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Combining a stunning lyrical intensity with a profound exploration of the human soul, Healing Earthquakes uses poetry to conjure a romance, from beginning to end. Jimmy Santiago Baca introduces us to a man and woman before they are acquainted and re-creates their first meeting, falling in love, their decision to make a family, the eventual realization of each other's irreconcilable faults, the resulting conflicts, the breakup and hostility, and, finally, their transcendence of the bitterness and resentment. ...
Combining a stunning lyrical intensity with a profound exploration of the human soul, Healing Earthquakes uses poetry to conjure a romance, from beginning to end. Jimmy Santiago Baca introduces us to a man and woman before they are acquainted and re-creates their first meeting, falling in love, their decision to make a family, the eventual realization of each other's irreconcilable faults, the resulting conflicts, the breakup and hostility, and, finally, their transcendence of the bitterness and resentment. Throughout the relationship we are privy to the couple's astonishing range of emotions: the anguish of loneliness, the heady rush of new love, the irritations and joys of raising children, the difficulties in truly knowing someone, the doldrums of breakup, and so on. It is impossible not to identify with these characters and to recognize one's own experience in theirs. As he weaves this story, Baca explores many of his traditional themes: the beauty and cruelty of the desert lands where he has spent much of his life, the grace and wisdom of animals, the quiet dignity of life on small Chicano farms. This is an extraordinary work from one of our finest poets.
With this letter I received from a young Chicano
doing time in New Boston, Texas,
I'm reminded of the beauty of bars
and how my soul squeezed through them
like blue cornmeal through a sifting screen
to mix with the heat and moisture of the day
in each leaf and sun ray
to life like bread.
He tells me he reads a lot of books and wants my advice
and more amazed
he quotes from my books, honoring my words
as words that released him from the bars,
the darkness, the violence of prison.
It makes me wonder,
getting down on myself as I usually do,
that maybe I'm not the pain in the butt
I sometimes think I am.
I used to party a lot, but now I study landscapes
and wonder a lot,
listen to people and wonder a lot,
take a sip of good wine and wonder more,
until my wondering has filled five or six years
and literarycritics and fans
and fellow writers ask
why haven't you written anything in six years?
And I wonder about that—
I don't reveal to them
that I have boxes of unpublished poems
and that I rise at six-thirty each morning
and read books, jot down notes,
compose a poem,
throwing what I've written or wondered
on notepads in a stack in a box
in a closet.
Filled with wonder at the life I'm living,
distracted by presidential impeachment hearings
and dick-sucking interns and Iraq bombings,
my attention is caught by the kid
without a T-shirt in winter
on the courts who can shoot threes and never miss,
by a woman who called me the other night
threatening to cut her wrists because she was in love
and didn't want to be in love,
by the crackhead collecting cans at dawn along the freeway.
Sore-hearted at the end of each day,
wondering how to pay bills,
thinking how I'll write a poem
to orphans for Christmas
and tell them that's their present
and watch them screw up their faces—
wondering what kind of wondering fool
that even during Christmas I'm wondering ...
caught in the magical wonder
of angels on Christmas trees
all of it making me remember the awe and innocence
of my own childhood,
when Santa came with a red bag
to the orphanage
and gave us stockings
to be out here in stinging dust blizzards
and scrabble scrub brush—
raises itself into a blazed howl
and crusty stalk in too much hurt
and instant glory
that gives meaning to the hard struggle
and deep-seeing journey
of my soul—
and who is the poet?
* * *
He works with no more magic than you or I,
he is not swept away by a woman's trailing skirt
or a man's scraped fist, nor does he need pale language to
tell of love—
dirty sheets, stale morning city air, loneliness
are words he uses.
Each act is a ritual, and if the ritual does not act,
if the candles, spice, fire, incense do not work,
blossoms I won't pluck for myself
I leave them for others and go on,
my gift is merely the day,
and there is no room for anything else
but a human enjoying his lifework.
My poetry offers no room for anything else.
It is as clear to me now as when my mind
first shook with images,
bathed in realization that
I could work out a life no matter
how crooked the path had been left,
I could straighten it out, turn for turn,
mile for mile.
Those who took it the first time
became saints, lords, lovers and rebels,
the rest of us, delaying ourselves
alongside the road,
lift stones in our hands for protection,
cleave to the earth
cloaked in the dream light of our sleep.
I wake up, realizing I am one of the dreamers,
and I arise unnamed, shaggy-hearted,
a brave bison
pounding out poems in my lonely exile
against the rock;
passing the stinking carcasses of my fellows,
their hearts wrenched out
the plains dotted black with empty eyes.
I bellow my vulgar dismay
and shake my horns at the pale face of death,
its long blond hair screaming in the wind
as I paw my soul for words
and rush with wild, reddened eyes,
shuddering the ground,
thundering at the footing of delicate built words,
tearing through the page,
my breath burning, burning it ...
