Matt Sedillo’s City on the Second Floor is a bit of a departure stylistically for Sedillo. Sedillo, who has worked with Los Angeles poets like Luis Rodriguez, David Romero, and Luivette Resto, often deals with the profound historical inequities of people, especially people of color, in the United States. This newest collection is less a discussion of how history affects us and how those forces continue to tread upon the poor and more of a sociological approach to these same factors. He looks at the ways in which the country is designed to keep marginalized people in a permanent state of poverty, and how the national morality is designed to denigrate those who need help.
The titular poem, “City on the Second Floor,” is a discussion of how Los Angeles is really two cities and those without wealth will never be allowed on the second floor where the power resides. He writes:
In the space between
Worker and destination
Conversation spins profit
And no one moves without reason
And no one speaks without purpose
The word is stillborn
And the world dies anew.
This is the heart of the collection. Where previous collections have focused on history, his newest work talks about how systemic inequity functions. These are not hopeless so much as they are angry about the institutions that continue poverty.
He focuses a number of poems on higher education, especially the community college system which does not serve its population well, and creates inequality for most of its faculty. Most of the faculty on these campuses are adjunct professors without any job protection or health benefits, and without rehire rights, so their jobs might disappear on a whim. The people most likely to remain in these positions are people of color. In his persona poem, “Adjunct Professor,” Sedillo writes from the point of view of a Mexican-American professor of English:
Early westward visionary and pioneer
Of land speculation
And underpaying Mexicans
A tradition to which my labor
And a practice to which my employers
Both prior and current
Have proven themselves
Not only to be among the grandest of enthusiasts
But also, the most ardent of practitioners.
The educational system keeps the professor in a state of permanent poverty with the promise that he might at some time get a tenure track job that never comes. Students in this system are equally at risk. He highlights this in “To Serve Hispanics” when he references how college administrations have debated whether to help the nearly twenty percent of their students who are unhoused every year:
Boards of trustees
To sleep in
Perchance to dream
Of a way of life
Many colleges have argued about whether they should allow students who sleep in their cars to sleep in college parking lots. Most have not allowed this, forcing their students to find other ways to make it through the night.
Sedillo of course does not limit himself to these institutions. His criticism is widespread and fights against a society that would try to keep its people in their place. It is a collection filled with anger and calls to arms.
John Brantingham 22nd March 2022