Jimmy Santiago Baca is in prison in Arizona.

He writes that it may be said of him, “I love the sun and all the seasons. That I love freedom. That I love people. I am from New Mexico where my little grandmother lives with a big proud soul and strong heart and silver hair. And that I will not give myself to a mechanized world. That there is life abounding all around us, and we must not be afraid to help ourselves with it. To speak out when life is being injured, and trust our own heart. And speak out against the death sentence.”

— Ed.

A Handful Of Earth, That Is All I Am
You drive up to my shack. Unclip your briefcase,
            on the hood of your new car
spread a few official papers, point with manicured fingers,
            telling me what I must do.
I lift a handful of earth by your polished shoe,
            and tell you, it carries the ways of my life.
My blood runs through this land,
            like water thrashing out of mountain walls,
bursting, sending the eagle from its nest,
            that glides over huddled seeds as do my hands.

I carry wisemen in me, I carry women and children in me,
            beneath my serape I put my hands to warm them in the morning,
and build fires in the night,
            that reflect swords and flowers in my eyes.

My heart is a root in wet earth.
            You tell me you are not to blame for the way things are.
Invisible fingers wrench my life away, plunging deep,
            carrying a handful of wet earth.
Mountains give me their patience and endurance
            when my children look up at me.

They ask me, Oye Papa, how can a skinny man like that
            take away our land?

The earth filled with my tears and blood!
            But my wife knows
my arm is twisted behind my back,
            tearing the joints, a boot crushing my spine,
my lips to the wet earth, whispering to her,
            I shall speak no lies
and cry only truth to my tormentors.

I look into the man’s face for a long time
            when he tells me there is no other way.
Then stare at his car as he leaves
            and carry his image in my heart
that he is blind too,
            and speak with him there long after he has left.
Tapestry Of Downtown
The grumbling charred factory.
Its stack a black bone flute,
mournful songs of smoke
wheezed by withered lungs
and fingers chapped as desert brush,
scrawl across the unscrubbed sky
dull gray notes of hope,
puffs of sand in our eyes.

On one of the old factory windowsills,
six birds have made their nest,
huddle their shale feathers
against the sharp cold of morning,
bundled up, dark barbs of coal.

Twitters crack like dry twigs,
kindling crackling in the icy dawn.

The first spark of sunlight
catches the windowsill,
their wings ignite, flurry,
brown flames tossing in the air. . . .
Black Mare
On the white rocky driveway
her steel shoes clokk clokk
softly against white painted rocks,
nostrils spew steam,
her chest fills with dawn,
her large head dips to nibble,
newly sprouted tufts of grass
between white rocks,

at a daisy she shakes her mane
Black Mare! Black Mare!
I Am Sure Of It
Just after supper sheets were passed out,
the sheets smell clean as I make my bed,
warm from the laundry dryers and soft.
I spread the first sheet over my mattress,
smooth it out and tuck it in.
“32581 . . . .” I look back up and there’s a guard,
“32581 . .” and I nod affirmatively.
He leaves the letter on the bars and goes.

It’s from a magazine I sent three poems to.
On the envelope in bold black letters
it’s rubber-stamped, FUNDS RECEIVED . . . AMOUNT 10.00.
I open the letter and read the few paragraphs.
They usually don’t pay for poems they say,
but wanted to send a little money in this case,
to help me out. My poems were beautiful,
and would be published soon.

Holding this letter in my hand,
standing in the middle of my cell,
in my boxer-shorts, it’s now, times like this,
rapt in my own unspeakable surprise, I wonder about people.
I take a few steps to the toilet and pull myself up,
put my mouth on the black grill at the back of my cell,
just about to holler down to my buddy in another cell,
when I am struck silent by the window across from me,
and look outside, gaze upon a few convicts at dusk,
running in pairs around the baseball diamond,
others, close to the fence separating them from freedom,
walk, pointing across to freedom.
The grass is green and trees lulled in deep spring slumber,
the sun going down at the west edge of earth.

Shadows hover covering sunrays, shaking the sun from leaves,
boughs are dark, the field darkens perceptibly,
leaving one slow solitary walker, hands punched in coat pockets,
looking down, a blue beenie cap over his head, thinking,
thinking, as he walks around the field one last time, and disappears.
Floodlights around the mainyard compound flash on.
The baseball diamond is empty now.
The smell of cool spring in the night air is above all things,
and toy-size cars crawl in the black distance,
headlights rove into the darkness of a long road,
leaving a small town behind sparkling in its street lamps,
the car slides into the great wave of darkness
a nightworker breathing the fresh air, searching stars,
the hum of engine and wheels lost in silence of Tuesday nights.

Grass crickets tune their fiddles,
dark grass wind-blown by big rumbled trucks on the highway,
while construction workers fill homey bars,
smoke cigarettes, cock caps to one side,
and stroke pool cues through greasy thick fingers,
suck their unbrushed teeth watching intently,
quarters and dimes plunk in the jukebox,
drink more beer, smoke swirling and plumbers coughing.

Outside night darkens over the city.
Old fathers push on screen doors, sit in the kitchen,
drink coffee with their married daughters.
Porch lights collect bugs outside.

Convicts scan through their TV guides,
and through all the different channels blubbering,
an old mexican song from someone’s record player,
is recalling memoirs, sweet memoirs of ageless beauty,
while screams and gunshots tumble out of tv’s,
I think of the tennis shoes my grandfather
bought for me as a child, for my birthday.

My life so filled with simple things!
With beds and people crying and laughing and fighting
towns and voices and kisses and unforgettable nights,
walking on sidewalks or through grass at dusk,
this is life, I am sure of it. . . .

I step down from the toilet, grab the sheet
and tuck it in. I spread the blanket over,
then sit down, thinking this life, full life,
even in prison, respecting each other, helping each other,
or far away, it doesn’t matter, I am sure of it.