Wednesday, September 5, 2012

A place to stand

"I don't know if I would have lived had I not found poetry."

- Jimmy Santiago Baca


 We just finished a rather remarkable volume, A Place to Stand, a memoir by poet Jimmy Santiago Baca.  We heard him interviewed on NPR, and got hold of his book, and several volumes of his poetry.  A Place to Stand tells of a life that starts in poverty, and descends into degradation, in this case, drug dealing, that winds our protagonist up in prison.  It covers the several years he spends there, up to and through his release at approximately age 25.

What is the comeback?  Stealing a book from a sadistic guard who was also a college student, Baca teaches himself to read, grasps the power of the image, the power of literature, especially poetry, and sorts out his life.  Eventually, he becomes a celebrated poet, but that happens later.

The book is variously described in various places as "raw," "searing," "violent."  It is all these things and more.  It has the most important quality of a book:  it is extremely difficult to put down.  The author is so transparent and forthcoming with the gritty details of his life, he has you in his grip from the get-go.  Yet, a reservation or two, if I may.  The writer seems to take responsibility for his life, but almost imperceptibly, pulls back just a bit, i.e. there is always a reason.  Whenever possible, he lays off the blame for his crimes to abandonment, loss, heartache.  There is always a powerful rationalization process going on, 24/7 as it were, and it is presented to you, the reader, in such an appealing fashion, the enormity of his crimes, and the flotsam and jetsam of human lives he has ruined gets glossed over.  This is unfortunate, to say the least.

His depiction of prison life is eye-opening, unforgettable, and harrowing.  Whatever you think of criminals and their prison surroundings, you can conclude nothing other than that our system is deeply flawed, and destroys rather than rehabilitates.  This is a serious problem, and our society must address it.

This is an important book.  It is not new (first published 1979), but thankfully NPR brought it to their listener's attention.

Not often does a member of the criminal underclass express himself so artistically.  Even more rare:  this story of rising from a life of crime to one of productive member of society.  His book is being made into a documentary, according to his eponymous web site.  We look forward to seeing it.

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