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City On The Second Floor by Matt Sedillo (Flower Song Press)

City On The Second Floor by Matt Sedillo (Flower Song Press)

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 

A commodity 

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

                                                Is accustomed

             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


Safe spaces

For students

To sleep in

Parking lots

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

And So The Wind Was Born by Gina Duran (Flowersong Press)

And So The Wind Was Born by Gina Duran (Flowersong Press)

Gina Duran’s . . . And So The Wind Was Born from Flowersong Press, a publisher specializing in the voices of new poets along the border of the United States and Mexico like David Romero, Sarah Joy Thompson, and Matt Sedillo. It is a collection of poetry and flash nonfiction that exist in a borderland in a number of ways. In this collection, Duran comes to terms with dealing with generational trauma, a culture that has ill-defined her identity, and a desire to understand who she is after she has lost a daughter.

As a person on the outside of the dominant culture, the poet is queer and Hispanic, Duran establishes how to understand herself in a world that tries to oversimplify and control her. She describes awakening to who she is out of a religious and patriarchal society through a process of pain. It is only after she attempted suicide that she achieved clarity about her sexuality:

. . . There I was: young,

thin, sexually confused, a woman afraid to leave

            her straight life, an a girl who still obeyed

            her mom. I begged my then god for forgiveness

            as I wandered into a new life. (22)

This new life gives her the ability to live without lies, without trying to conform to a culture that wants to force her to be something she is not so it can control her. After this moment, her reminiscences of relationships are positive and healthy:

            I think back when I held your hand

            and you kissed me on the busy street

            cars fluttered the chiffon of your skirt. (29)

She essentially goes from being out of step with herself and lost to finding whom she needs to be and how to see herself.

            This collection is not, however, purely a story of coming out but a discussion of loss as well, the loss of her daughter. 

My eyes were cracked like the windshief of a totaled car, while my daughter drifted deep into the woods. But many of her belongings sat in my garage — in boxes marked Mercedes’ Shit.

And that’s how I knew Mercedes wasn’t coming back.

So I gathered everything I could and cleaned up the mess. I practiced breathing until a tornado swooped me up from the mangled mess into her vortex and I became more. (74)

This is a collection in part about becoming more than how her loss defines her. It is about a number of things, but by the end of the collection, Duran shows how she is able to create a life based on positivity, action, and love in a world that has struggled to take those things from her. This is a collection of hope and seeing beyond limitations and pain. This point-of-view is extraordinary given that she is dealing with generational trauma. She discusses how the pain she and her daughter feel is in part an extension of her mother’s:

            I am also breath and radiating particle

            A child born on the marina

            held in the arms of a woman who suffered

            abuse like mine. (40)

Her pain and abuse is generational, and this book is in part a quest to find a way around that trauma to break this cycle that seems unending.

            . . . And So The Wind Was Born is relevant, I think to so many of our experiences. It is so easy for us to define ourselves and each other in simplistic social terms, but Duran has shown us the dangers of that through her own suicide attempt. She also shows us the way through that in the joy that she creates for others and herself.

John Brantingham 10th February 2022

An Incomplete List of Names by Michael Torres (Beacon Press)

An Incomplete List of Names by Michael Torres (Beacon Press)

Michael Torres is one of the great writers coming out of the Pomona Valley area where notables such as Sam Shepard, Kem Nunn and more lately Matt Sedillo, David Romero, and George Hammons have written from and about. Torres’s debut poetry collection, An Incomplete List of Names from Beacon Press is very much about the experience of coming from this area and how a place can work itself into a person. It’s an exceptional work that is in part about how Pomona colors the way he sees and relates to the world, and the ways that the world relates to him.
Torres has moved out of Pomona and now lives in a college town in Minnesota where he teaches, but he describes the pain and awkwardness of carrying his past and his own expectations for himself with him. He writes:

I’m at a couch at
the professor’s house. And there are two

of me. One sits, cross legged, a glass of wine
in his hand. I don’t know what kind.

He offered and I said, Sure, that’d be
delightful . . .

The other me floats between the professor
and the glass, not wondering what this man

thinks of my use of the word dichotomy (6-7).

He seems to feel a good deal of awkwardness about the place he occupies, at once feeling that he does and should belong and at the same time feeling that he does not and should not. The collection captures so well what it means to grow into a position and to still feel that imposter syndrome that follows so many people through life. Throughout the collection, he is showing that he is doing exceptional work as a poet and a professor, but he still feels like an outsider.
However, that he feels like an outsider is not surprising as this status is enforced and reinforced by the society in which he lives. At a party in Minnesota, he is describing his hometown and friends to a woman: “When I mentioned my homies, she laughed. I stared. She stopped and said, Oh, you’re serious” (53). This collection is full of moments where society is subtly and unsubtly telling him that he just does not belong, which is of course, one of the major problems of the academic world. His nickname from his childhood REMEK that he used while tagging follows him, not that people identify him this way, but he still identifies internally as REMEK. It is a part of him, and it’s not just that Pomona follows him. He wants it to do so.

Before I left, I wanted
to tattoo this town across
my back. I thought POMONA
between my shoulder blades like
a pair of wings for all those
stories I had just in case
the sky asked where I’d been (65).

If he is an outsider in Minnesota, there is the feeling that he is being forcibly disconnected from this new academic society, but that he wants to be disconnected at least to some degree to retain that part of himself that he believes to be his authentic self.
There is, of course, more to An Incomplete List of Names than this, but Torres’s sense of self is central to the collection. It is an exceptional collection as social commentary and an autobiographical debut work.

John Brantingham 11th February 2021

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