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Who Understands Me but Me by Jimmy Santiago Baca

“Who Understands Me but Me” is one such poem that Jimmy Santiago Baca wrote in prison. It was published in the collection, Immigrants in Our Own Land and Selected Early Poems (1990). In this poem, Baca’s “stubborn” and “childish” speaker recounts the physical sufferings behind the bars that helped him come out stronger. He admits the impediments were much stronger to overcome. But, somehow he found a greater source of energy lying buried inside him. The voice that he heard in isolation and pain, transformed him into a human being. This piece is a tribute to the inner self that only understands him.

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Who Understands Me but Me
by Jimmy Santiago Baca

They turn the water off, so I live without water,
they build walls higher, so I live without treetops,
they paint the windows black, so I live without sunshine,
they lock my cage, so I live without going anywhere,
they take each last tear I have, I live without tears,
they take my heart and rip it open, I live without heart,
they take my life and crush it, so I live without a future,
they say I am beastly and fiendish, so I have no friends,
they stop up each hope, so I have no passage out of hell,
they give me pain, so I live with pain,
they give me hate, so I live with my hate,
they have changed me, and I am not the same man,
they give me no shower, so I live with my smell,
they separate me from my brothers, so I live without brothers,
who understands me when I say this is beautiful?
who understands me when I say I have found other freedoms?

I cannot fly or make something appear in my hand,
I cannot make the heavens open or the earth tremble,
I can live with myself, and I am amazed at myself, my love,
my beauty,
I am taken by my failures, astounded by my fears,
I am stubborn and childish,
in the midst of this wreckage of life they incurred,
I practice being myself,
and I have found parts of myself never dreamed of by me,
they were goaded out from under rocks in my heart
when the walls were built higher,
when the water was turned off and the windows painted black.
I followed these signs
like an old tracker and followed the tracks deep into myself,
followed the blood-spotted path,
deeper into dangerous regions, and found so many parts of myself,
who taught me water is not everything,
and gave me new eyes to see through walls,
and when they spoke, sunlight came out of their mouths,
and I was laughing at me with them,
we laughed like children and made pacts to always be loyal,
who understands me when I say this is beautiful?

- from Immigrants in Our Own Land and Selected Early Poems (1990)
Analysis of Who Understands Me but Me by Jimmy Santiago Baca


Summary

In the poem “Who Understands Me but Me,” the speaker describes how he is denied the essential sources to survive: water, air, and sunshine. Not only that, his freedom is taken away, his emotions are crushed, and his hope is blown out. The conventional society (“They”) causes him pain by hating and trying to mold him. However, he has found “other freedoms” amidst the manifold tortures inflicted upon him.

He admits that he is not transformed into a superhuman being, however, the experiences have changed the way he thinks. The denial of freedom and essential resources to live have made him look inside to seek newer, renewable sources of energy. In this way, he has found so many parts within himself that taught him that the things taken away from him are not everything for survival and renewal. This realization has helped him to become the person he is now.

Structure & Form

“Who Understands Me but Me” is a free-verse lyric written from the point of view of a first-person speaker. The setting of the poem is a prison where the speaker discovered the child in himself. There is no set rhyme scheme or meter in the poem. It consists of two long stanzas with sixteen and twenty-two lines respectively. In the first stanza, Baca uses an interesting cause-and-effect style in order to describe how he was physically and mentally tortured inside the prison walls. There is a tone of sad acceptance in his voice. At the end of both stanzas, the sadness in the speaker’s voice fades away.

Literary Devices & Figurative Language

Baca’s “Who Understands Me but Me” showcases the use of the following literary devices:

Repetition

Baca uses this device in the first stanza of the poem. Each line contains a repetition of the main idea. For instance, the first line contains the repetition of “water.” In the second stanza, the speaker repeats the same ideas from the first stanza:

when the walls were built higher,

when the water was turned off and the windows painted black.

