Jimmy Santiago Baca's poems read like novels, and his novels read like poems.
Poet and memoirist Baca – known for his autobiography, A Place to Stand, which detailed his time in orphanages and later prison – fills his prose with evocative, naturalistic details, but his poetry's beating heart, revealed in works like the family history Martín & Meditations on the South Valley, weaves stories of Chicano loss and redemption, often through a reconnection to Earth's natural elements.
Baca's first novel, the slender A Glass of Water, follows these guideposts to their conclusion, forming a narrative of Mexican immigrants and their children's relation to the chile fields of the Southwest. Biblical parallels abound: brother vs. brother, the prodigal son, and, pointedly, original sin. The murder of family matriarch Nopal, apparent in the opening line, propels the story. Beginning with the death of one of only five main characters poses certain narrative problems, so Baca skips backward and forward in time while Nopal, a fiery singer and performer when not toiling in the chile rows, watches from beyond. She's a strong counterpoint to her husband, Casimiro, hardworking but too timid in his ambitions. Their oldest son, Lorenzo, seems set in his father's ways, then, galvanized by his idealistic lover, begins to better his community through illegal means. Younger son Vito, swelling with his mother's passion, leaves the fields behind, becoming a fearsome boxer.
Utilizing Nopal's protective, otherworldly voice frees Baca's own poetic timbre, as do long passages in characters' heads and a peyote-powered sweat lodge ritual. ("He was bathed in a light, absorbed like a drop of water into a glowing sponge with a million tiny dark holes that led to individual memories of his life.") Even in more restrained passages, Baca's tangible earthiness seeps through, endowing simple foods with talismanic properties. ("He exchanged a jalapeño for an apple, a piece of cheese for a tortilla, rice for beans, taco for burrito.") But Baca's bucolic prose is anything but lulling; as the story builds to a violent resolution, so do the political undercurrents (creeping militarization via immigration enforcement and Iraq, field hands' complicity in their own oppression). But ultimately, it's transcendent performance – Carmen's song and Vito's populist pugilism, not to mention Baca's own transformation through literature – that offers salvation.
Jimmy Santiago Baca will appear at the Texas Book Festival on Sunday, Nov. 1, (2-3pm, Senate Chamber) on the panel Imagination Sin Fronteras: Four Novelists Wrestle With Mexico. For more info, visit www.texasbookfestival.org.
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