Literature on Lockdown: Jimmy Santiago Baca
Welcome back to our many part series where we share narratives from those who teach in prison, those who write from prison, or those who previously did either. If you have taught in prison or were formerly incarcerated and are writing, or know someone who currently is and would like to be a part of the series, please send an e-mail to us at firstname.lastname@example.org. A physical mailing address can also be provided.
Today’s Writer is Jimmy Santiago Baca*.
To the system, I was faceless, known only by the number 32581. Over the years, I was visited again and again by squads of guards wielding batons. With each pounding, my disobedience intensified and developed into a fiercer and more unyielding stance.
My face came to display a thorny, perplexed ravage—a look I felt happy with. No, it wasn’t the look of a model that might make the fairer sex succumb and swoon; observers cringed when they saw the broken teeth, broken jaw, welts and bruises, puffy eyes. Over all of it, a smug defiance said, “I’m not giving in to your rules. You’ll have to kill me before I budge an inch. And I ain’t dead yet.”
So it went for a while, until one day, while reading and writing, I felt a presence in the cell with me, an old familiar fiction. This presence, which I felt in the air like a plume of smoke or a black bird across my field of vision, was back hovering above me, and I knew why.
During my adolescent years, in a rash desire to lose my innocence, I cut myself from its benign guidance. Paradoxically, I got so caught up in trying to be significant that I became insignificant, another face in the crowd. Once I had accepted my nothingness, my aerial face reappeared in order to acknowledge the beauty of my flesh face. It pardoned me, pleased that I was my old alley mutt, pussy-sniffing self again and pliable enough to be repurposed for its design.
Those first few weeks after the aerial face returned, I kept thinking someone or something was watching me, tracking my every gesture and breath. Whenever I took a step, I felt a ripple in the air. I stood at the barred window and felt it just above my right shoulder. I reclined on the cot, and it hovered beneath my eyelids, rubbing its cricket wings in the dark and giving off eerie violin music.
Well, I tried to ignore it and do what I had always done when something happened to me: I said, “Fuck it. I got my brains rattled a bit, sure, but soon enough I’ll go back to my usual nonchalance and think as I used to.”
In the meantime, I grew accustomed to rubbing my jaw and cheeks in a sort of soothing manner, trying to convalesce from the system’s abuse. For a mirror, I had a piece of polished tin that never reflected a sharp image but offered enough of a reflection for me to distinguish my blurry face from my hair and my nose from my eyebrows and lips. It was like looking into the concave basin of a silver spoon, as if the metal I was peering into had scooped my face out from the rest of me. As I looked into this mirror and felt my face, I made startling discoveries: here was a chipped or cracked bone, there some torn cartilage. Touching my face made me know it on an intimate level—so much that I would talk to my face as if I were talking to a friend. I would coo that it was going to be all right, that I would soon be able to inhale and exhale without fear of pain.
During this time, I starved myself. I never thought twice about the amount of food I was eating, and my portions each meal amounted to no more than a handful of grain, meat, or vegetables. I could train myself, I was sure, to survive by eating air. Who needed real food? I could subsist on a few spoonfuls of prison grub a day and excel with the angels who devour poetry.
I took enormous pleasure in losing all the fatty tissues in my face and watching it become cavernous and angular and gaunt. Before, I had a cherub face—plump-cheeked, almost jowled, and festive, with ample double chin and skin hung over my flesh in a football player, meat-and-potatoes way. But with time, my face became as cut and sharp as a boxer’s or Roman gladiator’s. Deprived of mountains of drugs and rivers of tequila, I had become ascetic and saintly, and my face glowed with health. Having ridden hell’s fury, my erotic lips healed well enough for a lucky woman one day to succulently nibble them without any questions about their worrisome travails. What are a few scars when one is divinely blessed with such a winning smile?
While I enjoyed my new look, it drew the concern of those who looked at me. When I carried myself into the sunshine during exercise time, other prisoners would stop me and ask if I was okay. When I smiled my fresh-lily smile at them and replied “Never better,” it made them even more worried about my general frame of mind.
Was I really going insane? Had prison gotten to me? Had the spray they used to kill cell cockroaches murdered my mosquito brain?
Underneath it all, there was still that presence scuttling about the air, weighing upon my heart. It created a sort of vacuum that could make me choke as if from lack of oxygen. My spirit face could be kind to me, but it could also use its omniscient power to injure and obstruct.
As my airy face appeared, so went my flesh face. It lifted off my shoulders and disintegrated into tiny shiny slivers of bright metal thorns. It melted through the steel doors, concrete walls, and iron bars of my cell, and escaped as I could not. Like a rogue kite, my face snipped off its string and whisked off loftily into the blue realms of azure, where it could look down and see the entire prison complex below, with all those little tiny men in prison uniforms walking about in lines. Flakes of my face scattered across the air and over the sunny distance beyond the prison compound. I could feel the sand on which the particles landed, the heat of the prairie grass blade, the soft smooth firmness of cactus skin, the chafe of stone. Through my disembodied and dissolved face, I drowned in sensory life.
Today, too, this face grants me access to another realm. Let me state it so you get the picture clear as wind chimes in a soft breeze on a somnolent noon. Underlying my existence is a deeper intelligence that speaks to me when I am writing. My artist friends say I am an anomaly—no education, no family grounding, no proper socialization. My writing gifts seem to have come from nowhere. So maybe the deities pitied me for my lack of human support and sent the face to grant me relief. Maybe it comes to me as compensation for the constant invasion of privacy by the Orwellian judicial bureaucracy, a reaction to a life of stop-and-frisk and security screenings. I don’t know. I am certain, however, that this deeper intelligence has a face, and when I write, that face perches above my right shoulder and watches me.
*Excerpt from “The Face” reprinted with permission from Restless Books.
Jimmy Santiago Baca is an award-winning poet, internationally known for his lyrical, politically charged verse. Of Apache and Chicano ancestry, at the age of twenty-one he was convicted on drug charges and spent six and a half years in prison, where he found his voice as a poet through correspondence with Denise Levertov. His many books include Black Mesa Poems (1995) and A Place to Stand (2001). He wrote the screenplay for the film Blood In, Blood Out (1993). More information is available at his website.
Read the rest of Jimmy Santiago Baca’s The Face, as well as two collections of his poetry recently released by Restless Books: http://www.restlessbooks.com/