The New Mexican experience is a vast, ever-expanding tradition that encompasses a wide range of experiences and emotions. Imbedded deeply in the richness of it all is the subtle, unmistakable presence of poet Jimmy Santiago Baca.
In his articulation of the New Mexican experience, Baca comes equipped not only with an epic love poem in his newest collection, “Healing Earthquakes,” but also with a powerful new memoir, “A Place to Stand.” Both works retain the zeitgeist of New Mexico that has resonated throughout his earlier books such as “Black Mesa Poems” and “Martin & Meditations on the South Valley,” but expand his range as a poet and storyteller.
With “A Place to Stand,” Baca displays his sensibilities for prose while maintaining a latent lyrical tone that is sometimes void of the zest inherent in his poetry. Essentially, it is a Bildungsroman of the non-fiction sort. It chronicles Baca’s tumultuous youth into his period in jail at the age of 21 on drug charges. It is here, in jail, where Baca creates his new identity as a poet by learning to read and write. In recreating the harshness of prison life, Baca identifies with some of his fellow prisoners and reflects on the decisions that have brought him to where he is today. His decision to become a poet, however, is shrouded in the unwavering desperation of prison — in his own harrowing efforts to gain respect and in the dreaded suffocation of solitary confinement. But at the heart of Baca’s memoir is the excavation of a vision — the unearthing of a type of calling trademark to all artists, which is the awareness to his place in the world in contrast to his present environment.
Alongside Baca’s memoir is a shining work of poetry that demonstrates his flight from prison to be a divine ordinance. “Healing Earthquakes” is a long, evocative story told through five books of poems that traces the delicate creation of a couple’s love through its painful destruction and ultimately to the evanescence of their anger into acceptance. Baca effectively recreates each emotion of the lovers — from the first ache of desire and the tangerine ecstasy of love, to the mutual agony of separation.
With lines such as “Snowflakes softly fall from the sky/ melting as they hit the street/ as we do/ becoming more than we are/ when our gaze falls on each other,” Baca creates a truly visceral landscape for the reader. But he is also just as able in describing anger and frustration with lines like “I have turned my back on heaven because it has pressed on me/ with nightmares — not dreams/ with damnation — not salvation.”
If anything, “Healing Earthquakes” requires time to consume, for it nearly is a sensory overload. As we traverse through each kiss, touch or curse, it is hard not to associate with past emotions or ponder future encounters. And, in the spirit of Pablo Neruda, Baca is excellent in using blank verse to illustrate a mystical significance to a seemingly mundane situation. But in the end, the work is an exploration of the human condition at its purest — animating our longest-known desire: love.
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Fortunately for us, Jimmy Santiago Baca will be present for a reading, discussion and signing of both of his new books from 7-8 p.m. Thursday at Barnes & Noble Bookstore on 3701-A Ellison Dr. NE, near Cottonwood Mall. For more information, call 792-4234.