A Poetic Politics of Place: Desire and Dwelling in the Works of Jimmy Santiago Baca and Terry Tempest Williams

Jimmy Santiago Baca and Terry Tempest Williams exemplify in their poems and prose the desire of humans to merge with the natural world that they inhabit. Place gets made, in part, through poetic response, a response of the body, mind, and heart to environment. It is important that each of these writers chooses to experience place in ways unique to them and to their own distinct autobiographies. Their lives as they have lived them in specific places—for Baca the Black Mesa of Southern Albuquerque in New Mexico and for Williams the red rock lands of Utah—emerge in their work as desire for place as a way of knowing and, too, as acknowledgment of the mystery that is life. The works of these writers reflect a desire to reconceptualize our notions of place through engaged experience and overcoming separation as fear to create new ways of being in relationship with culture, the body, and memory. Baca’s and Williams’ work exemplifies radical notions of place as a poetic politics of thinking and being based on relationality. Several thinkers offer unique ways of conceptualizing these authors’ works: the history of place rendered by Edward Casey in his intellectual history of place in The Fate of Place; French feminist theory that contests reality dictated by normative thought, particularly the work of Hélène Cixous on writing from the body; and, bell hooks’ critical work on the need for an evolving aesthetics that reflects the lives of people of color.

Baca’s and Williams’ writings reveal an intimate relationship with place and its life forms as a politics of dwelling and attending to environments in unique and idiosyncratic ways. The writer divulges this relationship to the reader, adding depth and acuity to understanding the relations she shares with earth, with others, and with herself. The definition of place becomes multiple selves in relationship, rather than a single self that lacks dynamism. These various selves the writers experience in relation to and their openness to multiplicity allows all forms of life as potential lovers.

Simone de Beauvoir, addressing women and creativity, asserts that truly great works “are those which contest the world in its entirety” (French Feminists 28). Of course, she argued when she gave her lecture in Japan in 1966 that the works of women had not yet contested the world, largely because women had not had the education and opportunity, let alone place and position, to contest the world created by men. Baca and Williams contribute to a tradition rapidly evolving of the late twentieth and early twenty-first centuries, one which makes its central purpose not only contestation of the world as we’ve known and inherited it (in de Beauvoir’s case through gender), but new understandings of what it means to know and be in place-world. Baca gives us poems of grief and forgiveness in coming to terms with familial, cultural, and personal loss as a man of color. Williams’ work creates elemental explorations of body in relation to Utah’s desert. Utah also represents the region where her family and community have been exposed to atomic weapons testing by the United States government in the second half of the twentieth century. Her sensual connection with the earth in Desert Quartet becomes a means of renewal from the loss of health and community due to the testing. As we engage the work of these authors, we expand the ways in which we receive and engage place-world as it presents itself to us and we offer ourselves to it, knowing that it will change us and that the places we love and respect are in constant flux.

Tom Lynch describes Jimmy Santiago Baca as “one of America’s great bioregional poets” (EJR 257). In his poems Baca becomes the earth of his people. The poet’s mother abandoned him and his two siblings when he was seven years old. She left her family to live with a white man. After Baca’s release from Florence State Prison at the age of twenty-five he became reacquainted with his mother. Shortly thereafter, his mother’s husband murdered her. “Then he shot you and himself,” Baca writes in one of his poems (Mesa 28). Lynch asserts that mother abandonment has been for Baca an uprooting. He writes to his mother in his semi-autobiographical poem “Martín”: “Your departure uprooted me mother/hollowed core of child/your absence whittled down/to a broken doll/in a barn loft. The small burned area of memory/where your face is supposed to be/moons’ rings pass through/in broken chain of events/in my dreams” (Baca, Meditations 14). Mother memory haunts Baca, as does father-brother-sister-family memory. The adjectives and verbs he chooses in this passage—hollowed, whittled, broken, burned (two times)—address specifically the hole of mother absence and convey violent homelessness at the root of abandonment. The sense of being torn from home and the hole it leaves is for Baca embodied in the loss of his physical mother and the emotional support she might have offered him, but given her own limitations of culture, time, and place, did not.

