If you’ve attended a meeting of the Seattle City Council over the last few months — as part of the #BlocktheBunker movement, say, or as a worker fighting for secure scheduling — odds are good you’ve heard at least one poet read their work aloud. As part of her role as Seattle’s very first Civic Poet, Claudia Castro Luna curates the poetry readings that open City Council meetings. To many who attend council meetings on official business, this is probably just a bit of pointless civic nonsense to tolerate, some grandstanding to keep the arts community placated.
But these readings serve an important purpose. Poetry reacts in interesting ways when abutted against the deeply ceremonial wonkery of Council meetings. Luna’s poem “To tear a piece off my shadow as if from a loaf of bread,” for example, with its reminder that “Sometimes your life is a minute ahead and a few days behind the place you want to be,” gains an additional depth when presented as a preamble to legislation. The way Luna conflates time and space, yearning and loss, aspiration and failure in just a few words serves as a reminder that we may never arrive at exactly where we need to be at exactly the right time.
You can see many human emotions play out in the Council’s chambers on a regular basis — hope, fear, anger, happiness — but the “realization that the place you assiduously search and yearn for is nowhere” is not usually acknowledged in those halls. Politicians communicate many ideas to their constituents, but they do not do a very good job of acknowledging our failings. It takes a poet, sometimes, to admit that when we come together as a people to build a place, we do not always succeed.
From the very first poem in Luna’s new chapbook, This City, readers understand that Luna has obviously written the book in her role as a Civic Poet, by which I mean she engages with the idea of Seattle. This is a celebration of the city, but it is also an investigation, a work of criticism, and an exhortation to be a better city. That first poem, “Invitation,” calls for an end to the Seattle Freeze — “Next time you pass someone by, resist the unfriendly pull — don’t look away or down” — and asks Seattle to think more honestly about race. Luna writes about the way white strangers ignore people of color: “Invisibility is no paranormal trick on your part. You don’t ever choose to make yourself invisible.”
And she writes about the north-south divide that is separating Seattle in a civil war of class:
I invite you to a party in Ballard where a woman expresses regret at hearing the news you’re moving to the southwest corner of the map. “We’ll never see you again,” she says in a self-congratulatory way.
From there, This City divides into fragments, prose poems built around brief observations. There’s a poem about the way Seattle, when it’s lit up at night, feels like an aspirational specter, an unattainable vision “imperfect but peaceful, unlike its terrestrial twin.” Luna writes about the tiny moments that make a city into a city: an accidental encounter with a homeless woman at the corner store, neighborhood gossip about the teenaged boy who might be dealing drugs, the way we find strength in the many in those moments when we feel the most alone. And she perfectly captures that first despairing swoon of fall when you realize that a long dark Seattle winter has only just begun:
In October the trees that line Broadway release their leaves. They sway, hesitate, fall down, down, infinitely if they could but for the cold ground.
The capstone of This City is “Seattle’s Poem,” a poem which should be engraved in the concrete of City Hall. “Seattle’s Poem” wrestles with the fact that the very name of Seattle is a theft, that every time we say the name of our city we invoke Chief Sealth, the man from whom we stole the land on which the city stands. It is a poem about our “rehearsed indifference,” and the fact that fighting this indifference is like “scooping/ocean water with a spoon.” It is a poem about the inequality at the heart of our city, and about how exhausting it can be to fight that inequality every single day.
It would be a simple thing for Luna to rest on her laurels as Seattle’s Civic Poet. She could easily earn her paycheck just by showing up to big events and reading a cute poem about an off-leash dog park and the parade of bright REI raincoats on the dark days of winter. It’s to her great credit that she takes her charge seriously, and that her poetry fights for the soul of this city with every single line.
Paul is a co-founder of The Seattle Review of Books. He has written for The Progressive, Newsweek, Re/Code, the Utne Reader, the New York Observer, and many North American alternative weeklies. Paul has worked in the book business for two decades, starting as a bookseller (originally at Borders Books and Music, then at Boston's grand old Brattle Bookshop and Seattle's own Elliott Bay Book Company) and then becoming a literary critic. Formerly the books editor for the Stranger, Paul is now a fellow at Civic Ventures, a public policy incubator based out of Seattle.
Follow Paul Constant on Twitter: @paulconstant