Thursday Shout Out: Jimmy Santiago Baca (okay, it's Friday)

For many Latino (and non-Latino) poets, Jimmy Santiago Baca is a hero of sorts. With a long sordid history of pulling himself out and up from the mire, Baca has traversed the poetic world as both a rogue and a wayward leader. Still, I am often surprised that he is not as well known as he should be. With his first poems published in Mother Jones and lauded by Denise Levertov while Baca was still in prison in the 70s (he spent 6 years in prison on drug possession, read his book, A Place to Stand), he has since made a life and a living out of writing. Based in New Mexico and spending the majority of his time writing and running workshops in prisons, in schools, and in the community, Baca has become an epic figure in Mexican American poetry. His book, Spring Poems Along the Rio Grande (New Directions, 2007) is a quieter Baca, an older, less angry Baca. Full of ruminations and reflections on his life along the bosque, this is a book meant to be read in the sage bushes without the noises of the city tuning out the birds. Two days ago, I pulled it off my shelf since first reading it when it came out last year, and thought I’d give it a shout out. I suppose I needed its quietude and whisper.

Though Daisy talked about the issue of separating politics from poetry in her earlier post, I for one think they can never be severed, and in the opening poem to Baca’s, Spring Poems he weaves his political thoughts deftly into the landscape of New Mexico.
The Heart Sharpens Its Machete
“The winter has been a mild one, snow
melted away by noon
no heavy gusts toppled elms or cracked cottonwoods—
they passed by
as if I were in a train watching
them from the window, rushing through—
everyone around me speaking a foreign language,
away from what is broken
leaving landscapes of war,
people starving,
refugees waving for us to help them,
homes they once loved in and slept and ate in
bombed to rubble.”
And after this set up of the mild natural winter juxtaposed with the violence and ripping apart of the ongoing war, Baca then turns the poem inward. The poem becomes something innocuous, something unable to fix anything. He writes,
“And I know this poem
can’t irrigate democracy with its blood
can’t heal the wounded in Afghanistan or Iraq
this poem’s soft voice does not drown out patriotic
it whispers from this corner of the bosque”
Baca has long since been deemed a political poet with his open dialogue about Latino politics, issues of race, racism, incarceration, and the politics of language. Even the film he co-wrote, Blood In, Blood Out (also known as Bound by Honor) delves into these themes. However, this book takes a different turn, as did the book before it (Winter Poems Along the Rio Grande, New Directions 2004). A calm gratefulness offered up to the world is evident in every poem. The fierce anger has subsided, and though the Baca we know is still present and pounding, the tone is one of celebration and magic as opposed to those rails against oppression.
Where the poems hit their stride is when Baca uses the natural world as a grounding force while traveling in the inner roads of the mind.
From Beyond My Catch:
“Pausing now and then on a boulder,
my mind pawed it—
my discharge paper from prison
in the wind descending behind the hills
beyond my catch.”
And from All I Ask For where the language is amped up by the river’s pulse he starts:
“dodging a ducking wrecked weddings of tree and stone,
Heel-stomp and toe-grip ledges through rock rips.
Slung branches and root-butchered boulders
with black blades chipping out a passage for water”
And finishes with this simple truth,
“I still have a long way to go,
But it’s real—
I’m tired, hungry, aching
and that’s all I ask for these days.”
And it is real. As real as they come. Baca’s book is simpler and differently driven than his others, more focused on a singular movement. It has a soft strength and joy that in the end offers a great appreciation for the physical world of the bosque and for the ever expanding language of the heart. As Li Young Lee said, “he writes with a green honesty.” It is yet another welcomed volume to Jimmy Santiago Baca’s important and stunning body of work.

Originally Published: May 2nd, 2008

Ada Limón is the author of Lucky Wreck (2006), This Big Fake World (2006), Sharks in the Rivers (2010), and Bright Dead Things (2015), a finalist for the National Book Award and the National Books Critics Circle Award. She earned an MFA from New York University, and is the recipient of...

  1. May 2, 2008

    i'm sure i already told you this story, ada, but JSB was the first poet i wrote a paper on as a college freshman. (my boyfriend at the time was from new mexico and had given me the books--probably some of the first off-syllabus, contemporary poetry i'd read). i wish i still had the paper--i'm sure it was horrible, but i know it was enthusiastic at least!

  2. May 2, 2008

    Ha. That's wonderful. Yeah, Baca has been key for so many of us, it's nice to know he still produces so much work and is still so madly in love with language.

  3. May 19, 2008

    If anyone knows Jimmy Santiago Baca's home adress, I am doing a project in school where I have to send him a letter, and it's quite hard without an address

  4. May 20, 2008

    I do have a way to contact him, but why don't you email me off-line.