Richard Blanco: Writing the Past in the Present

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I’ve been writing this since
the summer my grandfather

taught me how to hold a blade
of grass between my thumbs
and make it whistle, since
I first learned to make green
from blue and yellow, turned
paper into snowflakes, believed
a seashell echoed the sea,
and the sea had no end.

~from the poem, Since Unfinished by Richard Blanco, in his book, Looking For The Gulf Motel.

Richard Blanco: Looking for The Gulf Motel

Richard Blanco is one of my favorite poets. He has the unique ability to transport readers into the vivid world of his life with simple and effective language. There are no high-brow obscurities or cloudy word association-meaning questions. Rather, Blanco is a poet who paints bright portraits of people and places, a narrator who brings voices with their individual nuances and personalities to life on the page. His poems are memoir vignettes that trigger deep emotions and lasting impressions for the reader.

I first heard Richard Blanco read poetry, like many other Americans, when he read the Blanco3poem, “One Today,” at President Obama’s second Inauguration in 2013. The voice of the poet combined with the simple truth of the poem was entrancing. His reading was a beautiful tribute to the President and the country.

My face, your face, millions of faces in morning’s mirrors,
each one yawning to life, crescendoing into our day:
pencil-yellow school buses, the rhythm of traffic lights,
fruit stands: apples, limes, and oranges arrayed like rainbows
begging our praise. Silver trucks heavy with oil or paper —
bricks or milk, teeming over highways alongside us,
on our way to clean tables, read ledgers, or save lives —
to teach geometry, or ring-up groceries as my mother did
for twenty years, so I could write this poem. /…/…

We head home: through the gloss of rain or weight
of snow, or the plum blush of dusk, but always–home./…/

“One Today” is standard Blanco, mixing the personal life experiences, the normal and mundane moments that give our days meaning, with the larger aspect of culture and country — the “we” of the now-famous poem a unifying cry.

The second time I heard Richard Blanco read his work was in May of 2014. It was a privilege to hear him in person while attending The Writer’s Institute program at Miami-Dade College in Miami, Florida. He read the title poem from his book, Looking For The Gulf Motel. Again, a unique voice mixing past and present, one and all, in a poem that reaches out to pull the listener into the magic that is Richard Blanco’s world.

A striking aspect of his world in Looking for The Gulf Motel  is its complex duality: Tupperware, cats, and Blow Pops sit opposite being queer in the poem, “Queer Theory: According to My Grandmother.” Then, in the poem, “Venus in Miami Beach,” the eternal ocean opposes the human frailty of aging:

Once, as gorgeous as her name– Geysa
once a girl chasing fireflies who hadn’t lost
her home and country, sisters and husband,
once a mother who watched me as I watch
her now, afraid of her alone with the sea.

Blanco’s Gulf Motel world, as with his other work, is one of diversity and mixture: cultures, Blanco_press_63locations, and experiences are all participants in a complex dance, intertwined with the dual realities that lie at the heart of being human and finite in a world that exists infinite after us.

It is the meticulous decoding of these qualities that reaches beyond the “normal” boundaries of poetry – an eclectic juxtaposition of past and present shared by a voice that knows every inch of it by heart.

Blanco opens his life to us in a way that brings us distinctly into that world. We live the moments with him, experience his love of this America, his closeness and devotion to his family, his confusion at the complexity of life — and the unique challenges that being gay and Cuban create for him. Heart is at the core of Richard Blanco’s writing.

Blanco’s loving heart is exemplified by finely detailed poetic craft. This love creates an articulately expressed depth of sentiment and clarity of emotion rare in American poetry today.

For further reading:

Richard Blanco website

Richard Blanco at Biography.com

Richard Blanco on Facebook

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