Singing at the Gates: Selected Poems by Jimmy Santiago Baca Book Review

Singing at the Gates

Singing at the Gates

As someone who really loves the poetry of Jimmy Santiago Baca, but found it hard to relate to his more recent books from New Directions, this new collection of selected poems was exactly what I needed. It’s mostly a collection of his early work—not from the early New Directions books he is most known for, (Immigrants In Our Own Land, Black Mesa Poems, Martin & Mediations in the South Valley)—but it goes all the way to his poetic beginnings! This includes pieces from his first commercial poetry book, his first chapbooks, and even selections from letters he wrote, while in prison, that were his first love poems.

In the introduction, Baca describes the first section of the book, Excerpts from the Mariposa Letters, like this: “…[I]n blind heat I flung myself into this joyous undertaking and soon my letters were fat volumes of contrition to love her forever.” Reading these excerpts, one realizes right away why the comparisons to Pablo Neruda have been around.

For instance, this stanza from Neruda: “Tonight I can write the saddest lines./ I loved her, and sometimes she loved me too.” And compare it to this stanza from Baca: “I realize prison is but another name for a long/ long night/ in which the one you most love is absent.” With just a few words, both poets have managed to describe perfectly a love that—for whatever reason—you can feel, but not touch.

Here, just four lines from excerpt 141:

they come here to me, the letters

they arrive and place their paws upon my chest

they curl next to me

while I listen long into the night

Baca has used personification to help us understand his affection for his beloved, for the letters that she sends him, and most importantly, the power of the written word. My only displeasure with this section is that I wish it had been longer.

Most of the poems in this book are somehow related to prison: the early pieces written inside a prison cell; poems about prison-life; and one section of the book, poems from “Set This Book on Fire!, (Cedar Hill Publishers, 1999), were actually pieces that were written long after Baca had been incarcerated, but were edited by an inmate at Corcoran correctional facility.

At a time when this government does anything to justify the mass incarceration of Black and Chicano people, we are given a collection of poetry that paints prisoners with some humanity. The following, from excerpt 88 of the Mariposa Letters:

and I sit here, watching the world, the prison

and find I am richly blessed with

so many things to find out, to touch and hear

with so many men in rags and broken souls

who crawl up with dusty shoes from gutters

and carry blades in their pockets

but they are flowers that have survived their

            thorns

in dry baked ground

and I see them and I am strong enough to hear

            them

and I raise myself from contemplation and walk

toward them, to learn their language of sorrows

that hold songs like stars in their heart

songs that tell of lives and feelings that have

            been stomped on and drowned

songs that are the magic that keeps men alive when

            nothing else will

Who else, than a former prisoner to point out the beauty among the horror? Who else could perfectly describe the universal feeling of solitude and craving of love? This collection is not perfect, but it makes perfect sense. After reading it, I am inspired to study all his other books with the same enthusiasm as I had when I first read Baca’s work in my first Creative Writing class so many years ago.

— by Nikolai García

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