It is widely–and correctly–said that the capital of the United States is two cities. One is official Washington, the realm of official and unofficial power brokers and diplomats, and the parts of city where they live if they don’t commute from one of the more prosperous suburbs. This is the city of The West Wing, House of Cards and Scandal. The other city is DC, inhabited overwhelmingly by people quietly doing the work needed to make any city run, and more conspicuously by a much smaller number of people who can make living here a challenge: the dysfunctional, the homeless, and criminals. With the major exception of the novels of George Pelecanos, this city goes largely undescribed. The two cities can and do meet, but many of those in the higher levels of official Washington seem to have structured their lives so as to remain within a pleasant if largely sterile bubble that minimizes their exposure to DC.
Like many Washingtonians, and like more than a few of the city’s writers with day jobs, I have a foot in both versions of the capital. Working as an editor in an international organization downtown, I assist economists whose ideas can influence policy. Living near Washington’s Southwest Waterfront, I walk my dog past low-rise housing projects and see discarded backpacks and wallets that have been cleaned out in robberies, and once I had to take cover after hearing gunshots.
On a less exciting but in some ways just as eventful outing closer to the water I witnessed the incident that eventually gave rise to the poem “Along the Potomac”. No documentary footage I had seen before could prepare me for watching a raptor strike the water and come up with a fish in its talons, and the simplicity and even purity of this action stood in contrast to the scavenging of the area’s far more numerous gulls and pigeons. What I saw on a dog walk in DC provided a metaphor for the workings of official Washington.
J.D. Smith’s fourth collection, The Killing Tree, is forthcoming in July from Finishing Line Press. His books in other genres include the essay collection Dowsing and Science (2011) and the children’s picture book The Best Mariachi in the World (2008). In 2007 he was awarded a Fellowship in Poetry from the National Endowment for the Arts. He works as an editor and writer in Washington, DC, where he lives with his wife Paula Van Lare and their rescue animals.
About the “On Place” Series
In honor of my first poetry collection–I Have Conversations with You in My Dreams, in which most of the poems engage with place in some way–I have asked other writers, authors, and poets to compose blog posts about the effects of place on their own work. To enter a contest for a free copy of the book, please leave a comment on any of the blog posts in the series. One winner will be selected at the end of February and one at the end of March. If the winner already has the book, he or she may select a different book from my collection.
For the schedule of blog posts, please see this page.