City on the Second Floor by Matt Sedillo; Flowersong Press; 112 pages; $12.19
In his lecture series turned tract, A Plea for the West, published in 1835, the Presbyterian minister and proponent of Manifest Destiny, Lyman Beecher, declared that the United States’ political destiny was to be decided in the West—“a young empire of mind, and power, and wealth, and free institutions, rushing up to a giant manhood […].” Beecher was a forefather of the Second Great Awakening, the actual father of abolitionist Harriet Beecher Stowe, and both a vociferous anti-Catholic and racist who supported gradual emancipation and recolonization for African Americans. Beecher may not have been on Matt Sedillo’s mind when he collected the poems within his second book of poetry, City on the Second Floor; however, the minister’s WASPy evangelical vision has given Biblical weight to the smug “boot-strap” work ethic that Sedillo rails against in this collection.
“Post,” the first poem in the collection and one of the strongest, relates how the G.I. Bill and the expansion of the military-industrial complex funded the construction of Southern California’s sprawling suburbs. Sedillo glides as seamlessly through nearly eighty years of regional politics and economic history as one would drive along the California freeways built during the postwar Eisenhower era; roads designed to distance Black and brown communities from the homogenized comforts of satellite towns like Simi Valley. When the Two-Percent’s exploits began to swallow even the white middle-class, Sedillo observes how racist city planning, policing, and the foundational myths perpetuated by Beecher and his ideological descendants made it easy to cast the disinherited as bête noires haunting Beecher’s enduring fantasy of a land of unsurpassed plenty: “I was abandoned / I am your velveteen rabbit / The drying paint of Saturn eating his children […] I killed the economy.”
Sedillo débuted in 2019 with his first poetry collection, Mowing Leaves of Grass—a title that signaled his eagerness to confront white men who had been elevated as demigods. In this second collection, Cornelius Vanderbilt, Andrew Carnegie, John D. Rockefeller, Gerald Ford, and Ronald Reagan, among others, are dropkicked off of their respective pedestals. Sedillo, a Chicano poet and activist, illustrates the ways in which people of color, educators, and creatives, particularly, are financially slaughtered within the nightmare that those in power call the American Dream: “Hire me as an adjunct […] Promise me the world, then show me the door.” The result is a mass of people left behind by an economy that is increasingly globalized and more interconnected but less inclusive: “Because when your pockets are empty […] There’s no real difference / Between a booming metropolis and a barren desert.” Sedillo revisits this apocalyptic vision in “Tumbleweeds,” a poem that, like “Post,” starts as though the speaker is in the midst of a conversation about the world as it never really was. He anticipates a wasteland, fomented by the excesses and apathies of the Anthropocene age, one in which “[t]he world is burning” and those left standing “inherit the concrete.” The problem is that the vision on which the poem hinges, that of tumbleweeds floating across a landscape, has become such a common trope that Sedillo’s use of it here distracts from the point he wants to make about a populace that shrugs in response to a planet on fire. Sedillo’s urge to use poetry as political manifesto, not only in “Tumbleweeds,” but also “Party Hymn” and “Vanderbilt,” causes him to eschew attention to form and imagination. In the latter, Sedillo reappropriates the titles of a bestselling book about the Mohawk civil war by Rick Hornung (“One nation under the gun”) and a critically-acclaimed Paul Thomas Anderson film (“There will be blood”) to recreate the environmental and economic ravages of the Gilded Age’s robber barons.
Sedillo’s poetry is strongest when he skewers the American habit of obscuring its hypocrisies and abuses by trying to forget its history altogether and replacing the truth with romances. In “Pope of Broadway,” Sedillo makes the mistake of opening with the “walks into a bar” joke but overcomes it by carefully delineating Hollywood’s habit, since its inception, of giving Indigenous and Latin actors “ethnic” or “swarthy” roles. In the case of Anthony Quinn, and, perhaps, sundry others who effaced their humanity onscreen in favor of playing a “type,” the compromise wrought severe and heartbreaking personal repercussions. The reader wishes that Sedillo had focused more on that “price of admission,” as he describes it. Instead, the poem down spirals into preachy paean to wasted Mexican talent: “For every Mexican is a hero / And to every hero a journey / And to every journey a purpose.”
Sedillo’s critiques of the American version of the white, patriarchal nuclear family, as exemplified in “Post” and “Hammurabi” undermine the halcyon ideals of the 1950s, perpetuated through television, and touted again during the Reagan era. However, in the latter poem he inadvertently repeats the error of the Baby Boomer elders whom he chastises in “Post” by wondering, hollowly, about the fates “Of IPAD kids […] Asking the net / For deeper meaning.” Sedillo juxtaposes their supposed addiction to technology with his and his parents’ dependence on television. While one can argue that John Wayne films, “Duck and Cover” public announcements, and shows like I Love Lucy were subtle ways to propagandize the postwar ideals of the consumerist, patriarchal nuclear family as well as a version of manhood based on the archetype of the rugged frontiersman, television also showed some viewers their first examples of Black professionals, financially-stable single women, and gay characters who came out and survived. The problem is not with the media, but with the messages we expound and seek within them.
One such message was Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis’s construction, with the media’s cooperation, of the myth of “Camelot.” Named from a supposed favorite 1960 musical of the former president’s, the nickname cast a patina of impenetrable glamour and domestic perfection to a young couple beset by marital woes and the president’s poor health. Sedillo opens this poem with the toss of a Molotov cocktail aimed straight “towards Camelot.” The image serves as a metonym for the violent 1960s, in addition to being one of the actual instruments of revolt during that decade. The Molotov cocktail destroys our delusional embrace of historical mythologies, concocted by those more concerned with preserving legacies and reputations than passing down the truth. Sedillo considers American mythology more effectively in “Lady Winchester,” the most interesting and well-crafted poem in the collection, and another that looks subtly and effectively at the ways in which white women have historically been complicit in upholding white patriarchy. The four-act poem is inspired by Sarah Winchester, the petite “Belle of New Haven,” who married into a family of arms manufacturers and became the heir of a fortune reaped from the sale of Winchester rifles—“the gun that won the West.”
In “To Serve Hispanics,” Sedillo shifts to present-day and lists the federal programs and meritorious initiatives that have failed to serve their purpose of moving Latin communities out of the margins and into the American mainstream. In a similar vein, the book’s title and eponymous poem are not only a nod to Los Angeles’s status as the United States’ second most populous city, but also as one that often regards its Mexican neighbors, former citizens of the annexed territory that is California, and its current Chicano citizens, as secondary people—aliens even: “An international destination / Whose entrance is prohibited / To all those appearing / Too poor for travel […].”
Sedillo nobly continues the tradition of protest poetry in this collection. And there are echoes here of his poetic antecedents—the streetwise tone of Etheridge Knight and the anaphoric calls to action that are reminiscent of Allen Ginsberg. What Sedillo’s poems are missing is the formal dexterity of those from his predecessors: a luscious phrase to roll along the tongue, an image that bursts with light, or verse that dexterously employs the references to history and popular culture from which they draw. Sedillo may not have been striving for these formal aims, but the reach might have yielded a stronger collection.