“Set This Book on Fire!” by Jimmy Santiago Baca

Jimmy Santiago Baca


in the glow of the embers,
and even in the ashes, I want to tell you:
I’ve spent years
studying stark cries in the cancerous marrow
of inner-city streets. I’ve gone to
Uppidee districts to witness poets
who kiss their asses while adjusting grins,
luring audience approval with politically correct quips.

I want to tell you:
don’t lie! If you’re going to read a poem
about a kid getting his head blown off,
don’t raw jaw your cotton-tipped tongue
to gain the sugary aplomb and donut favor
of English Department heads, who like you
and never scavenged food from dumpsters, who like you
and never stood in welfare lines, who like you
while gleaning misery topics from The New York Times.

I want to tell you:
if you’re going to preach what you don’t follow,
testify to what you haven’t lived,
hoola-hoop your way like a pride-plucked hen
doormatting your heart for moneyed admirers
whose concerned faces ohh and ahh faked empathy,
know that poetry deserves better than that
hee-hawing, educated, hillbilly-mule
whinnying for the crowd response.

I want to tell you:
while you do your sheepish, poor-me routine,
your victim-in-distress sighing,
poor people are being murdered,
prisoners are being zapped with fifty-thousand volts
of electricity to make them behave.
O hollow-hearted, New Age activist that you are,
tell us in your poetry how cooly you’ve risked
your life helping refugees cross the border.

I want to tell you:
what you’re looking for is a new title to acclaim,
what you want is to be hailed a savior
when you spice your poetry with theatrics,
crumpling on the floor and groaning with rage.
O how the world has done you wrong!
The last thing we need is more toothless tigers
stalking thousand-dollar checks from sympathetic patrons
of first-class airlines and four-star hotels.

I want to tell you:
I’m weary of these castrated Uppidees,
poets and patrons who’ve hardly engaged in life.
I’m tired of the prejudice they never own,
tired of them spouting off familiar remedies
to a world of ills they’ve never known.
I beg you both, get out of the way,
please step aside, just a couple of steps,
it takes too much effort to go around you.

I want to tell you:
the flashpoint of paper is 451 degrees.

from Rattle #12, Winter 1999
Tribute to Latino & Chicano Writers


Jimmy Santiago Baca (from Working in the Dark): “One night in my third month in the county jail, I was mopping the floor in front of the booking desk. Some detectives had kneed an old drunk and handcuffed him to the booking bars. His shrill screams raked my nerves like a hacksaw on bone, the desperate protest of his dignity against their inhumanity. But the detectives just laughed as he tried to rise and kicked him to his knees. When they went to the bathroom to pee and the desk attendant walked to the file cabinet to pull the arrest record, I shot my arm through the bars, grabbed one of the attendant’s university textbooks, and tucked it in my overalls. It was the only way I had of protesting.” (web)

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