before Dawn,” a brief but powerful evocation of the hopelessness of prison, where

     young prisoners hug their blankets
like frozen carcasses strewn across
timeless blizzard plains;

and “Tapestry of Downtown,” also from 1978’s Rockbook 3, with its stark image of six birds making their nest “on one of the old factory windowsills” as they

huddle their shale feathers
against the sharp cold of morning,
bundled up, dark barbs of coal.

Baca does not include the poems from what is probably the period in which he achieved his most recognition, between the mid-eighties and the turn of the century, a period in which he published Martin and Meditations on the South Valley (1987), Black Mesa Poems (1989), Immigrants in Our Own Land and Selected Early Poems (1990), and Healing Earthquakes (2001). The only volume during this period from which he includes poems is 1999’s Set This Book on Fire, which in my view is less successful than many of the other volumes he published during this period, except for two wonderful poems that he does include, “The Truth Be Known” and the title poem “Set This Book on Fire!”

The final section of Singing at the Gates contains virtually the entirety of a volume that Baca published in 2008 called Rita and Julia. The only poem from that book that is not reprinted is “Huitzilopochtli,” a sixteen-page poem that has its own charms. But the long poem called “Rita Falling from the Sky” is perhaps the single most powerful poem in this book. Based on the story of a Raramuri Indian named Rita, who was charged with murdering her husband in Chihuahua, Mexico, the poem documents her crossing of the desert and ending up in Kansas City, where she was found rummaging for food in a dumpster and committed to an asylum; she was assumed insane until a doctor visiting from Chihuahua recognized that what had been considered her crazy babbling was, in fact, her speaking in her native language. “I am alive,” cries Rita,

because hunger breaks me in tortilla pieces
I am sober because hunger drinks my blood
still warm from the sword wound,
I am content because hunger bathes me in its morning dew
adding to my flowered soul the moisture for it to rise,
I am healthy because hunger
Licks the succulent meat from my bones.

“Rita Falling from the Sky” is followed by five other poems that extend Baca’s exploration of social and cultural issues, including the elaborate celebration of Chicano culture in the title poem, “Singing at the Gates,” and finally some recent poems that, as Baca says, “connect to the plight of people struggling against the oppression of class, of poverty, of apathy, and the struggles of war.” There are powerful moments in these last poems but there are also moments that border on cliché, which makes one grateful that Baca has continued, in recent years, to explore wonderfully subtle and tender domestic and comic modes in addition to his longstanding preoccupation with fundamental issues of freedom and justice. The Esai Poems (2011), which constitute Book 1 of Breaking Bread with the Darkness—an extraordinary volume centered on family and children—is perhaps the high point of Baca’s new mastery of the domestic, still another astonishing leap forward in the career of one of our most important and nourishing poets. His new selected, Singing at the Gates, reminds us that those gates are prison gates even as it bursts them open with song.

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