As part of our ongoing celebration of the magazine’s fiftieth year in print, this month’s Dog-Eared Page features poems previously published in The Sun.
There must be others out there, I thought, as blessed and damaged as I am — and as obsessed with poetry. It was 1976, and I had two more years to go in that prison in the Arizona desert. I intended to spend them as I had the previous four: writing dawn to dusk each day, scribbling then scratching out words, dictionary next to me, consumed by the rich legacy of language, its ancient and modern permutations. I often had to pause to catch my breath until I could resume. This is what poetry did to me. It was also responsible for my survival.
Exhausted from being alone with my thoughts day after day, I decided I needed someone to share my ideas with, to ask what books I should read or whether my poems were worth anything. Was I using the correct language? Should I write about prison or stick to imagination and memory? Could I use my Spanish? Could I get angry in my poems? I asked the Phoenix Literary Council if there might be someone who could help, and they passed my name to Will Inman, a poet in Tucson. I soon received a letter from him — the first of hundreds that over time would lead to our becoming friends. Through his efforts I started receiving magazines and literary journals: Mother Jones; the latest issue of his own bilingual border quarterly, Illuminations; and The Sun.
Will suggested I send my poems to Sy Safransky at The Sun, and I did, not believing for a second any would get published. But Sy not only accepted my poems, he included a letter saying how much he loved my writing and encouraged me to keep sending my work. I told everyone I trusted about my good fortune, feeling like a real person in the world and believing for the first time that I could one day be a poet.
For two years The Sun was a lighthouse that guided me through rough, dark waters: Every line of mine that Sy published penetrated a little more of the fog called imprisonment. Every poem revealed my wrecked spirit dashed against the reef. Not only had Sy loved them, but Sun readers sent letters of appreciation, which Sy printed in the magazine. I’d never been complimented for anything, much less a literary contribution. My life had some hope in it now.
From my cell, with The Sun at my side, I went through a rebirth, shattering the husk I’d been hiding within and freeing my voice, my soul. To this day I can’t quite tell you how it happened. For a long time I just wanted to embrace Sy and drench him in tears, grateful for all he’d done for me — more than he probably ever guessed.
Another poet — Virginia Long from Hurdle Mills, North Carolina — read my poems and wrote to me, and over time our affection for each other developed into a literary love affair that we consummated after my release. I moved in with her, but it was hard to transition back into society. One day you’re a prisoner, the next a free man. You go from extreme deprivation to a flood of sensory stimulation. On my first day in North Carolina, Virginia drove us to the coast. I still didn’t understand my role in the world after being locked up, but on the overcast beach at dusk, the gray waves crashing, my heart was content. It was all I’d dreamed of: being an ordinary man, insignificant before the great Atlantic.
In early September Virginia planned a trip to Chapel Hill for me to meet Sy. Feeling like a refugee, I walked up a dirt driveway to his little house among so many green trees. He opened his screen door and stretched his arms out to me like the wings of a quetzal, his eyes pouring over with emotion. Two young men searching for wisdom, we embraced. I was at a loss for how to thank him: for publishing me, for being my friend, for not judging me and reducing me to a mere criminal, for helping to make the world my family.
More than forty years and five kids later, I pick through old boxes at home in Albuquerque, trying to organize my books and papers, and I find the copies of The Sun with these poems. Virginia is gone. My body aches, my hair mostly gone. I’ve climbed so many mountains. At the summit of each, when I look east, The Sun always rises.
— Jimmy Santiago Baca
A Handful Of Earth, That Is All I Am
You drive up to my shack. Unclip your briefcase, on the hood of your new car spread a few official papers, point with manicured fingers, telling me what I must do. I lift a handful of earth by your polished shoe, and tell you, it carries the ways of my life. My blood runs through this land, like water thrashing out of mountain walls, bursting, sending the eagle from its nest, that glides over huddled seeds as do my hands. I carry wise men in me, I carry women and children in me, beneath my serape I put my hands to warm them in the morning, and build fires in the night, that reflect swords and flowers in my eyes. My heart is a root in wet earth. You tell me you are not to blame for the way things are. Invisible fingers wrench my life away, plunging deep, carrying a handful of wet earth. Mountains give me their patience and endurance when my children look up at me. They ask me, Oye, Papa, how can a skinny man like that take away our land? The earth filled with my tears and blood! But my wife knows my arm is twisted behind my back, tearing the joints, a boot crushing my spine, my lips to the wet earth, whispering to her, I shall speak no lies and cry only truth to my tormentors. I look into the man’s face for a long time when he tells me there is no other way. Then stare at his car as he leaves and carry his image in my heart that he is blind too, and speak with him there long after he has left.
Silver Water Tower
I remember when I was a child, on weekends my father and I drove down to visit my grandmother. We took the old road, and my father smelled like part of the land, and as we came closer, his face took on a wholesome expression, and it seemed the history of the land shone bright in his brown eyes. I looked to his face, then out the window, and saw the first sign of my little town, where my grandmother lived, and the silver water tower stood on tall lank steel legs; ESTANCIA, boldly lettered black across its silver tank top. It was by the school where my uncle worked as janitor, and by tall green grass he watered, and I played in when a young boy. It was the sign that home was near, where the link of my true blood was unbroken, and thrived solidly in a little silver hair’d woman, with ancient customs, y pura sangre nuestra; a home where my father became son, y Hombre, and I a wonderful miracle, un Nino, another generation, de mi raza! It was here where I found myself, with time to sit outside in the shade, and talk of chili, cows, trees and horses, time to walk through fields to a friend’s house, time to understand the meaning de la familia, de la raza, juntos, luchando para abanzar, el futuro destino. Like so many Chicanos, in need of work, driven to the city from their way of life, I rebelled, no con mi mente, pero con mi corazón, and I came to prison. I am not allowed to lie on the grass here; it’s Saturday here, I lean against the fence, my back to the prison water tower, still, I feel joy, me siento a toda madre, about coming home again.
Who Understands Me But Me
They turn the water off, so I live without water, they build walls higher, so I live without treetops, they paint the windows black, so I live without sunshine, they lock my cage, so I live without going anywhere, they take each last tear I have, I live without tears, they take my heart and rip it open, I live without heart, they take my life and crush it, so I live without a future, they say I am beastly and fiendish, so I have no friends, they stop up each hope, so I have no passage out of hell, they give me pain, so I live with pain, they give me hate, so I live with my hate, they have changed me, and I am not the same man, they give me no shower, so I live with my smell, they separate me from my brothers, so I live without brothers, who understands me when I say this is beautiful? who understands me when I say I have found other freedoms? I cannot fly or make something appear in my hand, I cannot make the heavens open or the earth tremble, I can live with myself, and I am amazed at myself, my love, my beauty, I am taken by my failures, astounded by my fears, I am stubborn and childish, in the midst of this wreckage of life they incurred, I practice being myself, and I have found parts of myself never dreamed of by me, they were goaded out from under rocks in my heart when the walls were built higher, when the water was turned off and the windows painted black. I followed these signs like an old tracker and followed the tracks deep into myself, who taught me water is not everything, and gave me new eyes to see through walls, and when they spoke, sunlight came out of their mouths, and I was laughing at me with them, we laughed like children and made pacts to always be loyal, who understands me when I say this is beautiful?
“A Handful of Earth, That Is All I Am” is from the May 1977 issue of The Sun. “Silver Water Tower” is from the July 1977 issue of The Sun. “Who Understands Me but Me” is from the February 1983 issue of The Sun. Copyright © 1977, 1977, and 1983 by Jimmy Santiago Baca. All reprinted by permission of the author.