Anyone listening to Matt Sedillo spit his poems across a crowded room will be mesmerized. It’s the rapid-fire of his delivery, the plain-speaking, the cadence and rhythm, the wordplay. The content. Yes, it is the content. After all, none other than Greg Palast calls him the best political poet in America. It’s an important book to read in the midst of a season of uprisings. A new poetics and a new way of seeing the world are needed in a time of rebellion. Having a chance to examine the poems in his book shows that the form you hear in the delivery is there, on the page, too.
Take “Once.” “Once upon a dream” the poem begins, evoking mythic origins. “I had this dream once,” he continues a few lines later in the poem. ‘”son/There live the rich/And though you and I/ May never get to see it/One day this hill will run red with their blood.” Much of the rest of the poem reviews dialectical pairs of why the hill will run red – “Mendez and Lemon Grove” refer to the Mendez family’s fight against segregation in Lemon Grove, California. “Rodriguez vs. San Antonio” alludes to the 1971 racial and class equity fight of the School Improvement Association in Texas. “Saul Castro and the blowouts” is actually Sal Castro, and the reference is to the 1968 high school student walkouts for ethnic studies programs, where the opposition was the LA Unified School District and, in particular at the beginning, Lincoln Park High. These class and racial conflicts fuel the rage that will lead to what the poet’s father predicts. If you’ve not heard of these incidents, that’s part of Sedillo’s poetic strategy. He wants you to find something with which you are familiar, but he wants you to ask questions about what you don’t know, do a little work, realize that there is more to the poem than lies on the surface. He is challenging you to inquire.
From the same poem, “I head east/ Toward clinics of cruelty/ All humanity stripped from a system/Sadism posed as social work.” Clinics of cruelty and sadism posed as social work are two of my favorite metaphors in the book and they jump right off the line. But this is a setup for Sedillo’s third dream. “I have this dream/Every so often/Of people/ Beyond borders and prisons/Gathered in the distance/Telling tales of time/When women feared the evening/When communities were punished by color/And grown men hunted children/Hardly able to believe/People once lived this way.” Three dreams and three outcomes. Origins, retribution, and the world we want to live in. You can’t leave clinics of cruelty unless you can envision the kind of world you want to inhabit. And that is what Sedillo is giving you here.
“The Servant’s Song” goes one step further – the title first makes me think of Chaucer, whose Canterbury Tales are filled with the tales of ordinary folk. But by the end I see it as an allusion to Kurt Weill and Bertolt Brecht –Pirate Jenny’s song. At first it is a song of “Captains of industry/Lords of limited liability,” and a celebration of their power. But in the servants quarters people are dreaming and singing songs of blood and conquest. This hill too will run red with blood. Just like in Brecht’s poem, where hotel maid Jenny welcomes the pirates bombarding the hotel and the capitalists. Definitely songs for our times.
In “Oh Say,” Sedillo riffs on the lines of “Star Spangled Banner” and “America the Beautiful,” writing not only that he never saw any purple mountain’s majesty, but mixes in a refrain from “Strange Fruit” and hits the reader with the contrast – “black bodies swinging in the Southern breeze.” How can you square one vision of America with another, he is asking, without questioning the blood at the root? Deep within this poem are references to Whitman’s Leaves of Grass, the ironic “Oh captain, my captain” and “Oh pioneer.” “The myths/ The hymns/ The bitterness/Of fairy tales/Best woven into song,” he says, including myths of Lincoln and the Civil War. Words tumble over each other to reach the end of a poem of slashing ironies, of “amber waves of chains.”
The title of the book and the title poem demand that the reader come to terms with Walt Whitman. The title is a challenge: cut Whitman down to size, perhaps.
I bought my copy of Leaves of Grass somewhere around 1989 or 1990, after listening to Luis Rodriguez comment about how so many of the talented poets writing in Chicago had not studied the masters, like Whitman, didn’t realize how much we owe to him. In a 2015 interview, Rodriguez said something similar: “[Poetry] is not at the center of [our] culture. It’s pushed to the side. And yet we have some of the best, from Walt Whitman to Emily Dickinson all the way to the present.” I confess I’ve still not been able to read all of Leaves of Grass, though I recognize what Whitman meant to the poetic canon. At the time Leaves of Grass was published, it was condemned and admired for its sensuality. Some refer to him as the father of free verse. Most don’t realize that the title, Leaves of Grass, was a pun. Grass was a term used at the time to describe trash literature, and a leaf is a page of a book. Grass, of course, is also a plant, and Whitman, in part 6 of “Song of Myself,” defines and describes grass.
None of that is Matt Sedillo’s contention. Whitman, in Sedillo’s view, was a racist who deserves no respect.
George Hutchinson and David Drews, in an essay in the Whitman archive, begin as follows:
“Whitman has commonly been perceived as one of the few white American writers who transcended the racial attitudes of his time, a great prophet celebrating ethnic and racial diversity and embodying egalitarian ideals. He has been adopted as a poetic father by poets of Native American, Asian, African, European, and Chicano descent. Nonetheless, the truth is that Whitman in person largely, though confusedly and idiosyncratically, internalized typical white racial attitudes of his time, place, and class.”