In Baca’s passionate poems, he asserts the need for merging, a burning desire for possession by the earth, by another, and of himself. He wants to be known and to know totally. This knowing seems improbable, if not impossible. However much we long for total understanding by and from another, that knowing somehow eludes our grasp. He returns again and again to poetry to find this knowing within himself and his life in relationship to others through language. In “Who Understands Me But Me” he writes of learning to live with himself, his limitations and beauty, even while imprisoned and mistreated by guards. “I practice being myself/and I have found parts of myself never dreamed of by me” (Baca, Immigrants 84). It is this multiplicity of selves he engages and inhabits and comes to love. He finds his own best company within his fallible and injured body. That love arrives in total acceptance of all that he has incurred; following the signs like an old tracker into himself “deeper into dangerous regions” he finds so many parts of himself. He is not alone. He can live with himself now (Immigrants 84).

Baca becomes a place for himself and to himself. It is clear in reading his work that if the poet had not discovered that he himself was a place, he would not have survived time in prison. I believe that Baca in some of his poems enacts what feminist theorist and writer Hélène Cixous critically describes as coming to writing in physical movement toward the desired thing. The body serves as a means to writing. It carries us toward what we want and love. Writing is not an occurrence that happens outside the body. Writing is desire expressed through the body. We contain all histories and geographies, a vastness of being within ourselves: “Search yourself, seek out the shattered, the multiple I, that you will be still further on, and emerge from one self, shed the old body” (Cixous 41). Cixous’s thought in the tradition of French feminism has been influenced by Jacques Lacan’s psychoanalytic theory, which posits a splitting of self when the child sees his mirror reflection. Cixous further urges shedding the Law, which Lacan postulates as the father’s rule, or perhaps in metaphoric terms, the past itself. Baca sheds neither the old body nor his past. Neither is his desire to shed Law, as Lacanian thought asserts is first established by the parent in the role of father. He works these elemental influences in his poetry but does not abandon them. Baca integrates a sense of himself as a child, a growing man, a (sometimes nearly dead) wounded prisoner, and a flourishing poet as a dynamic process grounded in the present. In poetic utterances, cries for love, and expressions of grief, language allows Baca to create himself without separation from and abandonment of that which has created him. In the poems exists the palpable presence/absence of family, home, and community steeped in place and located in time.

What emerges in Baca’s poems is a living autobiography of the complex development of a consciousness in relation to self, others, and the material-sensual world. The combination of these relations forms Baca’s response to place. His poems are songs, inspired by poets like Pablo Neruda, Federico Garcia Lorca, lengthy, breathless improvisations of jazz, and the insatiable desire to experience union with all living things. He sings his amazement in existence, captured in the most incongruous of pairings, such as when he writes in his collection of river poems: “I catch glimpses of eternity sometimes in stray dogs” (Baca, Winter 18). Simultaneously, he pushes away in hatred those who have betrayed him. The repulsion is complex. He refutes betrayals that he has experienced in the form of racism, violence, alcoholism, bureaucratic and corporate corruption, and “amenity migrants” (qtd. in Lynch 260) to his Southwestern homelands. He also insists on closeness to suffering as embodied knowledge as he makes these betrayals the subject of his poems.

Like Baca, the semi-autobiographical character Martín lives for a time in an orphanage after his mother runs away with her lover and his father disappears into a vagabond life of alcohol. There were times in his childhood and in prison that through dream and visualization Baca was able to transport himself above or away from embodiment. In one poem Martín leaves his body while lying on a cot in a Catholic orphanage. “I dreamed my spirit was straw and mud/a pit dug down below my flesh/to pray in/and I prayed on beads of blue corn kernels/slipped from thumb to earth/while deerskinned drumhead of my heart/gently pounded and I sang/ all earth is holy” (Baca, Martín 17). Baca reaches back through lines of ancestors to the earth. In his willingness to inhabit a past that lives in the narrative present of his body, he forges bonds with his Mexican and Apache ancestors. This transfiguration opens Baca to a different consciousness, as expressed in an interview with Bill Moyers, to “see the reality behind the reality” (Baca, “Swirl Like a Leaf”). In Baca’s work place is earth, acequía, leafy cottonwood, deerskin, and blue corn kernel. He finds place when he sets foot to ground. When absente from the things he loves—land, culture, mother, family—he discovers place as prayer, body-memory, heart-rhythm-beating-song that allows him to recall what matters and who he is in the present because of the past.

