The first book on my shelf now (after alphabetizing and straightening) is a small volume of poetry by Jimmy Santiago Baca, Martin & Meditations on the South Valley, with an introduction by Denise Levertov, published in 1987 by New Directions Press. The cover, based on a black-and-white photo by Migel Gandert, shows a close-up of a man’s back with three large tattooes etched into his skin.
The central tattoo, which extends along the man’s spine from just below his shoulder blades to his waist, is of Jesus dressed in long robes, with a disc-shaped halo framing the back of his head; he is holding a cross, looking off to one side. A second Jesus—this one dark-skinned with full beard and long straight hair, wearing a crown of thorns pushed down low on his forehead—appears on the man’s left shoulder. A third tattoo, on the right shoulder, is covered by a gold sticker announcing this book as the 1988 winner of the American Book Award.
Two other tattoos, on the backs of this man’s arms, are somewhat difficult to make out. The one on his left arm shows what might be a long-haired worker heading down a path, wearing t-shirt and loose pants, with a handkerchief sticking out of his right back hip pocket, but I can’t tell whether the man is wearing a hat or a halo tipped to one side. The tattoo on the right arm shows a bare-breasted woman wearing tight leggings and high heels and carrying something like a knife. There is a wide strap across her shoulders, between her breasts, and a large circular something on her back (a shield, perhaps).
I don’t remember for sure, but I suspect that I acquired this book while in graduate school studying creative writing under Garrett Hongo. He was always after us to find our own voices, rediscover the places we had come from, listen to the language and the rhythms of our people, tell our own stories—as Baca has surely done in his book. Hongo, of Japanese-Hawaiian descent, could be abrasive within a department that at the time consisted mostly of white men deeply entrenched in the Western canon, but I appreciate the way he encouraged us to seek the myth within the reality of our day-to-day lives.
As I read the two long narrative poems in this book, I am struck by Baca’s powerful voice, his startling images, his syntax and language so different from my own, his moving portraits of the people from his barrio. Denise Levertov in her introduction to this volume calls his work a “Hero’s Tale.” And it is epic in scope. While a distant voice reminds me that what seems exotic to me may seem ordinary to the people living through it and points out that my own life has been filled with experiences worth transforming to poetry, the ungracious, peevish part of me wonders if I could have written more or better if I had been abandoned by my parents at a young age, had been placed in an orphanage, had struggled for survival and ended up on the streets, had taught myself to read and write while in prison.
I do a quick Google search and learn that Baca is two years younger than I and has written ten books since this one was published: seven books of poems, a memoir, a book of stories and essays, a play; and that he regularly teaches writing workshops to Chicano youth. And what have I been doing all those years?