Wednesday, November 29, 2006



A Place to Stand, memoir by Jimmy Santiago Baca
(Grove Press, New York, 2001)

Well--this is a first for me! I’ve just read a poet’s memoir that I found profound, moving, inspirational--in short, a great read. But rather than making me rush to check out the author's poetry books, the memoir has made me reluctant. That is, if Jimmy Santiago Baca’s poems (which I hadn’t read prior to reading his memoir) don’t rise to the achievement of A Place to Stand, my disappointment, I thought, surely will be more profound from the expectations raised by his brilliantly-lucid memoir.

Nonetheless, the memoir (winner of the International Prize) stands on its own: clearly-written and attention-riveting. Check out this passage:

The next morning, after breakfast, we went to find my father. After a while we found the Tenderloin district. I grew very quiet, seeing the tramps passed out in the gutters, winos rummaging through Dumpsters, guys slinging heroin and cocaine on street corners, buildings boarded up and secured with barb-wire fences. I didn’t say anything. Marcos was tracking the streets by alphabetical order, until we found the address and pulled over in front of a crumbling brownstone. “This is it, Jimmy. Eighteen-thirty-eight Duran Street.”

“He doesn’t even know my mother’s back in New Mexico,” I said, staring out the window of the gray skies. I thought of the times riding with him in the car as a child, fearing we might be killed. Him crying about Mother, begging to know where she was. I kept wanting to get out and walk up the stairs and see him. But I knew my fantasy of a father was only that, a fantasy. It went something like me entering his room to find a well-dressed and sober man, embracing him, and going out to eat and talk. Taking him with me, waking up in a nice hotel room and having breakfast with him, and buying him an airline ticket and flying him out to New Mexico, where I’d meet him and we’d get a place. But if I went up those stairs, he’d be on the bed half naked, puking his guts out, screaming tha the needed a drink. What was I going to tell him when he asked about Mother? That she was married with two kids and another life and never wanted to see him again? I shouldn’t have come. “Drive on,” I told Marcos. “Drive—drive, get the fuck out of here!” Lonnie grabbed my hands because I was picking my bloody cuticles. I pushed her hands back. I squeezed myself with my arms crossed, trying to rock the pain out of me.

Marcos screeched the tires, fishtailing through the red-light district, past the nightmare of drunks and addicts and hookers. I didn’t want to see my father like this. “Where to?” Marcos asked. “Home,” I said. “Open this motherfucker up, let’s see what she’s got.” I hoped the speed would take away the bad feelings, take away my grief. Marcos asked me something, but I couldn’t talk. Lonnie was sniffling and I couldn’t comfort her. I sat there cold and distant as we drove out of San Francisco, up and down the hilly streets. The thunder rolled ominously and the rain turned everything gray. I pictured my father lurching and stumbling in the rain, mourning for my mother. He sincerely believed an encounter would miraculously end years of destruction and that they would live happily ever after. I rolled my window down and threw away the piece of paper with his address on it.

Or this excerpt on Baca in jail as he discovers poetry, for which a precedent first meant simply learning to read:

The last time I had anything to do with words was reading a little out of that girl’s stolen book in the county jail in Albuquerque. Before that was when I was seventeen and locked up in Albuquerque on suspicion of murder; I had punched out my windshield when Theresa broke up with me. To pass the time while awaiting arraignment, the guys there read books aloud to those of us who couldn’t read for ourselves. The stories had affected me deeply. I couldn’t tell you what a noun or verb was, or a subject and an object, or anything about punctuation, but that didn’t take away from the magic of the stories. I could have shared in the hero’s courageous achievements and felt the villain’s remorse for his actions.

Sitting in prison years later, unable to read my letter, I regretted not having learned to read. After hours of frustration, I finally understood that ht eman’s name was Harry, he was from Phoenix, and he had picked my name during a Christmas mass from a church list of inmates who had no family and no one writing them. I was eager to communicate with someone to alleviate the boredom of the dungeon. The state paid for stamps, envelops, and paper; I borrowed a pencil. I started writing in the morning, and almost all my attempts ended in crumpled paper wads on the floor. But by dinnertime I’d managed to put together a page.

Dear Harry
Hello Mr. Harry, my name is Jimmy Santiago Baca I’m in prison. Well your probably thinking who thise person is. Well everything started like thise. See I have been here for two year or more. I didn’t gravateted from high school. I am triendy to get my [GED] but I cuudent. I like it a lot. That’s why I’m asking for some advies how can I get good at it. Study a lot or keep reading book’s. See write now I have a lot of time in prison. Some day I hope I cuuld write. Im twenty-three year’s old and I hoping if you give me some addvices.

Thank you,
sincerlly yours,
Jimmy Santiago Baca.

It saddened me to realize that I had been in prison a little over two years. But I was hopeful too. I only had two and a half years left, and I felt I could make it. One of the guys showed me how to address my letter and where to put the stamp. Then, feeling flushed with achievement, I set it on the bars for the guard to pick up.

I pictured myself as a man in those black-and-white movies, an important man writing letters with business to do, plans to fulfill. Writing letters added an exciting dimension to my lackluster days and gave me a sense of self-esteem. My grammar was so deplorable that when a reply came, a few days later, accompanying Harry’s letter was a new paperback dictionary. He mentioned that I really needed to use it. His second letter was longer, and filled with missionary zeal.