What are the philosophical underpinnings to our considerations of place in our contemporary experience? Immanuel Kant first spoke to the body as a locus of perception. His thinking later gave way to phenomenology, pursued by Husserl, Merleau-Ponty, Heidegger, and Bachelard, thinkers who considered space local to the body and experienced intimately in daily life and in one’s sensate knowing of the material world. In Being and Time Heidegger leaves behind an early interest in region to consider dwelling as an act of nearness. This helps him locate place not only in the physical world but as an indwelling, so that place becomes infused with interiority. Nearing is an activity of drawing close, in physical proximity as well as in perception, body, and mind. Dwelling or inhabiting is residing in the nearness of things. Is this, then, an aesthetic as an intimacy with experience? One dwells not only with things but with feelings, senses, and the presences of others. Heidegger’s reflections posit a rehabitation of space, making it place-world and intimate. There are no monovalent definitions in this way of considering being in the world. He writes: “We always go through spaces in such a way that we already experience them by staying constantly with near and remote locations and things” (qtd. in Casey 276).

Forced migration, poverty, racism, and family separation characterizes place in a postmodern age. What are the ways that we experience displacement and replacement? The destruction of place through warfare, which includes racism, poverty, and violence, induces forced migration and creates homelessness, years of living in squalid camps or living in exile away from the origin of birth, culture, and family. Common to modern life is the presence of those without shelter, living on the streets, in the dumps, and under the highways of the world. Globalized industry and transported popular culture erases local, regional, and even national practices and identities. The places that cultures need to thrive dissolve under the pressure of corporate and/or governmental interests. Finally, and this list is not exhaustive, there is a growing sameness (cultural, visual, experiential, material) of the world’s cities under the pressure of globalization. Casey makes an argument for the vitality of place in the midst of these nonarbitrary conditions of modernity that impose sameness as uniformity. “An active desire for the particularity of place—for what is truly ‘local’ or ‘regional’—is aroused by such increasingly common experiences. Place brings with it the very elements sheared off in the planiformitiy of site: identity, character, nuance, history” (Casey, Fate xiii).

Baca has experienced such displacement and his writing becomes an effort to create for himself, mostly through poems but also in stories, memoir, and film, a renewed relationship to his native New Mexican land. He finds himself in cities—Albuquerque, San Diego, and Los Angeles, often homeless or situated in temporary housing and vulnerable to police harassment. Baca reminds us that lived experience of place—physically, in memory, and as expressed through language—allows intimacy with the body. Place fosters nearness to the thingness of multitudinous environments. It connects us, beyond site and sight, to that which gives us meaning and value in the world. When place is insufferable, it lets us occupy our experience. Place helps us determine what is real, if the ability to discriminate remains through suffering and depravation, and to decipher what’s happening and where we are.

In his later Winter Poems Along the Rio Grande (2004), Baca records the river as a teacher, one that shapes the character of the lands of his origin. “The river has taught me/patience—a year I’ve stood every day to watch it,/pray to it that I connect my present moment/to my origins as it does,/that I am connected now/to my beginnings as it is” (Baca, Winter 13). Place, here as river, allows his loves and accepts his despair. Returning to place as a ritual of solace and wisdom provides a vital form of nourishment for life and resistance to nihilism. The river is the dwelling, the thingness and nearness for Baca, to which Heidegger refers in his thoughts on place. Baca’s relationship with the New Mexican earth fuels his desire to enact rituals that connect him with his people, his culture, and the historic longing he has carried in an effort to return to true things. These later poems, written nearly thirty years after his release from prison, are untitled and numbered as a series of autobiographical vignettes. They are prayers of a man in gratitude to life and its sensual offerings, particularly as those sensualities arise in place:

over to the coffee shop to pick up
my latter with soy milk and two brown sugars,
and while my corn meal coagulates on the stove
and my garlic head is roasting,
I compose this poem, to my friend,
celebrating the small things—garlic, oatmeal, coffee,
soy, music, sage, prayers, friendship, laughter,
setting off on this day
prepared to honor the flame in each of us. (Baca, Winter 80)

