THE ESAI POEMS – Book 1: Breaking Bread with the Darkness

Jimmy Santiago Baca
Sherman Asher Publishing ($12.95)

by Warren Woessner

Here’s a sentence I never thought I would write in a review: Jimmy Santiago Baca writes adorable poems about cute babies. But indeed he does, and often, in The Esai Poems, a collection about his youngest son's first years. In the preface, "25 In/25 Out," Baca reviews his tough-guy ex-con past, "twenty-five years in the system, brutal, corrupt, hate-filled, and frenzied with violence . . . beatings, shock-therapy, abandonment, terror, death threats, stabbings." But, somehow, after he learned to read and write, Baca got out: "To all of the above horrors I say: I have outlasted you. This September 2010 marks the time that I have been more free than imprisoned."

So Baca can be forgiven if he just wants to "celebrate another day of living." The Esai Poems is the first in a proposed four-volume series that Baca plans to publish about life with his five children. The poems are titled with dates, and cover a period from late fall through winter of 2003 – 2004. As Esai approaches one year of age, Baca captures the pure joy of a child for whom everything is new:

I remember when you found your nose,
a small soft ornament
that itched and sneezed scaring you to tears;
and how happy you were to find
your hands,
two wonderful appendages with five
lovely fingers attached to them.

Charmingly, Baca is a willing co-explorer in these voyages of early childhood development. He joins Esai completely without pretense, letting us into their world:

We invent our language of love,
hilarious names for each other,
you humming my names,
me shouting like a huge
friendly bird in the foliage
your new name,
                                      Boogadoo! Boogadoo!

Esai is enveloped in love, both from his father and his mother, but he also begins life in unsettled post-9/11 days, early in the wars in Iraq and Afganistan. He will grow up a Chicano, like his father, and have to deal with issues of discrimination, exploitation and abusive immigration policy. Baca knows he cannot keep Esai playing with sunbeams for very long:

the time will come,
when Esai cannot tolerate the injustices
and the newspapers, TVs,
Police and the FBI will label him insurgent,
sunlight accompanying his every step. . . .

Some of the poems are meant to be read by Esai when he grows older, even if they have infant Esai interludes. Baca wants Esai, and us, to know his father as politically engaged, anti-war, and ready to fight for his rights and his dignity:

much of what I write,
the poems that is, are stones
I litter the dusty roads with
so kids can pick them up readily
to throw at tanks

Baca has the courage not simply to invoke a rosy, peaceful future for his son, but to warn him of the struggles he and his Latino brothers and sisters will face. Some of the poems feel almost reckless in their honesty. Baca calls out the perversity of many "high-profile writers" in the face of the institutional racism that followed 9/11, "anxious about / being blacklisted, / their words / cooled to lukewarm." And he savages what he considers

tame Black, Latino and Indian writers
on talk shows and radios,
repeating the President's liturgy
that war is necessary.

While some of these poems have the feel of letters that had to be written but should not have been sent, Baca never breaks faith with the power of communication. He recalls getting messages to fellow prison inmates using sign language or even by blinking his eyes through a peephole during solitary confinement. He is steadfast in his belief in poetry:

Poetry thrives in times of war,
survives the bombs,
rough-paw poems that dog-pant
in the rubble, jowl shaking next to bullet-ridden walls,

Many of these poems are direct calls to battle oppression and racism, and their content often feels familiar, despite Baca's passion and his real-life desperado perspective. No doubt this book will teach Esai and his classmates lessons, as soon as they can read it and understand the context of the world events Baca invokes. But the adult Esai will also likely treasure the personal stories his father saved for him—like the year the family ignored Christmas as a personal protest against the wars. As spring nears, Baca, his "girlfriend," and Esai visit the family burial plot. A white owl shows them the site, and Baca buries one of his books there:

told my father if he never read a book,
now was the time
to do it, it was our story—
the story told, now the family's destruction could end,

As much as there is to admire in The Esai Poems, Baca’s earlier books, including the riveting Black Mesa Poems (New Directions, 1989) and the recent novel A Glass of Water (Grove Press, 2010) are worth unearthing too. They tell some of the story behind how Baca found himself "25 In," and more importantly, how the "25 Out" made him so free.

Rain Taxi Online Edition, Spring 2011 | © Rain Taxi, Inc. 2011