When I picked up Jimmy Santiago Baca’s semi-autobiographical, two-volume “novel in verse” poetry collection Martín & Meditations on the South Valley, I knew little about the acclaimed poet’s backstory. I did not know, for example, that like his narrator, Martín, Baca was abandoned by his parents in early childhood, or that, unlike his narrator, Baca taught himself to read and write—and then to read and write poetry—in prison.
(Baca on finding poetry: “until then, I had felt as if I had been born into a raging ocean where I swam relentlessly, flailing my arms in hope of rescue, of reaching a shoreline I never sighted. . . . But when at last I wrote my first words on the page, I felt an island rising beneath my feet like the back of a whale. As more and more words emerged, I could finally rest: I had a place to stand for the first time in my life.”) I didn’t know that, like Baca’s own story, Martín & Meditations on the South Valley speaks to the human capacity for rebuilding—for finding freedom not in transformation per se, but rather in a perpetual and unwavering return to the self.
By “perpetual and unwavering return to the self,” I really mean that as I read Martín & Meditations on the South Valley, I thought about what we mean when we talk about transformation. For, like Baca, Martín’s life is marked by racial and economic oppression; transformation in this context, however, entails not a sharp break from this background but a refusal to repudiate it and an implicit rejection of the commonly accepted notion that transformation is synonymous with conformity. Take, for example, a moment in Martín, poem VIII, in which the speaker notes: “there were children like me/all across the world. In the yellowed pages/of afternoons, while back-yard trash smoldered in barrels . . . these children once with a dream,/now grown into adults, let their dream/dull against the iron hour-files/of minimum wage jobs.” Here, Baca simultaneously forces the reader to confront the reality of oppression—its quiet and oft-unspoken ubiquity, its inescapable devastation, the way in which it dulls dreams “against the iron hour-files/of minimum wage jobs”—and resuscitates the people and the place itself, peels them apart from the one-dimensional label of Oppressed that paradoxically serves to further reduce. “These children,” Baca writes earlier in the poem, “learned to roll their shirt cuffs up,/pomade hair back into a ducktail,/toss the white dice of their heart and soul/onto mean street curbs,/hoping each roll/would make a dream come true.” In other words, these children—these children who will eventually grow into adults who will eventually have children of their own—have learned to dream wholly and completely, have learned to roll up their shirt sleeves and slick back their hair and give themselves over their dreams entirely even when the very country they live in and its “mean street curbs” are fundamentally designed to break them.
But hope, then, for Martín—and, by extension, for Baca—is not an act of willful delusion. Rather, hope in these poems serves as a bright flame of rebellion, the tool with which Martín rebuilds himself, continuously and despite all. In the same poem noted above, Martín goes on to say, “I still had my dream for a better life,/and yearned for it,/like the Mesquite tree/in the desert/howls thirst/for lush storm runoffs./So I returned to Burque.” Hope, here—a “dream for a better life”—is as essential and elemental as the thirst for rain in the desert; despite perpetual draught, he can no more stop hoping than a Mesquite tree can stop yearning for “lush storm runoffs.” Furthermore, hope prompts Martín to return to Burque—to the very place, in other words, that he once left. That Baca reverses the perhaps more expected narrative of departure as a means to transformation is crucial; rebirth, in these poems, is not an act of distancing the self from the past but of returning to the past, of rebuilding something new from its detritus, of refusing to adopt the narrative of irredeemable brokenness so often attached to the places like the one Martín calls home.
I am far from an expert on poetry or Jimmy Santiago Baca or much of anything, really. (For a much more extensive and detailed insight into Baca’s life, be sure to watch A Place to Stand, Daniel Glick’s award-winning documentary on the poet.) But I can say that I thought about the recurring themes of return and rebuilding in Baca’s poems while I laid ankles-crossed on a concrete bench in the midst of a place that I once loved that has since deteriorated into ruin. Specifically, I thought about the final poem in the second volume of the collection, Meditations on the South Valley; in this poem, Martín rebuilds the home that he already rebuilt once before, painstakingly, only to watch as it was eaten by flames. And it is here that I would like to end this meandering meditation—here, on Baca’s terms: “I gave birth to a house./It came, cried from my hands, sweated from my body,/ached from my gut and back./I was stripped down to the essential/force in my life—create a better world, a better me/out of love. I became a child of the house,/and it showed me/the freedom of a new beginning.”
This blog was written by guest author Katie Miller, board member of Casa Libre, a home for the literary arts in Tucson. Bookmans is honored to collaborate with both Katie Miller and filmmaker Daniel Glick, the documentarian behind A Place to Stand about the journey of poet, novelist, and screenwriter Jimmy Santiago Baca, for this blog. A Place to Stand airs on KAET/Arizona PBS on October 15 at 8 pm.
Additional air dates for A Place to Stand:
KAET/Arizona PBS (8.1) – October 17 at 1 am (HD)
Arizona PBS World (8.3) – October 24 at 1 am, 9 am, 3 pm
October 27 at 5 am, 11 pm
October 28 at 3 am, 10 am, 6 pm
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