Some are saying, in the context of taking down statues of slaveholders and confederates, that statues memorializing Whitman should be removed as well. Hutchinson and Drews describe Whitman’s inconsistent racial attitudes that more or less mimic the different views of the time, views inconsistent with the “democratic spirit” of his poetry. They conclude their essay thus:
Because of the radically democratic and egalitarian aspects of his poetry, readers generally expect, and desire for, Whitman to be among the literary heroes that transcended the racist pressures that abounded in all spheres of public discourse during the nineteenth century. He did not, at least not consistently; nonetheless his poetry has been a model for democratic poets of all nations and races, right up to our own day. How Whitman could have been so prejudiced, and yet so effective in conveying an egalitarian and antiracist sensibility in his poetry, is a puzzle yet to be adequately addressed.
But this is about Matt Sedillo’s Mowing Leaves of Grass, so what does Matt Sedillo say? The title poem is, in a way, Matt Sedillo’s own “Song of Myself.” Beginning “I am the as yet written vengeance of Elvira Valdez,” the poet leads us through a litany of Southwestern cities drawing connections to the Chicano past and present on a path through miseducation and misrepresentation and punishment unless we accept the canonic political and literary leaders. These include Chaucer and Shakespeare and of course Whitman. “If we let you in/What will become/ Of the canon?” The voice becomes that of the oppressor: “I will show you/ Who you are/ In a book/ And you will believe it/ ‘Cause I said it.” But the poet seizes control again, says check out my poetry — “The universe/ Is a muralist/ The Cosmos/ Our self-portrait,” and here comes Joaquin, “Triumphant/ Marching/ Through the halls of Tucson/Mowing down leaves of grass/Fuck Walt Whitman.” There it is: the punch line, followed by the affirmation of what it means to be alive, “all that we are and all that we have been.”
Whitman worked on a New Orleans newspaper for three months. Having witnessed slave auctions with revulsion (also described in “Song of Myself”), he returned to Brooklyn, New York and founded a free-soil newspaper. Free-soilers were not abolitionists, but they played a role in demanding the end of the expansion of slave-owner controlled territory and in opening the fight for the end of slavery. The leadership of the fight to break the back of the slave power was industrial capital in the north. Wall Street brought Reconstruction to an end when it reached an accommodation with the slave power and returned the planter aristocracy back to control, now under the domination of northern interests. The freedmen lost what they had gained and were driven back into peonage. This is the context in which all the transcendental poets and writers worked. A group of New England abolitionists, dubbed the “Secret Six” and connected to the transcendentalists, raised money for John Brown and the raid on Harpers Ferry. Whitman attended John Brown’s hanging, and joined Thoreau, Melville, and Emerson in condemning the execution.
Today’s cause is also a form of abolition – a form that strikes deeper into what divides American society than ever before. When we hear today the call for prison abolition or for abolishing the police, and we engage some of these abolitionists in conversation, we find that they are talking about restructuring society entirely. A secure and safe society is one in which human beings have all their needs met and in which they thrive, not just survive. If 150 years ago the battle was to end chattel slavery, today increasing permanent unemployment demands why wages are necessary to obtain the abundance available today. Poets have been modernizing the democracy of 150 years ago, taking their verse into the streets with the demonstrators, taking the open mic to the people’s mic. If free verse liberated poets to write in a more democratic form, contemporary spoken word has dragged poetry into the battle for today’s new world democracy – the democracy of distribution according to need.
That, in my view, is Matt Sedillo’s genius. I don’t disagree with Greg Palast, when he assessed Sedillo as America’s most important political poet. But our new generation comes out of a cauldron that is producing – can’t help but produce – an army of brilliant writers with a vision of a new world. I think Sedillo himself says this in “El Sereno.”
“El Sereno” is one of my favorites in this collection, perhaps because the poet so concretely and vividly describes an area of Los Angeles I know well. He speaks of the “industrial petrified forest,” and the people who worked there. “As a child/ I could never quite/ Make the connection/Between the broken/ And empty bottles/ Across the steps/ And the broken and empty men/ Poured out the rust factories/From across the tracks,” he writes. And there’s another, related connection he could not make. His father “A prince among men/In a backward kingdom,” Sedillo couldn’t make the connection “Between/ His fingers around my throat/And the anguish/In his chest.” It’s the same anguish he has explored in many of these poems, the same as the black bodies swinging in the Southern breeze. In the face of all this, and perhaps because of all this, the poet is defiant, but more than defiant. He evokes the communist poet Roque Dalton’s “Como Tu” when he writes “I like You/Am made of stars/ You like me/So full of pain/Are brimming with genius/Listen to no one/Who would make you feel different.”
Listen to no one who would make you feel different.
This piece first appeared Chicago Labor and Arts Festival Blog