Sunday, November 15, 2009

Jimmy Santiago Baca's Black Mesa Poems

Jimmy Santiago Baca’s Black Mesa Poems evoke nostalgia: a nostalgia that strikes a vivid figure in time and place, Baca does not let in the grey haze that often times falls over memory. The reflection and environment illustrated are personal and informed by a distinct voice, but this does not alienate the reader, instead Baca reflects in an invitational manner.

Black Mesa Poems delves into and grazes across landscape, both internal and external, and as New Critical metaphors suggest, looking at each poem as a container, the reader finds the words as a crate that carries a large array of emotion and environment. The emotion seeps into the environment, the environment causes the emotion, reminding us we cannot separate what we feel from where we are, even when we are dreaming of escape. A dreamy tone sometimes seeps into these poems; an example of this is Main Character:

Red wine streaked
Blue sky and take-off smoke, /
Sizzled cowboys’ campfires, /
Dripped down barbwire, /
slogged the brave, daring scouts /
who galloped of to mesa buttes /
to speak peace with Apaches, /
and made the prairie /
lush with wine streams. /
When the movie /
was over, /
I squinted at the bright /
sunny street outside, /
looking for the main character. (35-36)

The blending of imagery here creates a sense of mental retreat, which works as a theme that appears and reappears throughout this collection. The leave the poet takes is often traditional as he escapes in nature, in poetry, through muses. Baca’s work has a traditional air to it; one might call him a Chicano Whitman. Baca utilizes crosshatched English, Spanish sentences to illustrate the people of his place. Similar to Whitman also in that he calls to mind the everyday lives of people joining and interconnecting. Both poets are not directly political, yet in focusing on community the message is clear: a beautiful world exists in the same place as ugly injustice. Celebration of individual comes out in all of this as well.

Baca’s El Sapo demonstrates the profound impact of losing a loved one—the reaction in this poem is to reminisce, to celebrate the life before death. The poem takes on the nostalgic tone mentioned earlier. Baca reflects on the life of a loved one in a romantic tone, yet one that tells the truth of El Sapo’s beauty and destruction.

He was robust, /
extravagant and extraordinary. /
Bred from tractor smoke and rows of tobacco, /
his laughter rustled deeply, /
corn leaves in windy afternoon, /
his exuberance for life /
flower-topped alfalfa opening to sun /
and harvesting blades. To him, good /
with bad. If you couldn’t take one, /
then don’t expect the other. /
He drank white liquor, /
left a jar on the porch a year. /
Spoke words full of fire, clean white fire from the heart, /
Made space glow with human radiance. (90)

El Sapo also serves as a good example of Baca’s confident use of familiar metaphor and devices. The poet risks the use of flowery language, yet the “heart” in his poetry always beats for the unexpected; loneliness and love/ on the darkness” have their place as the poet combines the emotions with a “chalky pumice” of a man’s heart.

Without Black Mesa Poems, what do we know about America in the Southwest, but what we’ve experienced or imagined? Baca illustrates the dusty and raw reality of New Mexico in this collection, he takes us with him, gives us voz de la gente, gives us his preference for red chile over eggs; Baca presents poetry con duende, but never bombastically, only with manner.

1 comment:

  1. Poetry con duende, si! I also like your characterization of him as a Chicano Whitman.

    Do you think the sometimes flowery language works?