Jimmy Santiago Baca has been saved by the word. And by word, I don’t mean the Bible; I mean the written word. He learned to read and write while in prison and since then has become a fierce, courageous presence on the American literary scene. He’s won honors like the Pushcart Prize and the American Book Award—honors that are well-deserved and that, thankfully, have not diluted the character of his work. He writes to call out injustice, to wrestle with ideas, to balance the horror and hope present in our day-to-day lives.
I’m in the process of reading two of his collections of poetry, each written for one of his children: The Esai Poems and The Lucia Poems. At the moment, I’ve just finished The Esai Poems. I’m holding off on The Lucia Poems until tomorrow morning, when I can take advantage of the Thanksgiving holiday and let myself spend several hours sinking into his words.
In her introduction to this collection Carolyn Forché tells us that “Jimmy Santiago Baca gives us the secret and present—and yes, dangerous—reality at the heart of our democracy.” What makes The Esai Poems so remarkable is the way they balance his rage and marvel: rage at the daily loss of human potential through war, imprisonment, indifference and marvel at the infinite miracles, both physical and spiritual, that mark the life of his son, Esai.
Let me start by giving you a taste of his sense of marvel. In the poem “Prolougue” that opens this collection he describes his son in phrases that are Whitmanesque: “let your beautiful feet rush through the/grass as if each/blade of grass/were a harp string/and you were falling from string to string, a/tiny little fellow/reduced to the size of a lizard,/and my goodness, play the songs of giants my son.”
Looking at his son, he celebrates “the festive possibilities of all earthly infants/from Jesus, Dalai Lama, Mother Teresa, Buddha, to Essai/star at the tip of the tree of life.” He shows us the divine in the ordinary, the ordinary in divine.
Despite the inherent marvel of human life, Baca sees life as a battle, with the marginalized struggling to survive while those who have cling tightly to their wealth and focus on generating more. He describes his infant son’s “tiny hands/that will have to fight for dignity;/ claw through and dig up/struggling your way to peace/bloody knuckled, scratched and cut.” In a later peom, he return to this theme of the struggle for survival that even children face: “much of what I write—/the poems, that is—are stones/I litter the dusty roads with/so kids can pick them up readily/to throw at tanks.” The written word has saved Santiago Baca. He continues to craft it in hopes of helping other survive.
Baca the father is also Baca the activist (though “activist” seems inadequate to describe all he does), who tells his son “your steps are acts of love against cruise missiles/your open arms as you rush headlong to me,/acts of love against bigots who would label protesters/terrorists.”
It’s this dual vision that makes his poems so compelling. Baca describes the incongruencies of our lives in ways that enable us to see them more sharply. Working our way through his poems, I found myself nodding, yes, and yes again, feeling deeply grateful that he could give voice to issues I’ve so often wrestled without without achieving any sort of satisfactory resolution.
Read Baca. Read him once. Read him again. Let his poems help open your eyes to both beauty and horror. At this time of year when we remind ourselves to give thanks, let him help you keep in mind the things we might someday be thankful for if we demand a fairer, more loving world.