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Anthologies about cities are about uplift: By accident or design, they promote the idea that the burg under discussion is an interesting place to be. Problem is, nobody—no serious reader, anyway—wants easy boosterism, tales of stolen kisses at landmarks, and old-timers with poignant tales about how things used to be right here on this spot, yes sir. District Lines, the first issue of a literary magazine published by Politics & Prose, is in the same bind as its brethren. As novelist and store events and programming director Susan Coll writes in the introduction, District Lines is intended to honor the “unique artistic character of our community.” But its contributors do a few interesting things besides gin up civic pride.
Accept the issue’s wildly erratic quality as a given: Any locally focused lit mag with an open submission policy is going to wind up with a mix of the professional, the semipro, and the well-intentioned. (The editors’ effort to manage the sprawl is evident in the airy, nearly meaningless subsection titles: “Atmospheres,” “Constituents,” “Remembrance,” “Transience.”) Only projects like this, though, attract pieces like “True Plumbing Tales From the White House,” in which Margaret Arrington, the wife of a retired White House plumber, relates war stories about flushed-diaper backups and broken fountains in the center of American power. (Queen Elizabeth required a “throne-type chair” over the toilet in her guest quarters, Arrington reports.)
Arrington’s prose is affectless, simple as an Elks Lodge speech. That’s true also of “Remembering Effi,” Gina Sangster’s recollection of seeing Marion Barry’s wife on the 30 bus, and “Girl Engineer,” Therese Keane’s essay on being a woman in a radio-station control booth in the 1970s. (When she once played an ad too early, the interrupted DJ shouted, “She socked me in the mouth with Preparation H!”) All are studies of everyday work—a rare enough topic in District writing—and blessedly free of gauzy encomiums about the District. Still, District Lines is low on pieces with a biting perspective. So it stands out when Sandra Beasley (a pro) delivers it in her poem about the 2009 Metro wreck, “One-Tenth of the Body”: “If a metro car comes behind another/and mounts it,/that first squeal sounds/almost like/joy.”
In at least one piece, though, District Lines gets to have it both ways, cultivating a sense of surprise while promoting regional mythology. In “Whispers From the Capital Beltway,” Nathan Blanchard imagines Exit 33 on the outer loop delivering hushed messages to commuters, from Bob Dylan lines to proverbs to advertising slogans. The piece is a riff at once on the District’s sense of its own importance (Blanchard imagines a regular Post column dedicated to the whispers) and its locked mindset: “[T]he road was never reported as saying anything novel,” Blanchard writes. As allegories about the District go, it’s an admirable feat of outside-the-Beltway thinking.