A good kind of synergy came from reading June Jordan and Jimmy Santiago Baca so close together — especially in these two poems describing the leaders of different struggles over justice and land. One in Chicago, one in Albuquerque. I love how this form captures so perfectly the different feel, the different place. At the same time they feel almost like two sides of my own life, L.A. tenant unions and my LA/ Tucson neighborhoods and every childhood Thanksgiving up in Albuquerque with my grandparents…
For Beautiful Mary Brown, Chicago Rent Strike Leader
— From Some Changes (June Jordan, 1971)
All of them are six
who wait inside that other room
where no man walks but many
talk about the many wars
Your baby holds your laboring arms
that bloat from pulling
up and down the stairs to tell
to call the neighbors: We can fight.
She listens to you and she sees
you crying on your knees or else
the dust drifts from your tongue and almost
she can feel her father standing tall.
Came to Chicago like flies to fish.
Found no heroes on the corner.
Butter the bread and cover the couch.
Save on money.
tell me how you wash hope hurt and lose
don’t tell me how you
sit still at the windowsill:
you will be god to bless you
Mary Brown. (p 48-49)
From Meditations on the South Valley
(Baca – 1985)
El Pablo was a bad dude.
Presidente of the River Rats
(700 strong), from ’67 to ’73.
Hands so fast
he could catch two flies buzzing
in air, and still light his cigarette.
From a flat foot standing position
he jumped to kick the top of a door jamb
twice with each foot.
Pants and shirt ceased and cuffed,
sharp pointy shoes polished to black glass,
El Pachucón was cool to the bone, brutha.
His initials were etched
on Junior High School desks,
Castañeda’s Meat Market walls,
downtown railway bridge,
on the red bricks of Civic Auditorium,
Uptown & Downtown,
El Pachucón left his mark.
Back to the wall, legs crossed, hands pocketed,
combing his greased-back ducktail
when a jaine walked by. Cool to the huesos.
Now he’s a janitor at Pajarito
Elementary School — still hangs out by the cafeteria, cool to the bone, el vato still wears his sunglasses, still proud,
he leads a new gang of neighborhood parents
to the Los Padilla Community Center
to fight against polluted ground water,
against Developers who want to urbanize
his rural running grounds
Standing in the back of the crowd
last Friday, I saw Pablo stand up
and yell at the Civic Leaders from City Hall
“Listen cuates, you pick your weapons We’ll fight you on any ground you pick.” (72)
More poetry from Jimmy Santiago Baca, poetry of place and home. Poetry of labour. What it means to build or rebuild a house that will hold you, that will hold meaning. From Martín:
I gutted the plaster frame house,
nailed, puttied, roofed, plumbed,
poured cement, sheet-rocked, tiled, carpeted,
tore-out, re-set, piled, burned, cleaned, cemented, installed,
washed and painted,
trimmed, pruned, shoveled, raked, sawed, hammered, measured, stuccoed,
until, calloused handed, muscle-firmed, sleek hard bodied, our small house rose from a charred, faded gravemarker, a weather-rotted roost for junkies and vagrants,
wind, rain, and sun splintered
jagged stories of storms on,
I corrected, re-wrote upon this plaster wood tablet, our own version of love, family and power. (47)
But It burns down, this home. They need someplace to stay. Temporary places that don’t fit. These dislocations I share, so rarely found in books.
From Meditations on the South Valley
Cruising back from 7-11
In my 56’ Chevy truckita,
beat up and rankled
clanking between rows
Of shiny new cars–
“Hey fella! Trees need pruning and the grass needs trimming!”
A man yelled down to me
from his 3rd-story balcony.
“Sorry, I’m not the gardener,” I yelled up to him.
Funny how in the Valley
an old truck symbolizes prestige
and in the Heights, poverty.
Worth is determined in the Valley
by age and durability,
and in the Heights, by newness
In the Valley,
the atmosphere is soft and worn,
things are passed down.
In the heights,
the air is blistered with glaze
of new cars and new homes.
How many days of my life
I have spent fixing up
rusty broken things,
charging up old batteries,
charging pieces of old batteries,
wiring pieces of odds and ends together!
Ah, those lovely bricks
and sticks I found in the fields
and took home with me
to make flower boxes!
the old cars I’ve worked on
endlessly giving them tune-ups,
changing tires, tracing
cursing when I’ve been stranded
between Laguna pueblo and Burque.
It’s the process of making-do,
of the life I’ve lived between
breakdowns and break-ups, that has made life
I could not bear a life
with everything perfect. (59-60)
Read a book sometimes, and someone captures just what you been missing in these places you been living.
in the Valley at my house y parcelita de tierra, I added, raised, knocked down, until over months and years, the place in which I lived had my own character. I could look at it and see myself.
reflects a faceless person, with no future, no past, just an emptiness. (61)
I remember the house my dad built, I want to build a poem too — and I am happy these words have been breathed into the world. A different kind of home.