My poems go out to the working people
in Grants' mines, to the farmers in Socorro
and Belén: my poems are ristras drying on rooftops-
the long red chili strands
strung together and knotted at the stems.
The wind rattles them
and the seeds inside the pods
I think of my heart—
dry and crackly, the dry seeds of dreams
rasping against the tough red inner skin.
My poems have rubbed themselves
on the fingers of a young girl who then rubbed her eyes
and wept all night
in her bedroom for a lover.
From birth my tongue has had a fire
with trees and dirt and water,
for homes in my barrio
that sniff the ground for something lost.
Kids cling together like leaves on a branch
grown from the earth
outside dripping faucets.
The pictures of my grandfather,
now dead, hold in his eyes the ancient song
of wild drum, and in the eyes of my father,
now dead, the ruins of red dreams.
In winter the barrio stirs quietly,
its ways soft, like an animal sensing
the wind's heart,
red ashes in wood stoves,
keeping the warm fire alive.
I go looking for poems,
I walk past the church, then back up
and climb up the steps to the landing
and look in. An old man kneels in front
of La Virgen, beckoning her to remove
the boulder from his heart. I lean
against the great doors watching him.
Candles at La Virgen's feet like flaming guards
swing their silvery sabers
in front of his brown eyes, warm intimate creatures
that ask forgiveness from the mysterious marble.
It's December and he has a gray coat on.
He makes the sign of the cross
and slowly rises. The altar behind him:
thorn-studded slits of flame in blue and red candle jars
spring and twist like a net
wrestling with a wild animal it's caught ...
Outside again, before sunset,
the church bells
bellow through the wild grasses,
the notes trample across the distant fields
like great horses that drag boulders.
They breathe powerfully from steel nostrils;
and behind them great
clouds of sunlight explode
then simmer into evening.
As if, when I was born, the doctor gave the blanket
I was swaddled in to a police hound to sniff,
and while judicial clerks tabulated future statistics
for how many policemen would have to be hired,
I slept in a dream of lavender folds
in my crib,
my flesh over my bones
like those long floor-to-ceiling curtains
I dreamed another world beyond me,
of horses and women and food,
of fields and dancing and songs,
unknowing that when I was carried from the hospital
in my blanket,
a police dog snarled at my passing,
a new set of handcuffs was being made,
and in the distance a new prison was being built.
At an early age
A heavy Bible was placed in my hand,
You got to get down and work hard, they told me.
You can't be talking back.
Whatever you do, watch out not to get in trouble,
'cause they'll be looking for you,
expecting you to get in trouble, they said.
Trouble was the furthest thing from my mind
when I knelt in a church
or climbed the rickety choir loft stairs to sing,
o love was me, o happy was I, young child
hypnotized by the stained-glass window
eye of God
circled above the altar back wall
dawn effused and made glow with blue robes
angels and doves
as I sang Latin hymns,
opening my mouth as wide and wholesome as a frog
on a pond in the full-moon summer night,
while shadows of pigeons flurried on the edge of the stained-glass
Lord, I didn't see no blood of mine spilling on the dirt,
Lord, that others thought I was bad
had predestined my fate
to fall early,
struck later in life
from the blind side
by one clean sweeping stroke of law
I couldn't foresee
because I was too blinded by the blaze of beauty around me,
too in love with an old man's walk and cane
to even think he might curse a mean fate on me,
too in love with vigorous icy air of dark dawn
to think others might be plotting my future
at the hands of jailers.
But violence followed me.
On a cold November dusk, boys' brown arms cold and numb,
noses sniffling, dust in our hair, smudged cheeks,
while bats flitted like black gloves
from leafless trees, and on the distant freeway semis
gutted the air with growls,
while all the boys on the playground were blending
into the shades
I turned from the sandbox,
my nose running mucus, my fingers dark crickets
in the sand, I turned and saw
a big Indian boy by the fence,
from his hand a thick coil of chain
onto the ground, whiplike,
and across from him a blond boy
with blue eyes, in a torn T-shirt
in midwinter, both approached
warily as tigers on my brother,
backing him off into the fence,
and then by an elm tree I saw a huge brown stone
on the ground,
and I dashed for the rock, picked it up, ran at the white boy
who had hit my brother and lunged at him with the rock,
hitting him on the head,
falling back on the ground with him,
at five years old, war-blood on my hands,
my heart screaming
as if it had been bitten and ripped
to shreds by bats
and since then
violence had always followed me—
in trees, down sidewalks, crouched in bushes, behind houses,
it leaps on me as I stand to confront
other bullies beating a thousand other brothers and sisters.
behave yourself, you always said to me.
I behaved myself
when others were warm in winter
and I stood out in the cold.
Posted March 4, 2003