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Of Baja, the blank canvas on which to cast dreams

Miraculous Air: Journey of a Thousand Miles Through Baja California, the Other Mexico, C.M. Mayo, University of Utah Press: 390 pp., $24.95 Across the Line / Al Otro Lado: The Poetry of Baja California, Edited by Harry Polkinhorn and Mark Weiss, Junction Press: 384 pp., $20

April 06, 2003|David L. Ulin | David L. Ulin is the editor of "Another City: Writing From Los Angeles" and "Writing Los Angeles: A Literary Anthology."

Because of that, the writing in "Across the Line" is almost completely contemporary, a reflection of the changing face of Baja going back to the early 1970s. This is a place where, Dante Salgado writes, "The night grows long in the desert ... ," "angels and demons / struggle for California / Who shall win the souls?"

The modern-day nature of "Across the Line" is both a strength of the collection and its most glaring weakness, rendering the material here immediate and oddly rootless at the same time. As with most anthologies, it's a mixed bag, depending on your aesthetics. The best work -- Ruth Vargas Leyva's "Scene," with its haunting image of the poet's grandmother, or Katery Monica Garcia's "Epigraph," which reads, in its entirety:

Yes, I know

because you've told me before

it's not that you love me

I am simply the fly

trapped by the closed windows

inside your head.

Although I'm not crazy about the image

I'll let you believe it for now

-- is the most personal, the poetry of identity rather than place. One of the most surprising aspects of the book, in fact, is the extent to which place is often a peripheral factor; there are nature poems and poems of the city (primarily Tijuana), but for the most part, they are unexpectedly familiar, with references to Baudelaire and Mingus, laundromats and greasy spoons. At the most basic level, this reminds us again of the elusive nature of the subject; if Baja exists, somehow, suspended between California and Mexico (a "Huge Whale stranded on the American shore," Edmundo Lizardi describes it in "Baja Times"), it only makes sense that the region's poetry should draw its inspiration from everywhere, for it is the expression of a constantly rebordered culture, marked by shifting alliances and an ever-changing notion of itself. Look deeper, however, and this raises a far more complicated set of questions, as in: How do you connect with a heritage when that heritage has been eradicated? And how do you know where you're going when you don't know where you've been?

Such contradictions, it seems, are rooted in the Baja experience, with its unresolved tensions between past and present, tradition and innovation, the old world and the new. "I believe in the California / of myth -- / the only one possible," writes the poet Raul Antonio Cota, but the myth he seeks is defined in equal measure by cave paintings and ecotourism, Cortes and Planet Hollywood. "Not long ago," Mayo recalls, "Baja California was a great blankness, a piece of geography I could explore; now it felt less like a place on a map than a wide, swift-moving river of stories ... and here, as I live it, is my story, quicksilver fish swimming by." Ultimately, though, "not all of [these stories] had endings," which means this great blankness can't help but remain part of the narrative, after all.

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