In bell hooks’ Belonging, a collection of essays in which she explores living a culture of place, she writes of creating a black aesthetic that emerges from black culture and relationships to the earth. She suggests that people of color must reconceptualize beauty as an aesthetic inclusive of their experience. She shares a conversation with her sister upon a return to her native Kentucky in which she learns “to think about blackness in a new way. We think about our skin as a dark room, a place of shadows. We talk often about color politics and the ways racism has created an aesthetic that wounds us, a way of thinking about beauty that hurts. . . .In that space of shadows we long for an aesthetics of blackness—strange and oppositional” (hooks, Belonging 134). Reading her recommendation for an aesthetic of color and culture, I am reminded of Baca’s separation from his Mexican and Apache (mestizo) culture. In his memoir A Place to Stand, he awakens to the damaging impact of split from his culture when he meets Chelo in prison. He describes Chelo, whose body is covered in tattoos, as connected to his Aztec ancestry. He sees the man’s tattoos as written testament to culture, “a walking library” (Baca, Place 223). Others perceive criminality and rebellion in his tattoos, but Chelo shares a perception of beauty new to Baca. “I wear my culture on my skin. They want to make me forget who I am, the beauty of my people and my heritage, but to do it they got to peel my skin off” (223). Chelo is the art, the aesthetic of his people. He wears the stories of his ancestral lineage on his skin. Chelo’s courage and love returns Baca to his own memories that eventually manifest in poems and autobiographical writings that culminate in an aesthetic of his Chicano culture. The bio-regionality that Lynch detects in Baca’s poetry exists in the centrality of rituals, journeys, and social situations that infuse his poems with the nearness and thingness of culture lived and known in a particular place.

Baca’s poetic renderings of desire and memory connected with the past evoke those he has loved and lost. He experiences the earth as salve and nourishing parent. Terry Tempest Williams, on the other hand, experiments in Desert Quartet with sensuality in relation to the earth’s elemental forms: earth, water, fire, air. In the Utah desert, Williams opens to elements that inhabit, please, and pleasure her. She has written often about the damage of places due to human interference and thoughtless action, and, in this vein, Desert Quartet represents an effort to know the land and its life in renewed and life-sustaining ways. Though she does not necessarily recommend an erotics of place to others, as a philosophy or lived system of thought (the risks of such eroticism in open, wild lands are evident to most readers, as they are to her), we can travel with her, sensing her attitude of experimentation. “I dissolve. I am water. Only my face is exposed like an apparition over ripples. Playing with water. Do I dare? My legs open. The rushing water turns my body and touches me with a fast finger that does not tire. I receive without apology. Time. Nothing to rush, only to feel” (Williams, Desert 23). On one trail, within sandstone walls that rise sharply on either side of her, Williams feels her chest and back “in a vise of geologic time” (8). She must surrender in order to experience sensually the structures of rock. With that surrender she finds breath as arousal, a relationship with rock of giving and receiving so that “there is no partition between my body and the body of Earth” (10).

The possibilities of the erotic and of sensuality expand in Williams’ literal and figurative explorations of intimacy with all material forms. In interviews the author speaks to the influence of French feminists on her work, particularly Cixous’s injunction to write out of the body. In Desert Quartet her erotic experimentation evokes the mystery of female embodiment. Williams believes that thinking and relating constitute erotic activity. The editor of A Voice in the Wilderness: Conversations with Terry Tempest Williams, Michael Austin, notes: “For her, wildness represents a force that is at once restorative, transgressive, erotic, playful, and deeply intuitive—terms that French feminist theory applies to the feminine body and to the art that flows from it” (Austin 5). Willliams, for example, compares thought to a river because “rivers inevitably follow their own path, and that channel may change from day to day. . .even though the property of water remains consistent, life sustaining, fierce, and compassionate, at once” (qtd. in Austin 5). In Desert Quartet we can experience her physical contact with the earth as a way of thinking and relating that offers a connected way of being with the place-world in ourselves.