Anaphora

The repetition of the same word or phrase at the beginning of consecutive lines is called anaphora. It occurs in the following lines:

  • Lines 1-14 (beginning with “They”)
  • Lines 15-16 (beginning with “who understands me when I say”)
  • Lines 17-19 and Lines 21-22 (beginning with “I”)
  • Lines 27-28 (beginning with “when the”)
  • Lines 34-36 (beginning with “and”)

Metaphor

The line “They lock my cage,” contains a metaphor. In this line, the prison is compared to a cage used to contain wild animals. In “they take my life and crush it,” the poet compares “life,” an abstract idea to something that can be crushed. In line 23, the torment inside a prison is compared to a “wreckage of life”.

Simile

It occurs in the lines, “I followed these signs/ like an old tracker and followed the tracks deep into myself” and “we laughed like children and made pacts to always be loyal”.

Rhetorical Question

The first, as well as the second stanza, ends with rhetorical questions. At the end of the first stanza, the speaker rhetorically asks who understands him when he says that life in the prison is beautiful and that he has found freedom there. The same question “who understands me when I say this is beautiful?” is used as a refrain at the end.

Imagery

Baca uses the following types of imagery in “Who Understands Me but Me”:

  • Visual Imagery: “they build walls higher, so I live without treetops,” “they paint the windows black, so I live without sunshine,” “they lock my cage, so I live without going anywhere,” etc.
  • Tactile Imagery: “they take my life and crush it, so I live without a future”
  • Organic Imagery: “they take each last tear I have, I live without tears,” “they take my heart and rip it open, I live without heart,” “they give me pain, so I live with pain,” etc.
  • Olfactory Imagery: “they give me no shower, so I live with my smell”


Line-by-Line Analysis & Explanation

Lines 1-16

They turn the water off, so I live without water,

they build walls higher, so I live without treetops,

they paint the windows black, so I live without sunshine,

they lock my cage, so I live without going anywhere,

they take each last tear I have, I live without tears,

they take my heart and rip it open, I live without heart,

they take my life and crush it, so I live without a future,

they say I am beastly and fiendish, so I have no friends,

they stop up each hope, so I have no passage out of hell,

they give me pain, so I live with pain,

they give me hate, so I live with my hate,

they have changed me, and I am not the same man,

they give me no shower, so I live with my smell,

they separate me from my brothers, so I live without brothers,

who understands me when I say this is beautiful?

who understands me when I say I have found other freedoms?

Jimmy Santiago Baca’s poem “Who Understands Me but Me” begins with a series of torments inflicted upon the speaker. By “They,” the poet refers to a judgmental society. At first, they turned every source of living off to watch the speaker suffer for his crimes. They deprived him of water, air, and sunshine. Furthermore, they locked him away in a cage like a wild animal. They were so unsympathetic that they took away his tears so that he cannot express his sadness.

According to the speaker, they did not stop there. They left him heartless and lifeless so that he cannot have a future. As a reason for such tortures, they say he is beastly and fiendish. Therefore, he is doomed to be friendless. Denying the frail rays of hope, they made him stay in the hellish environment of the prison cell.

Following a similar cause-and-effect pattern, the speaker expresses that he lives with pain and hate as they gave them to him quite generously. In the process, he changed as a person. Now, he is no longer the same man. Besides, they also denied basic sanitation. Thus his body reeks.

Not only that, they separate him from his brothers with whom he could share his pain. However, the torments could not break his spirit as he describes his life in prison as “beautiful.” Nobody can understand when he says that he has found freedom inside the walls. Only he himself can make it out.

Lines 17-28

I cannot fly or make something appear in my hand,

I cannot make the heavens open or the earth tremble,

I can live with myself, and I am amazed at myself, my love,

my beauty,

I am taken by my failures, astounded by my fears,

I am stubborn and childish,

in the midst of this wreckage of life they incurred,

I practice being myself,

and I have found parts of myself never dreamed of by me,

they were goaded out from under rocks in my heart

when the walls were built higher,

when the water was turned off and the windows painted black.

In the second stanza, the speaker describes that he is not transformed into someone having special abilities. He cannot fly or make something appear in his hand from thin air. He can neither make heaven open nor the earth tremble. All he can do is live with himself. It is too tough to live with oneself when one is tortured like the speaker. Interestingly, the speaker says he is amazed at himself. He describes the person within him as his “love” and “beauty.” Though he is taken by his failures and fears, he is stubborn and childish to admit defeat.

