“City on the Second Floor”: Clarion call from a poetic craftsman

  • February 4, 2022

City & Commons

In his latest book, “City on the Second Floor,” Matt Sedillo offers a carefully crafted and disturbing narrative about a world careering out of control.

Police investigate at a unhoused people’s encampment in Los Angeles, US. September 15, 2022. Credit: Ringo Chiu / Shutterstock

Matt Sedillo’s poetry is electric, like a lightning bolt. He is a man on a mission, with a message to spread and fire on the tongue. With the tone and the tenor of a biblical prophet — though one with a profound sense of the farcical, too — he delivers a scathing critique, a desperate denunciation of the patriarchal, white supremacist and capitalist dystopia that we inhabit. His latest book, City on the Second Floor, is a cohesive and compelling compendium of some 32 poems and a short play. Together, they thread a most disturbing narrative about a world careening out of control and a social order which is both brutally unjust and ultimately utterly unbearable.

Sedillo is a self-taught craftsman. His words are shaped not just from his experience but his practice. Sedillo approaches his poems like a carpenter or a tailor. He represents the best of what it means to be an organic intellectual. City on the Second Floor is Sedillo’s second book published by FlowerSong Press. His first, the seminal Mowing Leaves of Grass has become an instant classic within the movement for Ethnic Studies and Critical Race Theory within the United States. It is taught all throughout the country as coursework and it has drawn for the author comparisons to giants of the past such as Amiri Baraka, Roque Dalton, Bertolt Brecht, Jose Montoya, Allen Ginsberg and a whole host of others. Investigative journalist Greg Palast raves: “Sedillo is the best political poet alive.” Yes, Mowing Leaves of Grass, has done well for Sedillo. City on the Second Floor, however, takes a different tact.

If Mowing Leaves of Grass was Sedillo’s contribution to the field of Ethnic Studies, to historical correction as it were, then City on the Second Floor is Sedillo’s foray into Sociology, into Marxist Geography, and should be read as such. In City on the Second Floor, Sedillo roams the streets of Los Angeles, reports what he sees and relays what he knows. It is a place “full of untold misery,” “Built on citrus / And munitions / On bracero’s sweat / And the making of war.” It is, at the same time, for him, emblematic of every American city; “a mercenary / Connected to a cartel / Of citadels / Held together / By murder and mayhem / Chaos and bloodshed / Capital and punishment / Flooded in from every direction.” It is a most menacing place, “built against us / Always was / Even now as the city shoots up / The law crashes down.”

“But he’s so angry,” his critics will say. Damn right he is angry, but as he explains: “Promise me the world, then show me the door / I was not / Born / Angry / I was abandoned.” The anger is but the flip side of his compassion, for the oppressed, for the downtrodden, for the wretched — “a homeless man sleeps next to me and I can smell the years of hard distance between who he is now / And who he may have been.” Empathy for and identification with those who are “Underestimated / Overlooked / Mocked / Exploited / Neglected / Disrespected” — “Yet here we stand / With more talent than you ever began to dream to imagine / For every Mexican is a hero.”

Yes, his is a vision of a world full of heroes. And villains. The latter, principally the rich — “well they’re not like you and me / They see an opportunity and they grab it reach for the stars / And they, put ‘em in their pocket.” Those who would “privatize the water supply / Then copyright the tears / Falling / From / Your / Eyes”; “those who would / Turn this earth to wasteland”; those who would fashion themselves “Gods amongst men”:

Their will be done
Their will of rail, steel, oil
Drill the soil
Poison the ocean
Puncture the sky
From the commanding heights
Of greed and death
The makers of the modern world
Watching it burn

Sedillo minces no words, his righteous indignation runs deep, so deep. His hatred of the “Golden parachutes” and the “Silicon messiahs” is tangible. His contempt for “the world of money” jumps from the pages – a world that “Passes by you / Passes through you / As though you / Were just part / Of the scenery,” and “That will beat you for begging / Beat you for sleeping / Beat you for breathing / Beat you / For doing whatever it is you need to do / To survive the night / In the bitter wind.”

He stands ready to accuse, and in so doing, to correct the tendency of so many canonical poets to genuflect before the altar of the nation. No, he will not do that. For “There is far too much death in this valley / Far too many odes / To the odious / The murderous / Pious / Pirates of land.” No way, you will not find him “Licking the boots / Shining the tombs / Of some long dead founding fathers”; nor “Laughing, learning in summer near lakes named in remembrance of murder”; nor paying homage to “Bodies of literature / Schools of cinema / Standing in pools of blood.”

To the contrary, he is a revolutionary poet with a vocation to spark a fire, here to chastise us and disabuse us of our worship of so many false idols — like the idol of integration, or assimilation into the so-called American dream. He shows disdain for the “Arrogant / Delusional / Walking dead / Laughingly dreaming / Of a penthouse suite / They will never reach.” He mocks the impulse to “place your faith / In the hopes of some future embrace / In this world of exchange / Where there are no guarantees / Only hungers to feed.” He is defiant, not compliant. He solemnly declares, “I was born / Free / And penniless / And just like all of you / They have been / Robbing me / Ever since.”

So too does he refuse to succumb to the logic of the lesser evil, to play the pimp to the Democratic party. Instead, he depicts the moment from which he writes as,

Rapidly approaching
The eleventh administration
Of Ronald Reagan
Wherein the rich get
Offshoring bailouts derivatives
Government money to space race
And the rest get debt
And mass incarceration
Then told not to ask why they close down schools build more prisons

There are no odes to Bernie, much less to Jim Crow Joe (Biden), to deflect our attention, or provide us with falsely placed hopes — not while “The world is burning.” He will not allow us to busy ourselves with such commercials; lest “The tumbleweeds shall inherit the concrete.”

Nor will he let us look away from the apocalypse that so quickly approaches, which he depicts with breath-taking eloquence, at a breakneck clip:

Nuclear debris
Valley of silicon
Islands of plastic
Burning river pipelines
Food desert landmine
Jumbo tanks
Fracking quake
The carcinogenic republic of acid rain
Foggy bottom
The world bank
The dying forest
The falling trees
The sky depletes
Over the rising sea
As the horizon greets
Mass extinction

Up against all odds, his is a clarion call to reignite the revolutionary imagination. He cries out: “Long live the hymn of the brick / That escaped the city’s wall / The psalm of the flame / That awaits the spark.” His poetry is “written for future editions / In the clenched fist of the past / With the timeless message / That there is no time like the present / May take years / May take generations / Then again / May take a night.”

Some may liken him to Ginsberg, others to Baraka. But I say, in Matt Sedillo, Karl Marx meets Ezequiel.

Thomas Jeffrey Miley

Thomas Jeffrey Miley is Lecturer of Political Sociology in the Department of Sociology at Cambridge. His research interests include comparative nationalisms and democratic theory. He is currently working on a project on struggles for self-determination in the twenty-first century. His latest book, co-edited with Federico Venturini, is Your Freedom and Mine: Abdullah Öcalan and the Kurdish Question in Erdogan’s Turkey (Black Rose, 2018).

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Source URL — https://roarmag.org/essays/matt-sedillo-city-second-floor-review/

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