After that, the interior of the house
emanating blue dawn light,
full of gusto in the fresh-timber smelling house,
proud of the 3 bedrooms, hallway, livingroom & kitchen,
my finest poem I thought,
that sheltered me from the rain and wind,
as we worked our way
into doors, staining kickboards, putting doorknobs in,
(fine-tuning the poem),
measuring cabinets, leveling the floors,
shimmying here & there,
spitting & stomping, throwing our tools down in disgust
and huffs of temper,
yelling into the cold mornings
at each other, trying to go on and finish
in six weeks. (97-98)
After the Turquoise Trail, after Los Cerrillos and Madrid, we headed south to Quarai, south through Moriarty (!) and McIntosh, Estancia to Mountainair.
We were driving through the countryside poet Jimmy Santiago Baca writes about so compellingly. I read Martín & Meditations on the South Valley, look how time and evil rewrites the nature of towns — driving now we would only know Estancia as home to yet another prison, networked into the US carceral nation. This is how Baca knows it from Martín:
The religious voice of blind Estela Gomez
blackened the air one day.
“92 years mijito. ¿Que pasó? There were no more
beans to pick, no crops to load on trains.
Pinos Wells dried up, como mis manos.
Everyone moved away to work. I went to Estancia,
con mi hijo Reynaldo.
Gabachos de Tejas, we worked for them. Loading
alfalfa, picking cotton for fifty cents a row. (11)
Here too, are the ruins of Quarai. Before looking for the hotel we stopped at the ruins, hoping for a sunset peak. It was all closed off, sadly, but the town’s church was beautiful:
the countryside golden:
We came back in the morning, the church is mostly what is visible:
There was once a great pueblo here too, up to three stories. It sat along the trails by which salt was once traded, another place of encounter (Three such church and pueblo complexes form the Salinas Pueblo Missions Natinal Monument — Quarai, Abó, and Gran Quivira, which we weren’t able to see).
Here is it’s reconstruction from about 1300 — fascinating that it seems to have been left to the ancestors for many years just around this time, and reoccupied just before the arrival of the Spanish:
Like Cicúye / Pecos, this was a place of coexistence for a very long time after the Spanish Entrada. This is a reconstruction of the church.
It is huge, making us feel small.
Called El Misión Nuestra Señora de la Purísima Concepción de Cuarac, it was completed around 1629, and for a while served as a seat of the Inquisition. That gives me chills, though the park service information boards focus on the inquisitions struggles with the army more than its actions surrounding native beliefs and religions.
Like Cicúye, there are kivas here too amidst the Christian buildings. Like this one, square. That sits in my heart somehow. Change, contrariness built into stone and ceremony.
The pueblo ruins remain at peace beneath great mounds, covered with melons.
Jimmy Baca writes of how this place continues to live.
Dawn in the Manzano mountains.
Pine and piñón from chimneys
smoke the curving road
with resinous mist.
My black feathered heart
in the clear blue sky
above the pueblos
de Manzano, Tajique, Willard and Estancia.
At the foothills
my grandmother herded sheep
and my grandfather planted corn y chile.
I turn my motorycle off
next to QUARAI RUINS
and silence drops
into the canyon
sounding like an ancient song of sadness,
like a distant boulder
echoing into the blue sky and stubble grass
I step into the open rock pit
hollowed in the earth
with flat rock door facing east,
pinch red clay and chew
my teeth black with earth prayer, then speak with QUARAI–
O QUARAI! Shape
the grit and sediment I am,
mineral de Nuevo Mejico. (38-39)
I am not sure how much work had been done here when Baca arrived, it it was closer to what we could see, or this view of the church in 1935.
We traveled down Highway 60.
Abó is very similar, but people still live just to one side, and more recent ruins of settlement make this place feel a bit less like a ‘monument’. This is nice. They believe that while Quarai was of the Southern Tewa or Tiguex people, this was the place of the Tompiro. My favourite picture:
It is more lush here:
Another massive church here:
Again a kiva.
The pueblo hidden beneath mounds of earth. Bordered by flowers.
From here we drove on, drove on home
A final poem from Baca’s Meditations on the South Valley:
Send me news Rafa
of the pack dogs sleeping
in wrecked cars in empty yards,
or los veteranos
dreaming in their whiskey bottles
of the past, full of glory and fear.
The black smell of wet earth
seeps into old leaning adobes,
and prowls like a black panther through open windows.
hoeing their jardines
de chile y maíz in the morning,
crush beer cans and stuff them in gunny sacks
and pedal on rusty bicycles
in the afternoon to the recycling scale.
and at Coco’s chante
at dusk tecatos se juntan,
la cocina jammed like the stock exchange lobby,
as los vatos raise their fingers
indicating cuánto quiren.
There is much more I miss Rafa,
so send me news. (57)
We ate lunch in Truth or Consequences. Were too tired to stop in Hatch. We hit rain and a huge dust storm just outside of Deming. Pulled to one side. They are terrifying if you live here, have grown up with the news of 10 (20 to 30 to 100)-car pile-ups along these freeways. Fatalities. People drive like where they got to go and the time they got to get there are more important than life.
Finally then…good to be home.
Just communities. Just cities. Just connections between country and city. Also, the weird and wonderful.