Jimmy Santiago Baca, Selected Poems / Poemas Selectos

Publisher: New Directions
2009, 285 pages, paperback, $16.95

to make the ordinary, extraordinary: is that not one of the reasons why artists create? The sculptor chiseling the form of a person, the painter recreating a landscape, the novelist telling us a story…

…And the poet, Jimmy Santiago Baca, recalling the images, sounds, emotions, and the everydayness of the American Southwest.

Baca’s latest book is a compilation of more than half a dozen previous poetry collections, and this time they have been translated from Baca’s native poetic tongue of English into a rich Spanish. Baca’s life as an American of Mexican and Native American descent shines through these poems, showing us the dichotomy across ethnic lines, social classes, emotions, and even across periods of time. “Work We Hate and Dreams We Love” shows us some of these dualities:

Life is filled with work
Meiyo hates,
and while he saws 2 x 4’s,
trims lengths of 2 x 10’s on a table saw,
inside his veins another world
in full color etches
a blue sky on his bones,
a man following a bison herd,
and suddenly his hammer becomes a spear
he tosses to the ground
uttering a sound we do not understand.

The juxtaposition of Meiyo’s daily routine of laboring becomes an almost warrior-like act, merging with a time that isn’t his own. The hammer becomes a spear. And Meiyo becomes one of his ancestors.

But not all of the poems are infused with what is clearly part of Baca’s Native American aesthetic. Some focus on those images that are ordinary to him, but are written in an extraordinary way so that others can see the beauty in them. An excerpt from Baca’s lengthy “Marten,” an early poem from 1987, gives us a glimpse of this:

In the alley behind Jack’s Package Liquors
dogs fight for a burrito
dropped from a wino’s coat pocket.
The ambulance screams down Edith
into Sanjo where Felipe bleeds red whiskey
through knife wounds.

Baca, a native of Santa Fe and the surrounding area, dedicates his 2007 collection, Spring Poems Along the Rio Grande, to the river that separates the U.S. and Mexico. “Thank the River for Another Day” focuses on the beauty of the river rather than the political and international line that it draws on our maps:

I finish my five-mile run,
linger on the bank
and thank the river for another day-
for my health, for being alive,
pray to the spirit of the river,
offer its love to me
as it carries water to the Gulf

The inclusion of poems like these is important, as they show a side of the river of which many people are not aware. There is more to the Rio Grande than the river that suffers through droughts, trickling through Texas as drugs are transported over it. There are hundreds of miles of rushing water, giving life to New Mexico. For Baca, the ordinary river becomes almost god-like — and he triumphs in his depiction of it.

The translation of Baca’s work into Spanish is an interesting case. The poems seem to be wrapped naturally by the language he doesn’t claim as his own. And Baca’s poems do not suffer as many of the inaccuracies or misnomers that often (or inevitably) arise with these negotiations, but are sometimes even enriched by the non-native Spanish. Perhaps it is because his work is so steeped in the Mexican and Native American, or mestizo, aesthetic that the work of translators Tom&aacutes H. Lucero and Liz Werner was not so much a task, but a merging of two worlds — like the poems, and Baca himself — combining Mexican with American, old with new, to create a book that is accessible and enjoyable for readers from these different walks of life.

–A.J. Ortega