Book Review: Singing at the Gates: Selected Poems

We need a shoe to be a shoe,
for the poet to describe the foot
inside, the miles walked, the weariness
that seeps into toes, heels, and calf,
the tired dreams those feet lug every day
“The Truth Be Known”

Singing at the Gates by Jimmy Santiago Baca


Singing at the Gates: Selected Poems by Jimmy Santiago Baca is a volume of poetry covering four decades of Baca’s life as a poet. Baca is of Apache and Chicano descent, abandoned by his parents, and at an early age he took to the streets. He was sentenced to prison for six and a half years on a conviction for drug possession. It was in prison where he learned how to read and write and compose poetry. Once freed from prison he chose to live a solitary life and write.

“I was a hermit – as much as one can be living in the fringe of the city.”

Reading Singing at the Gates is experiencing Baca development as a poet. His earliest works convey the feeling of imprisonment and frustration. The feeling and emotion are there almost as if the poems were written in bold type face. Opening poem is long, twenty-five pages, and seems to have been written in a single sitting, stream of consciousness, moving with a purpose from thought to thought. The poem reads more like a letter more than a traditional poem, and he expresses his thoughts in a what appears to be a primitive form, raw, but expressing complex ideas.

By mid-book the poems take a more familiar and recognizable form. The poems still carry a message. The message is not a pastoral scene or romantic love, but a continuation of a struggle. There is racial and economic standings setting the tone in some poems and war and the environment in others. Heritage plays a role in the long poem “Rita Falling From the Sky.” Rita is a homeless woman from Mexico who spends years in a mental institution in America’s midwest because she is assumed to be crazy and incoherent. It is only after a new doctor, from Chihuahua, recognized that she was not babbling but speaking her native tongue of the Raramui Indians that she is released. Her real life struggle mirrors Bacca’s.

The poetry here is different from most that I have read. The form is interesting as well as the changes in the voice and form as the author’s writing matures. Baca writes a fifteen page introduction to this work, which goes a very long way of explaining to the reader his life and how his writing developed. An unprepared reader may not make it through the first third of the book. This is not because it is poorly written, quite the opposite, but the background information is a sort of Rosetta Stone for his early work. Bacca’s work although unconventional is still powerful and moving. Singing at the Gates is well worth the read.

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