Williams commits a feminist act of non-reservation in her willfulness to open to the desert. Luce Irigaray in “Sexual Difference” imagines that immanence and transcendence might be recast by the female sex. An opening comes in the mystery of female identity, of its self-contemplation, of that strange world of silence (Irigaray, Feminists 128). She wonders “is there not still something held in reserve within the silence of female history: an energy, morphology, growth or blossoming still to come from the female realm? Such a flowering keeps the future open. The world remains uncertain in the fact of this strange advent” (129). It is this flowering that Williams embodies in the desert as she explores physical and sensual contact with the earth as a means of knowing. She has shared that this contact is not expletive, but one undertaken in a manner of reciprocity. The idea is that the body is not just a receptacle of and for the elements, but that we are made of the earth, elemental in our very composition (water, fire, air, and dust). How we approach another—rock, river, flame, lover—creates a space of intention and possibility in our relating. Irigaray writes that desire is a tending toward. It exists in the intervals, the gaps, and requires “a sense of attraction: a change in the interval or the relations of nearness or distance between subject and object” (120). Rather than one subject moving toward or away from, both subjects move toward and away from each another. This, I believe, is the kind of reciprocity in which Williams engages the desert elements. Irigaray draws upon Heidegger’s idea of nearness as specified in place and induced by things and people who cohabit a common place (Casey 282). Nearness then becomes a means of relationality. Williams is radically thoughtful in her desire for nearness with the unknown and potentially dangerous in Desert Quartet. She draws near to what is not necessarily an anthropocentric space-made-place.

Each encounter in the desert is a way to realize something about human being. Like pulled-apart rock that reflects internal tensions and stresses that cause fissures in the earth, our bodies, too, break open with change. The insinuation throughout this sensual work is that we can allow ourselves to “be acted upon” and to “accept the life of another to take root inside” (Williams 11), as we feel life everywhere around and within us. Intimacy is a way to care for place while caring for ourselves. She asserts, “our lack of intimacy with the land has initiated a lack of intimacy with each other” (Austin 75). A question central to Desert Quartet is how we cross borders so that fluidity, rather than fixity, shapes our exploration of relations between our bodies and the earth. Such fluidity becomes “No separation. Eros: nature, even our own” (75).

Thinking in terms of one’s relationship with land as eros is risky, even uncomfortable. Williams proposes place as an engaged dynamic between body and location, making love to land as “an ultimate reciprocity” (Austin 83). As she explores fire in the desert, with its harsh flame that sears and beckons, we find that it is our nature to be aroused repetitively. Such an assertion leads to questions as provocations: “Where do we find the strength to not be pulled apart by our passions? How do we inhabit the canyons inside a divided heart?” (Williams 45). Binaries become sensual areas of exploration and engaged relationship. Questions are arousals that lead us to explore the possibilities of close contact. Williams suggests one, two, even three bodies, as if bodies themselves were flames that jump and retract, play and sear in relation to one another and the earth. In this spirit she says that we cannot preserve or protect wildness. Courage provides impetus to move into what we do not know. “It is the desert that persuades me toward love, to step outside and defy custom one more time” (Williams 46). Love is courage that manifests in our willingness to experiment and to try new things. For Williams, that experimentation becomes a bodily play with flame in the desert as an active contemplation that permits her to honor the element of fire as life.

Irigaray writes that in reciprocity (what she calls “double desire”) each lover possesses place and that no lover is static and fixed in her position to another. Attraction and support might then elude disintegration or rejection; the double pole of attraction and decomposition replaces the separation that articulates all encounters and gives rise to speech, promises and alliances (Irigaray, Feminists 121). Such is the movement Williams shares with fire. In relation to the earth, she does not speak. She feels and intuits the language of the elements through embodied and visceral sensation. Williams offers us a poetic politics of being in place that allows reception as a mode of living. If we listen, she teaches us that to open to all life expands our singular life in the plural existence of multitudinous forms. Our lovers are many. We are loved, caressed, stimulated, burned, and blown by many forces.

Even as there is the risk of discomfort and unfamiliarity in thinking about our relationships with place as erotic, there is value and vitality in pondering environmentalism as primarily relational. When we begin to think in the way that Baca and Williams suggest, we enact an environmental politics as relations between places, bodies, thoughts, and communities of beings—current and ancestral. We create spaces that allow for difference (in race, class, gender, sexuality, ability, and expression), places that allow us to experience without fear the kind of reciprocity these writers enact and imagine in their work. Gary Snyder writes: “A person with a clear heart and open mind can experience the wilderness anywhere on earth. It is a quality of one’s own consciousness. The planet is a wild place and always will be” (qtd. in Cronon 89). Attention to place and care for ourselves happens in heart and mind as well as in the physical environs we inhabit. A politics of place asks us to mend separation from environments that surround us. Baca and Williams show us that place is made partly in our evocations of it. Writers pore relation with place into language, forming new visions and versions of space. There is little separation between desire and the formation of places loaded with human meaning and longing for intimacy with the worlds we inhabit. These worlds woo us to know in the midst of the unknown. Our notion of intimacy with the land includes ignorance of it. The mystery of unknowing is a source of knowing.

