The title of Jimmy Santiago Baca’s collection Singing at the Gates instantly conjures images of minstrels and bards during the Renaissance or other times when such professions were more revered. This is a clever titling, since the “gates” that Baca refers to are undoubtedly the prison gates that are a dominant theme of his poetry, which correlates to his claims that the destitute and imprisoned are not respected the way they should be. Baca does his best to rectify this (not always successfully) through these poems that are ultimately well-written despite inherent contradictions and occasional flaws.
Singing at the Gates includes the subtitle of “selected poems” because these works are taken from other publications of Baca’s. Over four decades of poetry from Baca are represented, some dated, but the collection is unique in that there is not an obvious chronological progression of quality. Often a writer’s work is easily classified into time periods and categorically described as written during the peak of an author’s power or dismissed as fledgling or wearisome. These poems are much more varied, with both successes and failures in all sections, regardless of the stage in Baca’s career. Such an arrangement indirectly contributes to the collection’s overall success, because a poor poem is often followed by several excellent poems that keep the reader invested.
Initially, it may seem the opposite. The collection does not start especially strong. There is an entirely too long author’s note (it is definitely not a “note”) followed by an especially long and somewhat rambling poem. The author’s note describes the his background, time in prison, and origins of his writing. If readers find it necessary to read this, they should do so after reading the poems; extensive biographical details and knowledge of poetry’s origins robs the language of mystery and power. The works improve rapidly, though, and it soon becomes evident that most of the poems selected are creative and powerful.
Baca understands the power of expression—especially the power of language—but is simultaneously aware of the stubborn inability of language to fully convey internal thought and feeling. Thus, Baca is especially strong when he embraces uncertainty. Such writing produces excellent poems like “December Nights,” which explores the boundaries between the necessity and foolishness of hope, or the poem “At Lori’s House in Wisconsin,” which shows the importance but unreliability of memory.
The poems become uncertain and of a far lesser quality when Baca focuses on the definitive. “Grandma,” homage to a loved one, shows Baca’s determination, but that determination reads more like a motivational monologue instead of a poem. Everyone suffers an affliction of clouded judgment when preaching absolutes, but as masters of language, poets should recognize this and guide their poetry toward more inherent curiosity.
Baca is hardly the first poet to be blinded by (often understandable) political rage and frustration, but these undercurrents distract from the beauty of the language. Particular poems, such as “Set This Book on Fire,” sound preachy and self-serving instead of whimsical and thought-evoking. The poem’s stanzas begin with “I want to tell you:” and then Baca condemns others for cherishing stories that they have not experienced firsthand. Such a message seems counterproductive to poetry’s primary goal: to use language to share experience and emotion. It is somewhat hypocritical, offensive even, of Baca to condemn his readers for lacking the same quality of troubles that he has.
One of the less offensive and more occasional faults of Baca’s poetry is forcing his message through an assault of figurative language that the reader has to slog through. The metaphors sometimes lack the necessary subtlety, somewhat ironic considering that in his poem “The Truth Be Known,” Baca criticizes poetry that “…makes the images so exotic / it compares the ordinary fork and spoon / with dormant volcanoes, / losing my attention in the process.” Baca’s observation is legitimate but contradictory, as the collection repeatedly uses elaborate metaphors.
The imagery that accompanies his metaphors—snake imagery, for example—is remarkably vivid, and this often helps the poems cohere. The snake imagery works especially well in the exceptional poem “Walking Down to Town and Back.” Still, readers of different upbringings and geographical locales may have trouble identifying with Baca’s mention of “this sun-clobbered land” even though the descriptions are vibrant. If identification is absent, though, appreciation is surely essential as these descriptions subject the reader to a time and place entirely foreign to their own. When and where are, perhaps, more important to poetry than any other literary medium, and Baca can hardly be faulted for reliance upon his native Southwest even if the landscape seems too obvious a crutch to his imagination.
In the end, it is Baca’s imagination and language that the reader must contend with, and these poems leave a lasting impression even though that impression is at times contradictory or disagreeable. Singing at the Gates is if nothing else a memorable collection, and these “selected” poems are ones that readers will return to for varied reasons. The volume is saved by the excellence of the many poems that ultimately excuse the more unlikable ones.