Describing the time in prison as a “wreckage of life” incurred upon him by society, he says that he practices being himself there. In this way, he has found some parts within himself he never dreamed of. The tortures and denials stirred these parts out from the “rocks” (a symbol of hardened emotions) in his heart.

Lines 29-38

I followed these signs

like an old tracker and followed the tracks deep into myself,

followed the blood-spotted path,

deeper into dangerous regions, and found so many parts of myself,

who taught me water is not everything,

and gave me new eyes to see through walls,

and when they spoke, sunlight came out of their mouths,

and I was laughing at me with them,

we laughed like children and made pacts to always be loyal,

who understands me when I say this is beautiful?

When he was all by himself in the dark cell, he looked within. Like an old tracker, he followed the signs deep into his mind. He walked upon the “blood-spotted path, a metaphorical reference to the painful memories. Going deeper into dangerous regions of his mind, he discovered the true beauty within himself. He met with the person long forgotten.

These “parts” or simply his mind taught him that water is not everything. They taught him to see through the towering walls cast against him. There was not a single entity residing in him. Rather, there was a combination of voices, and spirits that inhabited his soul. When they spoke, sunlight came out of their mouths diminishing the darkness.

At that time, he realized how foolish he was to believe everything was going to end and that he had no future. So, he laughed at himself along with the inner voices. They laughed like innocent children and made pacts of loyalty. Even if everyone leaves him, the voices of the inner man will not leave him ever. These are the sources of going on when one is forced to stop living.

In the last line, the speaker reiterates the same question. No matter how hard he tries to convince others that the life he has is beautiful, they will not believe it. Nobody can.

SOAPSTone Analysis of “Who Understands Me but Me”

SpeakerThe speaker of the poem is a jail inmate, specifically the poet Jimmy Santiago Baca himself. Baca wrote this poem while he was in prison. He used the first-person point of view to describe his experience: “They turn the water off, so I live without water”.
OccasionThe poem was written somewhere between 1973 and 1979 when Baca was in his 20s. This reactionary piece is a response to the treatment of judgemental society.
AudienceThe audience of the poem is specifically “they,” the society that denied the speaker freedom, essential resources to recover and grow, and tried to subdue his voice.
PurposeBaca wrote the poem “Who Understands Me but Me” to tell the world how beautiful he is even if he is treated as an outcast. The message of the poem is that one must look within to find strength. The harsher the experiences the stronger a person becomes.
SubjectThe poet introduces the subject immediately at the beginning. It concerns life inside a prison, the cruel treatment of society, and inner strength and beauty.
ToneThis piece is written from a subjective point of view. Thus, the tone or the attitude of the speaker is emotive, sad, and confirming. In the second stanza, his tone becomes happy, wise, and empowering.


Theme

Baca’s “Who Understands Me but Me” revolves around the themes of freedom vs. confinement, denial, torture, cruelty, and spiritual awakening. The majority of the text deals with the cruel treatment of society toward a person who is imprisoned for criminal charges. Through this personal piece, Baca tries to reflect upon his life behind the bars and how he was treated there. However, as the readers go through the entire text, they realize this piece is more about his spiritual awakening or transformation. He depicts how the experiences transformed him into a better person and made him look within.

Historical Context

The poem “Who Understands Me but Me” was one of the early poems that Jimmy Santiago Baca wrote during his six-year imprisonment. Shortly after he was released, he published his first collection of poetry, Immigrants in Our Own Land in 1979. It was later reprinted with additional poems as Immigrants in Our Own Land and Selected Early Poems in 1990. This poem was included in the collection.

Born in 1952, Baca was abandoned at the age of two. He lived with one of his grandparents who later placed him in an orphanage. At the age of thirteen, he ran away from the orphanage and wound up living on the streets. Baca was convicted on drug charges in 1973 (at the age of twenty-one) for six years, four of them in isolation. In his imprisonment years, he learned to read and write poetry.

