Table of Contents
The poem “Who Understands Me but Me” is written by Jimmy Santiago Baca. The poem talks about the poet’s time in prison. It talks about how “they”, the society, had taken away his necessary sources of survival like sunlight, air and even water. The poem focuses on how while bearing the sufferings of the prison, the poet comes out stronger than before. While living in isolation and bearing the torture of the prism, the poet finds an inner source of energy, he finds solace in himself.
About the poet
Jimmy Santiago Baca was born in 1952 in New Mexico, USA. He is a poet, screenwriter and a memoirist. He was sentenced to five years in maximum security prison and learnt how to read and write while serving his sentence. He has written numerous poems and screenplays. Some of his famous works include “I Am Offering This Poem”, “A Place to Stand” and “Healing Earthquakes”.
The poem is written in a free-verse style. The poem is a lyric poem that consists of two stanzas. The first stanza consists of 16 lines and the second stanza consists of 22 lines.
Lines 1-16 (Stanza 1)
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?
The poem begins by the speaker talking about his life in prison. He says that he was not given any facilities necessary for living. He says that “they” did not give him water, made the walls higher and painted all the windows. “They” locked him in a cage and took away all his tears. To this he says that when they turned the water off, he learnt to live without water.
When they built the walls higher he learned to live without looking at the trees. When the windows were painted black, he learnt to live in darkness and without sunshine. After they lock him in the cage, he learns to not go anywhere. They take away all of his sadness and tears, so he learns how to live without them. He says that they take away his heart and torment him, so he learns to live without a heart. They take away his life and he learns how to live without having any future. The speaker says that they call him beastly and fiendish because of his crimes. So he in turn has no friends. They do not provide him with any hope at all. So the speaker learns that there is no way out of hell.
They give the speaker pain and hate, so he learns how to live with those emotions. They have changed him and because of that he is a different man now. And because he’s not provided with any sanitary facilities, his body starts to reek. He does not have any friends or brothers so he learns to live alone. He says that nobody would understand when he says that all of this is beautiful to him. Even after everything, the speaker finds a new form of freedom to live with.
In the first stanza the poet talks about his life in prison. He says that they have locked him behind bars and do not provide any resources necessary to live a proper life. The poet is locked in a cage without any water, without any windows and without any ray of hope. He says that he is locked in a cage and he’s given pain, torture and judgement from the society. He says that his life is taken away from him.
He is given no food, no future, no friends, no brothers and is made to live alone. But there is a cause and effect relationship that takes place. Because of the torture that the poet faces, he learns how to live with the resources given to him. When the walls are built higher and the windows are painted black he learns to live without looking at the outside world or the sun. When he is given only pain and hate, he learns how to live with those emotions. He says that when they take away his tears, he learns how to live without being sad. Without having any friends or brothers to call his own so he learns how to find solace in himself. He becomes a different and a better person because of the trials and tribulations he has to go through in the prison.
In the last line of the stanza, he talks about how he undergoes a transformation in the prison and because of that he actually finds it beautiful. Because he’s not given any freedom, he learns to find a new form of freedom.
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.
The speaker in these lines says that he doesn’t have the ability to make something appear out of thin air or to fly. He cannot open up the sky or make the entire earth shake. But he can live with himself and he is amazed by his own identity, his love and his own beauty. He understands his failures and he understands his fears. He also understands that he was stubborn and childish when he was in prison, but in prison, he practiced how to be himself. He found a new side of him that he had not been aware of before. He says that all these abilities were brought out from under the stones in his heart only when the walls were built higher, the water was turned off and the windows painted black.
The poet in these lines says that after undergoing his time in prison, he did not require any special or super human abilities. He does not have the ability to conjure up things in his hands or to fly or levitate. He does not have the superhuman strength to split apart the sky or create earthquakes but he does find the ability to be his true self. He says that after living in isolation and under inhumane conditions in the prison, he learns how to find himself and live with himself.
He learns how to appreciate himself, to find his love, and beauty. He also understands his life, his failures, and what scares him. He realizes that he’s stubborn and childish, which are his weaknesses, while he lives in the prison life that the society has subjected him to. While staying in prison, he practices being his true self, and during that practice, he finds parts of himself that would never have come up to surface before. He says that these parts of himself were hidden in the deep crevices of his heart. The word “rocks” symbolizes the hardened feelings and emotions that the poet carried in his heart.
These abilities were only accessible to him when he was sentenced to life in prison.
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?
The speaker says that he found himself by following the signs like a tracker through the woods deep into himself. After following the blood-spotted path into the dangerous parts of his inner self and finding new parts of himself. After he found his new self, he was taught that water is not necessary. One can look at the world through walls. He says that when his new selves talked and opened their mouths, sunlight poured out. The speaker learns how to laugh and be happy. He finds company within himself and enjoys life like children and makes loyalty pacts with his inner voices. In the last line, the speaker again says that he finds his life beautiful.
The poet, while living in darkness, learns to look within himself. He compares himself to a forest and talks about following the path sodden with blood. This path is a reference to his painful memories. He goes deeper into himself and finds new parts of himself that he was not aware of before. These parts teach him new ways to live and find happiness. He says that these parts teach him how to life without water and see the world through the walls of the prison.
This means that he learns that his life has not ended yet and he still has a life to live and the world to see. He sees the sunlight when the new parts of him open their mouths and speak. This line talks about the illumination that the poet finds within himself. He finds company with his inner voices and they laugh and play like children. The poet makes a pact of loyalty with his new found self. This is a promise to always stay true to his new presence and live a new life.
The poet reiterates that because of what he found and learned while living in prison, he found life beautiful.