Revisionist Future?
review by Bob Redmond

Seattle Poets and Photographers: A Millennium Reflection
Edited by Rod Slemmons and J.T. Stewart
January, 2000: Seattle Arts Commission and UW Press
80 pages
$19.95, Cloth


"Nothing less than the poetry of salmon and Sound will resuscitate us," writes Susan Zwinger in "Seattle as Edge, You as Water," one of the 39 poems in Seattle Poets and Photographers: A Millennium Reflection.

Zwinger’s phrase captures the crux of this glossy coffee-table anthology published by the Seattle Arts Commission and UW Press. The theme of this anthology, a project of the Millennium Celebration in Seattle, is "Seattle: City of Light, Water, and Woods." Its crux is this, in Zwinger’s terms: how can we "resuscitate" ourselves if we ourselves have contaminated the air supply?

To the degree that the book poses and answers this question, it lives up to its ambitious claim, as Mayor Paul Schell writes in an introduction, "to recognize who we are, where we have come from, and where we are going."

Poet Mahmoud Abda sums this all up succinctly in one of the best pieces in the book, with the phrase, "The planet was a good photo."

In "Secret Service," a prescient 1998 photo by Jeromy Nail, blurry pedestrians crane their necks for a look at something, while the g-man himself looks the other way, almost cut out of the picture except for his ear and the delicate curl of his earpiece.

"Emerging Forms, Seattle," a 1993 photo by Mary Randlett, shows the skyline from Elliott Bay. Storm clouds obliterate most of the buildings in a gray wash, or is it the other way around?

And in "On My Way Home," Tamara Madison-Shaw writes, "i never thought i’d have a reason/ to come back to this place,/ this bizarre bazaar called/ the Great Northwest… so many colors colorless,/ i cannot feel them…" In the end, she does return, to die. But even death is a departure, a "journey anew" to somewhere else.

These works capture the breadth of the Millennium question, and reflect deeply on Seattle’s inherent contradictions: how can such a famously friendly city be so alienating? How come our transportation system is so wretched, how can our police tear gas our own citizens (twice in four months!), how can we be so wealthy and have such a huge homeless population? How did we get to this point, and how do we change it?

Other compelling works are poems by Sherman Alexie, J.T. Stewart, and, unsurprisingly, two each by the late Denise Levertov and Richard Hugo. Exceptional photos include shots by Chris Rauschenberg, Lynn Thompson, Paul Dorpat, and Michael Burns. Polly Purvis’ piercing photo of an elderly Asian man is nicely placed with a related poem. The editors made the book almost seamless, no small feat since it includes 60 different artists.

But the potential impact of A Millennium Reflection is diluted by numerous poems that celebrate coffee, our famous rain, REI, seagulls -- quaint themes more suited to a sitcom or a Rod McEuen poem. Many of the photos, likewise, reinforce comfort and recreation rather than challenge. And the book itself (a large, square hardback) isn’t really something you can take on the bus or stick in your purse for lunchtime reading.

Zwinger again: "We long to replace mind-numbing words–sound bite, countdown,/ boot up, HOV–with more resonant lexicons: wolverine, murrelet,/ bog rosemary, boletus, grizzly, sockeye, and Thuja placata."

And we long for our art to be easy. We replace our future with romantic notions of our past. Neither can be true. But this book, this reflection, provides us with enough of an image to recognize and, one hopes, resuscitate ourselves.

Active Books Review