Jimmy Santiago Baca's life reads like a compelling novel whose sequel you wait anxiously for in long lines at the local bookstore, your feet aching, your children whining, the cashier taking her break right before you are liberated by check-out. Yet, you smile all the while--because you have the next chapters in your hands and that's all that matters. His "famous" book is the memoir, A Place to Stand. It won the prestigious International Award and was a best-seller. It details Baca's descent and rise through his turbulent early life. He is Chicano and Apache, was initially raised by his grandmother--then, in an orphanage. He was a runaway by age thirteen, and was sentenced to five years in a federal prison at twenty-one. This was the catalyst for a whole new life...in prison, Baca learned to read and write for the first time. He hasn't looked back yet.
In A Place to Stand he describes overcoming his illiteracy as a transcendent experience, "Language was opening me up in ways I couldn't explain and I assumed it was part of the apprenticeship of a poet. I culled poetry from odors, sounds, faces, and ordinary events occurring around me. Breezes bulged me as if I were cloth; sounds nicked their marks on my nerves; objects made impressions on my sight as if in clay. There, in the soft lightning of language, life centered and ground itself in me and I was flowing with the grain of the universe. Language placed my life experiences in a new context, freeing me for the moment to become with air as air, with clouds as clouds, from which new associations arose to engage me in present life in a more purposeful way." Surreal and beautiful--and something any writer can relate to, if not articulate, as Baca did.
Winter Poems Along the Rio Grande is a book I found in Taos last December. Baca is a New Mexico native, so the local book-sellers are all quite proud to claim him. He had a whole section tucked away at "Moby Dickens" Bookstore beneath the curved eaves of the whitewashed ceiling. I clutched them to me and found a chair in the upstairs room beside a heavy lead-glass window overlooking Bent Street. I had the afternoon free, and I spent it with Baca. This book is the one I brought home with me because it resonated in an intimate way. Though I had no river like Baca to walk beside every day to witness its changing face, I could understand his drive to do so and what he had learned. Winter Poems is one long meditation based on Baca's daily walks along the banks of the Rio Grande. New Mexico in the winter in the high-country means snow--means cold stark skies and inexplicable beauty. Baca's poems are full of these things. His poems are full.
Lately, I've been walking alone and at dusk--in spite of the chill in the air (or, more recently, its benign warmth). Life doesn't close down in the winter. Outside, the dramas of ravens and jays don't end--trees still change and move in the damp bitterness. Life out in the suburbs means we can miss out on some of the wild world...but, it breathes here in the corners of our fenced-in yards and neatly clipped lawns. We just have to look for it...and take our lessons as they come. Walking over the Earth makes me own it just a little more deeply. Or, as Baca explains it in poem 6:
I watch the river water shift and whirl, wanting my life that way--
with such grace,
the current caresses its way forth
be it stone, branch, dirt island,
constantly changes and re-creates its passage
its way around, along, between, bulging and narrowing
I've stood here, asking the river's blessings
a year now,
holding my heart out to it,
a heap of broken pieces
over the silvery effulgence sparkling with sunlight,
even when it's gray and overcast
the river shines.
If I cried right now,
it would be out of joy,
for having this river here with me
I'd cry for making the mistakes I've made,
for having the faith that tomorrow might be a better day
and the eagerness to put one foot in front of the other.
--Jimmy Santiago Baca: 2004--