Slow-Cooked Sentences

Percy Shelley’s unacknowledged legislator and poet Kate Lebo links prayer to protest

Rachael Conlin Levy

On Washington’s eastern edge, in the hot-purple Fifth Congressional District poet Kate Lebo calls Cathy-land, I imagine a tiny chapel. Inside the church our poet kneels before a statue of her congressional representative, Cathy McMorris Rogers, haloed and smiling down upon a multitude of votives lit in prayer. Or protest.

“Poets are the unacknowledged legislators of the world,” wrote Percy Bysshe Shelley almost 200 years ago. Today, Lebo’s slim book of poems to McMorris Rogers, the most powerful Republican woman in Congress, is an expression of Shelley’s argument that poetry helps advance civilization.

“Poets, according to the circumstances of the age and nation in which they appeared, were called, in the earlier epochs of the world, legislators, or prophets: a poet essentially comprises and unites both these characters,” wrote Shelley “A Defence of Poetry.” “For he not only beholds intensely the present as it is, and discovers those laws according to which present things ought to be ordered, but he beholds the future in the present, and his thoughts are the germs of the flower and the fruit of latest time.”

The inspiration for “Seven Prayers to Cathy McMorris Rogers” came on a drive home to Spokane, Washington, in the weeks after the 2016 presidential election, Lebo said. “So much felt trashed and endangered, and she (McMorris Rogers) was my intermediary, she was my conduit, she was supposed to speak to government on my behalf,” Lebo wrote in the book’s introduction. “She was me, or a version of me, my representative, an extension of the will of my community.”

Your name takes shape on my neighbors
front lawns
they stake Cathy in the grass
until you win, again,
the right to represent us.

Lebo’s poems are a reaction to the rift that opened on her street and across the nation, a gash that’s become wider and rawer as midterm elections near. She returns again and again to the issues of healthcare, marriage, and women’s role in politics and society, converting the complicated and dry issue of insurance into intimate, poignant, crippling narratives lightened with subtle humor.

Cathy, since your people won the House
the affordable option for health insurance
was to marry this man with benefits.

In today’s dark landscape Lebo is Shelley’s poet, “a nightingale, who sits in darkness and sings to cheer its own solitude with sweet sounds; his auditors are as men entranced by the melody of an unseen musician, who feel that they are moved and softened, yet know not whence or why.”

Cathy,
remember the time you brought cake
to the block party but no serving stuff,
no forks or plates? How you fed each of us,
all the way down the block, with your clean,
efficient hands? The miracle of our patience?
Each time you lifted the cake to our faces we grew in gratitude.

“Seven Prayers to Cathy McMorris Rogers” is a roadmap charting the corrosion of public trust, each poem a pin stabbed into divisive political moments that mark the deterioration of a faith between the people and their leaders. Forged through the act of voting, President Abraham Lincoln considered this bond a sacred covenant that linked the politician’s ambitions to those of the people’s.

I’m here, we’re here.
May our neighbors be with us
as we are with them.
Forever and ever, A —

The final poem reminded me of the second half of the childhood rhyme usually recited with fingers laced: Here’s the church/ here’s the steeple/ open the doors/ where’s all the people? 

Prayer, like voting, is a communal act of hope.

I donated to the political campaign of Cathy’s opponent, Lisa Brown. Lebo and her publisher, Entre Rios Books, have given me extra copies of  “Seven Prayers to Cathy McMorris Rogers” to share with others. If you’d like one, email me. And please, vote.



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