Two blocks from my front door lays the Pacific Ocean. Though I hear the surf from my bed at night, I do not know its depths. There are dolphin, otter, and seal, but I glimpse them on the surface of the water. I do not fish, swim, or surf in it. Intimacy with this enormous, volatile body of water challenges me. How do I consider it a place—truly a human notion—when I do not inhabit it but live at its edge? My experience of the ocean happens from a trail in Big Sur. I ascend through redwood into a terrain of oak and chaparral and turn towards the Pacific, white-capped and blue under mist-shrouded sun. I feel the ocean as my son and I bike through redwoods that grow along this strip of Pacific Coast from Northern California into Washington. I wake to fog and live summer under a gray marine layer until the warm months of early autumn arrive. I buy lettuce, berries, and basil grown in coastal soil. I cherish the mystery of this place and that there are still some secrets here. I appreciate the ocean in simple ways—at its shore, playing with my young son, dry seaweed ornamenting our sand castles, wind in my hair, cold waves pounding against my thighs, with my child’s hand in mine. It is this spine of land, the coastal ecosystem where mountains meet sea that I know in a personal way and love.

We have to value intimacy in order to achieve it. This valuation requires care of human relationships as well the places of our planet. It asks for awareness of our limited knowledge. Baca and Williams demonstrate that we can create situations for mending within ourselves as well as in cooperative relations with others. These writers show us our desire to explore individually and collectively how we know, experience, and engage with these places that we love in relationship to self and to each other. We think in new ways about places as we replace words like wilderness, pristine, untouched, endangered, transcendent, even nature, with radical notions of passion, intimacy, erotics, and relationship.


Works Cited

Austin, Michael. A Voice in the Wilderness: Conversations with Terry Tempest Williams. Logan: Utah State UP, 2006. Print.

Baca, Jimmy Santiago. A Place to Stand. New York: Grove, 2001. Print.

___. Immigrants in Our Own Land: New and Selected Poems. New York: New Directions, 1977. Print.

___. Martín & Meditations on the South Valley. New York: New Directions, 1986. Print.

___. “Swirl Like a Leaf.” [Interview with Bill Moyers.] The Language of Life: A Festival of Poets. Arlington: PBS, 1995. Videocassette.

___. Winter Poems on the Rio Grande. New York: New Directions, 2004. Print.

Beauvoir, Simone de. “Women and Creativity.” French Feminist Thought: A Reader. Ed. Toril Moi. Oxford: Blackwell, 1987. 17-32. Print.

Casey, Edward S. The Fate of Place: A Philosophical History. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1998. Print.

Cixous, Hélène. Coming to Writing and Other Essays. Ed. Deborah Jenson. Cambridge, Harvard UP, 1991. Print.

Cronon, William. Uncommon Ground: Rethinking the Human Place in Nature. “The Trouble with Wilderness, or, Getting Back to the Wrong Nature.” Ed. William Cronon. New York: W. W. Norton, 1996. 69-90. Print.

hooks, bell. Belonging: A Culture of Place. New York: Routledge, 2009. Print.

Irigaray, Luce. “Sexual Difference.” French Feminist Thought: A Reader. Ed. Toril Moi. Oxford: Blackwell, 1987. 118-130. Print.

Lynch, Tom. “Toward a Symbiosis of Ecology and Justice: Water and Land Conflicts in Frank Waters, John Nichols, and Jimmy Santiago Baca.” The Environmental Justice Reader. Ed. Joni Adamson, Mei Mei Evans, and Rachel Stein. Tuscon: U of Arizona Press, 2002. 247-264. Print.

Williams, Terry Tempest and Mary Frank. Desert Quartet: An Erotic Landscape. New York: Pantheon, 1995. Print.