In Working in the Dark: Reflections of a Poet of the Barrio (1992), a collection of stories and essays by Jimmy Santiago Baca, he recounts:

It was late when I returned to my cell. Under my blanket I switched on a pen flashlight and opened the thick book at random, scanning the pages. I could hear the jailer making his rounds on the other tiers. The jangle of his keys and the sharp click of his boot heels intensified my solitude. Slowly I enunciated the words… Even as I tried to convince myself that I was merely curious, I became so absorbed in how the sounds created music in me and happiness, I forgot where I was. Memories began to quiver in me, glowing with a strange but familiar intimacy in which I found refuge. For a while, a deep sadness overcame me, as if I had chanced on a long-lost friend and mourned the years of separation.

“Who Understands Me but Me” taps on a similar memory of discovering the “long-lost friend” residing within his heart. The discovery led him to the realization that he was never alone. It was he who failed to feel his presence amidst the darkness of the cell that managed to penetrate his mind.

Questions and Answers

What is the poem “Who Understands Me but Me” about?

The poem “Who Understands Me but Me” is about the imprisonment experience of the poet Jimmy Santiago Baca. In this poem, he describes how he was treated and how he discovered strength within himself. This discovery transformed him into the person he is now.

What is the meaning of “Who Understands Me but Me”?

“Who Understands Me but Me” recounts the journey of the speaker (Jimmy Santiago Baca) from hopelessness to spiritual renewal. The experiences he had in prison tried to make him feel he was worthless to society. When he looked within, he found the long-lost voices that made him realize he is truly a beautiful person.

Reread lines 29-38 of “Who Understands Me but Me” and interpret the tone.

In lines 29-38, Baca describes the spiritual quest in his mind. The tone of these lines is in stark contrast with the preceding lines. It is inspiring, happy, and wise.

What is the tone of the poem “Who Understands Me but Me”?

The overall tone of “Who Understands Me but Me” is sad, confirming, and angry. In the last few lines of the poem, the tone changes along with the greater realization of the speaker. In these lines, the speaker’s attitude or tone is happy and inspiring.

When was “Who Understands Me but Me” written?

The poem “Who Understands Me but Me” was written in 1973-1979, while Jimmy Santiago Baca was in prison. It was published in the enlarged collection of his first volume, Immigrants in Our Own Land and Selected Early Poems (1990).

In “Who Understands Me but Me,” how do the images in lines 17–18 relate to the images in lines 1–14?

In lines 17-18, the speaker describes his inability to fly or make something appear in his hand. Neither can he make the heavens open or the earth tremble. These images create a contrast with that in lines 1-14. Though he is just a human being, “they” (society) make him feel like he is extremely dangerous, hideous, and fiendish.

What is the theme of “Who Understands Me but Me”?

The theme of “Who Understands Me but Me” is the experiences of a speaker in prison. It also explores the themes of freedom vs. confinement, suffering, and spiritual awakening.

What is the setting of “Who Understands Me but Me”?

The setting of the poem is a prison where the speaker is placed. This piece is about the poet’s imprisonment years. He was incarcerated in 1973 for six years.

What does the line “who understands me when I say I have found other freedoms” mean?

Through this line, the speaker says that nobody can understand that he has found other freedoms within the prison cell. Only he can.

What does Jimmy Santiago Baca write about?

Jimmy Santiago Baca writes about his troubled childhood, lost youth, and six-year imprisonment that brought about his personal transformation. His works are deeply concerned with social justice and sympathy for the marginalized and disenfranchised.


Similar Poems about Suffering and Transformation

  • As I Grew Older” by Langston Hughes — This poem is about an African-American speaker and his struggle to achieve his dream.
  • Identity Card” by Mahmoud Darwish — This poem contains an Arab refugee’s description of the injustices inflicted upon them.
  • One’s Self I Sing” by Walt Whitman — In this poem, the speaker celebrates the individuality of a person.
  • The Awakening” by James Weldon Johnson — This piece is about the spiritual awakening of a speaker ignorant of his true purpose.


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