Using the dictionary, I figured out that Harry was confined to a wheelchair from a World War II PT boat explosion. He was now a volunteer at a Samaritan house in Phoenix, ladling out soup to the homeless in the morning and sandwiches in the afternoon. His letter, friendly but polite, was expansive in its faith and religious fervor, exhorting me to welcome God’s love in my life. It took tremendous concentration to get through his letters. I’d study a word in connection to another word, and the longer I studied the more meanings it took on and the more subtle variations I could take from it.

I would set my dictionary next to me, prop my paper on my knees, sharpen my pencil with my teeth, and begin my reply. I would try to write the thoughts going through my mind, but they didn’t come out right. They lacked reality. A stream of ideas flowed through me, but they lost their strength as soon as I put them down. I erased so often and so hard I made holes in the paper. After hours of plodding word by word to write a clear sentence, I would read it and it didn’t even come close to what I’d meant to say. After a day of looking up words and writing, I’d be exhausted, as if I had run ten miles. I can’t describe how words electrified me. I could smell and taste and see their images vividly. I found myself waking up at 4 a.m. to reread a word or copy a definition.

As an aside, I'll note that reading of Baca’s “eras[ing] so often and so hard I made holes in the paper” enhanced my appreciation of these lines from Laura Riding Jackson:

The map of places passes
The reality of paper tears …

Holes in maps look through to nowhere.

The terms of Baca’s life leads itself to that notion of a story writing itself. Fiction is unnecessary for embellishing Baca’s life to make it dramatic, unlike with other memoirs which were fictionalized to heighten interest in their stories. A Place to Stand covers Baca’s life of childhood impoverishment, his stint in maximum-security prison, what he had to endure in jail to survive, and how poetry offered him a path out of despair.

This is a memoir that, as with certain poems, contains an urgency to its making. It not only achieves Baca’s hope that it becomes a worthwhile (educational and hope-inspiring) legacy for his two sons for understanding their history but, it provides a lesson to all about how one can work with inherited circumstances to not become mere victims. That poetry was Baca’s savior attests certainly to the power of poetry. Here, however, poetry can also a metaphor for other forms--say, a mentor, other occupations, a college education, religion and/or spirituality (not necessarily the same thing, of course)--that can serve as a saving grace in a life of deprivations: there can be a reason to look forward to getting out of bed each morning no matter how miserable circumstances are.

And so, this “review” can end there … except that the matter at hand is also poetry. Notwithstanding how the memoir is a clear achievement, how does it all translate to Baca’s poems?

Many poets have lived/inherited unique autobiographies that generate poems, and it’s always tricky when the lives of minorities are deemed interesting simply for being lives outside out of the (so-called) mainstream. It’s rarer for a poet--minority or not--to go beyond personal circumstances to achieve something more poetically profound rather than resting on the story’s laurels. Among poets of color, I think now of, among others, Jose Garcia Villa, Myung Mi Kim, Kimiko Hahn and Eric Gamalinda; these poets lived through times that would be interesting as conventional narratives and yet they’ve worked in forms that extend the poetic tradition: for Villa, comma poems and reverse assonance, for Kim, a poetics of rapture through rupture; for Hahn, a postmodern zuihitsu; and for Gamalinda, a trans-experimental duende (these are simplified descriptions, of course).

A Place to Stand contains a few samples of Baca's poems (and the only poems to date that I’ve read of Baca’s), of which here are three:

3 JANUARY 1977
is the vibrating cane
of the blind,
poking there
and feeling here
for the flower.

9 JANUARY 1977
A leaf blew in my cell
through the bars
and the veins on the leaves
               were like the cheekbones
               of very old people.

11 JANUARY 1977
How desires to love her
turn this night
into salt water
and my loneliness a wound.

Given the power of the memoir's prose, I'm relieved to see them. These poems are from Baca's phase as a newbie poet, so to speak, but are promising for imagism, passion and lyricism.

And only by going through this review's required thought process do I come to recognize the limitations of my perspective. A Place to Call Its Own warrants its own engagement that meets the work on its own terms. If Baca’s poetry collections (which I expect to explore in the future) fail to move me as largely as this memoir does, that would not detract from this memoir’s success.

It’s also an achievement that can be summed up by a saying I heard while traveling in October in Bordeaux wine country. (In fact, I wrote the first draft of this review on the plane while returning from Paris to San Francisco--and that this review surfaced unexpectedly, a month after I read Baca’s book, attests to the memoir’s power.) A Bordeaux resident told me as we explored the wine world there, “For some, wine is a lifestyle. For others, it’s a way of life.”

Based on his memoir, I would think Baca to be one whose poetry is a way of life, rather than a lifestyle of creating poem-objects. In A Place to Stand, he shows that he lives out as much as he writes his poetry. The memoir attests to how his poetic approach is an effective approach. A Place to Stand successfully manifests the memoir’s subtitle, The Making of A Poet.


Eileen Tabios' books are not eligible for review in Galatea Resurrects because she edits this puppy; these orphans languish here; here; here; here; here; and here.


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