How We Carry Ourselves, By Jimmy Santiago Baca


To Others in Prisons

I am the broken reed in this deathly organ,

I am those mad glazed eyes staring from bars,

the silent stone look

that knows like other stones the smell of working feet,

knows how long and wide a human can spread

over centuries,

each step, until we now step on dust

and rock of prisons.

I could not throw my feelings away,

shoot them like wild horses,

stone them like weeping dirty prophets,

could not machete them pioneering a new path,

I sought no mountain, no brave deed,

I sought to remain human, to look and feel wind bless me. . . .

Chicanos, Blacks, Whites, Indians,

we are all here, our blood all red,

we are all filled with endurance

and have tasted the blade,

smelled the gun’s oily smoke of death.

We are steel hunks of gears and frayed ropes,

our hands the toolsheds,

our heads the incessant groan

of never ending revolving wheels

in an empty, gaunt warehouse,

our blood dripping from steel joints

like grease and oil onto granite floors.

I meant to say, you can turn away from this:

if you can take the hammering, they will give,

if you can hold on while they grip you

and hurl you ragefully at the ground,

if you can bite your teeth when they bend you,

and still, you do not fit,

you can be who you are.

You can see the morning and breathe in God’s grace

you can laugh at sparrows, and find love

in yourself for the sun, you can learn

what is inside you, you can know silence,

you can look at the dark gray machine around you,

souls going up like billows of black smoke,

and decide what you will do next,

you who are the main switch, who turns

everything off.

But you breathing, smiling, struggling,

turning yourself on. . . .

From “Against Forgetting: Twentieth-Century Poetry of Witness,” edited by Carolyn Forche (W.W. Norton: 812 pp., $21.95)