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“Mowing Leaves of Grass”: a poetic critique of US history

  • October 8, 2020

Capitalism & Crisis

Matt Sedillo’s latest work of poetry is a powerful condemnation of capitalism and a radical critique of the history and present of the United States.

Matt Sedillo is one of the most important working-class intellectuals of our time. His newest collection of poetry, Mowing Leaves of Grass, takes the reader’s hand and leads them on a historical path of how the United States murdered, colonized and raped its way into existence.

It is not a faceless critique of America — Sedillo names names. This book reaches out to the faces of Donald Trump and Mike Pence, squeezes their jowls and elegantly yells “Fuck you!”

Sedillo’s collection takes its title from Walt Whitman’s Leaves of Grass. Whitman’s work was viewed as controversial during its time not only for its free verse but also owing to its explicitly embracing sexuality. Mowing Leaves of Grass shares the free verse of Leaves of Grass, but its strength lies in its embrace of anti-capitalism as the path to bliss.

“Mowing Leaves of Grass” by Matt Sedillo is out now from Flowersong Press.

This collection damns not only the General Custers of the world, but also the educated and wealthy President Grants. The educated and the wealthy who create the lies and signs the paperwork that steals land. Like how the US government stole the Paha Sapa hills, renamed it Black Hills, and then commissioned the sculptor Gutzon Borglum to scrape the Six Grandfather’s face off the mountaintop to create Mount Rushmore. The educated and wealthy also give orders to murder, as they did to Colonel John M. Chivington who was ordered to slaughter the Cheyenne and Arapaho people in 1864 for their crime of living in the way of gold.

Mowing Leaves of Grass is reminiscent of Jason Reynolds’ Stamped: Racism, Antiracism, and You, a remix of Ibram X. Kendi’s Stamped from the Beginning, but in a prose poetry format. The book’s critique of white supremacy is from the Chicanos and Native Americans’ perspective, and its politics are unabashedly radical.

Sedillo is not talking about reform. In this book, which linearly follows history, he challenges the reader to view the past and the present from a clearer and more revolutionary lens. What he speaks of is transformation.

We all need a transformation of perspective.

Because who exactly are you calling an immigrant when the people you are referring to lived here before your ancestors stole it? For the people whose lands were colonized, but souls remain free, this book is a vindication, but for those who are descendants of the colonizers and settlers, it is essential reading.

Sedillo also challenges the idea of the perfect victim and respectability politics. In his poem, “Ernie,” we are taken through the life and homicide of a man who represents the person white America thinks hides in every working-class Chicano and Black neighborhood. Ernie is shot down owing to a caricature of a monster of who-we-are if we are not perfect. But there is no such thing as a perfect human being because, as Alexander Pope said, “to err is human,” and, like I say, “white people aren’t divine.”

In the poem “Here is a Nation” — a play on the movie “Birth of a Nation” — Sedillo dives into the United States’ history from abolitionist John Brown to post-reconstruction then back to slavery and finally to McCarthyism. He discusses cops that butcher, presidents that massacre, war abroad and war at home. Showing how oppression is all connected — from the illegal pipelines to the over-policing of Black, brown and Native American people and union-busting. He forgets no-one in this critique of the real birth of this nation.

This book challenges not only the message, but it also challenges the messengers. It warns of greenwashing, shady publicists and the renaming of oppression into more grant-funding friendly terms. In many ways, this book is an instruction guide to “not getting got” by “The Devil.”

The Los Angeles canon of literature typically relegates Chicanos to a person “Mowing Leaves of Grass,” but Los Angeles could not be the city of the stars without Chicanos. I will not make a cute cleaning quip because the Native American and Chicano community are more than a white supremacist’s tired trope. In this narrative, Sedillo not only traces the story of Los Angeles but of a large section of the southwestern part of the United States in places that its first president, Geoge Washington, referred to as “colonial space temporarily inhabited by Indian people.” Sedilo describes what was attempted to be erased and what we should all be remembering about how the United States was stolen.

All poetry is political, but a person does not need to have a mastery of politics or Chicano American history to enjoy the writing in this collection — if you were to pick up this book from a neighborhood book shop in a small town in the United Kingdom, you would still understand it. However, as Matt has been to the UK as he tells us of his visit to Liverpool in the poem “Chicano in Liverpool,” the birthplace of the Beatles and the former home of a slave port, maybe a small town in Nigeria would be a better example.

As brutal as this collection of poetry is, it is very entertaining. While Sedillo is known for his live readings, his writings on his ideas on life will be the most critical part of his legacy.

Mowing Leaves of Grass is a condemnation of capitalism and of the stolen land now called the United States. It is a masterpiece that archives what happened in the past and what is happening currently in a way that future generations will appreciate.

Teka Lo

Teka Lo is a poet, essayist and journalist currently residing in New York. She is the founder and editor of Public Intellectuals and the author of the poetry collection Queen of Inglewood (Word Palace Press).

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