By Brian Nixon, Special to ASSIST News Service
ALBUQUERQUE, NEW MEXICO (ANS – February 2, 2017) — Sometimes reality repels; other times it rouses. As I was sitting in a University of New Mexico ballroom listening to poet and writer Jimmy Santiago Baca read from his poems and newest novel, I couldn’t help but feel both extremes.
Born in 1952 in Santa Fe, New Mexico, and deserted by his parents by age ten, Baca lived with his grandparents and in an orphanage before finding his way to prison in the early 1970’s for a drug offense, leading to a gunfight with the FBI. While in prison Baca taught himself to read and write, falling in love with poetry, eventually sending his work to famed English-American poet Denise Levertov.
Upon his release in 1979, Baca began a journey of writing and renewal. His journey continues to this day, with twenty-nine books written, a family that he loves, a speaking schedule that takes him around the world, movie deals, a musical in the works, and other such imaginative ventures; Baca’s creativity seldom runs dry.
But it was the reality of his prose that hit me hard during the reading. Taking cues from his early prison life, Baca read a portion of the soon-to-be published novel, the moment four men were released from prison: two Hispanic men, an African-American, and an Aryan- white. The language of the men was laced with lewdness, but in-between the blighting and yearning lusts, one found a ray of hope: freedom, and a newfound appreciation for life. Baca ended the reading with the leading character stepping out of a bus by the Isleta Pueblo near Albuquerque, a life of potential before him. One can’t help but wonder if this is what happened to Baca on a personal and literary level: he found freedom to pursue new possibilities.
Baca’s prose is as experienced-soaked as his poetry, filled with flowing language and strong imagery. Sitting with my daughter during the reading, I must admit that some of the language and imagery made me squirm, but I thought — and later said to her — this is existence for many; this is how some people perceive life and pursue living. And whether we like it or not, it represents a particular reality.
And though I was repelled by some of what I heard, there was as much that roused my attention. In particular, I’ve always been curious concerning the connection between Baca and Levertov.
For those not familiar with the English-American poet, a quick word is needed. Denise Levertov was born in 1923 in Ilford, England. Her father, Paul, was a converted Hasidic Jew and later an Anglican Priest, having emigrated from Germany via Russia. Her mother, Beatrice, was of Welsh origins. In her early life, Levertov knew she wanted to be a poet, sending her work to the famed American-English poet, T.S. Eliot. She moved to the US with her soon to be husband, Mitchell Goodman; they were later divorced.
Levertov’s early work was laden with political overtones, but upon her Christian conversion in 1984 her work took a more metaphysical, spiritual direction, encompassing themes of faith, doubt, and affirmation. She died in December of 1997 of lymphoma, survived by her son, Nikolai.
The connection between Baca and Levertov goes back years. During his prison time, Baca sent poems to Mother Jones magazine, which at the time Levertov was the poetry editor. Levertov apparently like what she read and a correspondence ensued. Levertov published some of Baca’s work and eventually wrote the introduction to Baca’s 1987 American Book Award collection, Martin & Meditations on the South Valley. One can only surmise that the friendship survived until Levertov’s death.
From an interview with the poet, Jody Ewing notes that Baca learned from Levertov the “power of personal forgiveness and ‘do unto others as you would have others do unto you’” .
From this reference it seems that Levertov may have given Baca spiritual guidance in addition to literary advice. As many are aware, the phrase, “Do unto others as you would have others do unto you” is known as the Golden Rule, stated by Jesus and recorded by the writers Luke and Matthew. Its altruism — a practice of concern for others — is found in various cultures around the world.
Though it can’t be said without a shadow of doubt — something Baca would need to confirm, Levertov was a witness to God’s grace — undeserved mercy and love, something that Baca found and flourished in through his writing, though with a harder edge and hewn experience.
For me the friendship between Baca and Levertov — as developed in both of their work — represents grit and grace, the communion of tough living and tender love. In a way, it’s a picture of Christ as portrayed through his life, death, and resurrection; birth and re-birth, rile and renovation.
And maybe language — be it poetry or prose — that repels and rouses our senses is what is needed in the world, akin to a slap in the face followed by a merciful hug. It’s hard to tell. But with the poetry and prose of Jimmy Santiago Baca we find just this: language that slashes and soothes, challenges and comforts, cajoles and caresses, and in the process we find ourselves, a picture of our own personal prison, seeking release and redemption.
Photo captions: 1) Martin & Meditations on the South Valley. 2) Poet, Denise Levertov. 3) Jimmy Santiago Baca and Sutherland Jaramillo at UNM. 4) Brian Nixon.
About the writer: Brian Nixon is a writer, musician, artist, and minister. He’s a graduate of California State University, Stanislaus (BA), Veritas Evangelical Seminary (MA), and is a Fellow at Oxford Graduate School (D.Phil.). To learn more, click here: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Brian_Nixon.
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