Santiago Baca’s Singing at the Gates

I am so excited I am reading Jimmy Santiago Baca’s Singing at the Gates for the second time. I

was so entranced when I finished this collection of poems that spans forty years of Baca’s work that I

had to have more. The breadth, passion, tenderness and violence in this volume are astounding.  From

prison cells and riots to young men laughing and children playing, arrolyos with brambles deer silent

and subtle, desperate transvestites and a grandmother’s wisdom, Baca depicts worlds all of us come

from Chicano or not. Baca explores the desolation of the human soul incarcerated:

“Air blows across my face. I open my eyes,

Look out my caged door at the heavy faces.

I could pick out a million places

where I’d like to be now. I could be anyone,

anywhere. Air blows across my face

I am on the beach at Corpus Christi.

It is a nice day.

Lord God, I’d like to call on your hand now.”

After the brutality of a singled cell sunlight blighted by shadows of bars, he remains enchanted:

“The earth will take this fruit as breath from my soul

And eat it

It will bring beauty to her arms and legs

perfumes for her winds

And some day when a small breeze is blowing

Under my nostrils, I’ll catch a whiff of this beauty.”

Yet there is something ancient in this text; something we must be open to:

“ My father bathed my body in cedar and juniper smoke

And the Mexican governments and Jesuits denounced me

As a mad hag, a babbling fool

When I uttered ancient prayers

When I grew mushrooms in my stomach,

When I spit out a small stone and worms,

And when I flew in my peyote visions

I saw my people singing on a mountain top.

And they instructed me to walk, walk north

Plant your feet in Aztlan.”

Baca does not neglect the present day celebration of life we still find in our communities

“You survived ninos playing in church yards,

on steps, rails

You survived vato loco with hat and tank-top t-shirt;

Polished shoes;

Leaning on haunches; an arm on crooked leg

Very cool, beside your chromed out lowrider.”

Thru all the murder, rape and ravaging of the land, the humiliation of our people on A DAILY BASIS

that Baca documented he finally admits:

“Cuz I can’t take it anymore

Just can’t

Take this cry in my ears and eyes and mouth

With the blood of millions of nameless victims

All for the pleasure and greed of a few rich

Mutherfucking men, gathering in British hotels

Washington Chamber or Pentagon Think Tanks

Can’t take it …

So I must now play this flute given me by a friend now dead.

I must play this flute, drown out the cries of the murdered

So I can whimsically whirl in a dizzying joy for being alive

And again praise the Creator for this life.”

Jimmy Santiago Baca doesn’t hide from our despair, our rage. He basks in our delicacy and swag.

Singing at the Gates is triumphant and soothing to the soul despite the wells of brutality

And loneliness we stumble upon in our everyday glory.

Ntozake Shange@ 2016


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