Richard Blanco Delivers the Inaugural Poem–He Is Who He Is In Spite of His Cubana Grandmother
Richard Blanco is also gay as well as Cuban. If you want to know where he came from to be who he is now, check this excerpt from a memoir which first appeared in Who’s Yer Daddy? Gay Writers Celebrate Their Mentors and Forerunners, from the University of Wisconsin Press.
Through the years and to this day I continue unraveling how that abuse affected my personality, my relationships, and my writing. I write, not in the light of Oscar Wilde, Walt Whitman, or Elizabeth Bishop, but in the shadow of my grandmother–a homophobic woman with only a sixth-grade education–who has exerted (and still exerts) the most influence on my development as a writer.
I am seven, I think. My grandmother tells me I eat wrong: “Don’t use a straw, ever. Los Hombres don’t drink soda with a straw. Now throw dat away and sit up.” I look wrong: “Dios mío, you nosin but bones. Dat’s why the boys at school push you around. Even a girl could beat you up. Now finish your steak, or else.” My friends are all wrong: “I no taking you to dat Enrique’s house neber again. He’s a Mamacita’s boy. I don’t want you playing with him. I don’t care what you say, those GI Joes he has are dolls. Do you want to play with dolls; is dat what you want señorita?”
I play wrong: “I told your mother not to get you those crayons for Christmas. You should be playing outside like un hombre, not coloring in your girly books like dat maricón Juan Alberto.” I speak wrong: “Hay Santo, you sound like una niña on the phone. When is your voice going to change?” And I walk wrong too: “Stop clacking your sandals and jiggling like a sissy. Straighten up por Dios–we’re in public.” I am wrong (“I’ll make a man out of you yet . . .”), afraid to do or say anything (“. . . you’ll see . . .”), scared to want or ask anything (“. . . even if it kills me . . .”), ashamed to be alive.
Jeez. I feel that pain. I feel it when I remember my childhood friend, N.C., who was beaten badly by his father at one point because already, he was probably exhibiting the same actions and feelings as Blanco. My own grandmother, it was said, came between father and son, and told the father that if he dared to beat N.C. like that again, she would get in his face herself.
As Jesse Jackson once said, paraphrasing, you don’t know the past that someone is escaping in order to be themselves.
And here is the poem:
One sun rose on us today, kindled over our shores,
peeking over the Smokies, greeting the faces
of the Great Lakes, spreading a simple truth
across the Great Plains, then charging across the Rockies.
One light, waking up rooftops, under each one, a story
told by our silent gestures moving behind windows.
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.
All of us as vital as the one light we move through,
the same light on blackboards with lessons for the day:
equations to solve, history to question, or atoms imagined,
the “I have a dream” we keep dreaming,
or the impossible vocabulary of sorrow that won’t explain
the empty desks of twenty children marked absent
today, and forever. Many prayers, but one light
breathing color into stained glass windows,
life into the faces of bronze statues, warmth
onto the steps of our museums and park benches
as mothers watch children slide into the day.
One ground. Our ground, rooting us to every stalk
of corn, every head of wheat sown by sweat
and hands, hands gleaning coal or planting windmills
in deserts and hilltops that keep us warm, hands
digging trenches, routing pipes and cables, hands
as worn as my father’s cutting sugarcane
so my brother and I could have books and shoes.
The dust of farms and deserts, cities and plains
mingled by one wind—our breath. Breathe. Hear it
through the day’s gorgeous din of honking cabs,
buses launching down avenues, the symphony
of footsteps, guitars, and screeching subways,
the unexpected song bird on your clothes line.
Hear: squeaky playground swings, trains whistling,
or whispers across café tables, Hear: the doors we open
for each other all day, saying: hello, shalom,
buon giorno, howdy, namaste, or buenos días
in the language my mother taught me—in every language
spoken into one wind carrying our lives
without prejudice, as these words break from my lips.
One sky: since the Appalachians and Sierras claimed
their majesty, and the Mississippi and Colorado worked
their way to the sea. Thank the work of our hands:
weaving steel into bridges, finishing one more report
for the boss on time, stitching another wound
or uniform, the first brush stroke on a portrait,
or the last floor on the Freedom Tower
jutting into a sky that yields to our resilience.
One sky, toward which we sometimes lift our eyes
tired from work: some days guessing at the weather
of our lives, some days giving thanks for a love
that loves you back, sometimes praising a mother
who knew how to give, or forgiving a father
who couldn’t give what you wanted.
We head home: through the gloss of rain or weight
of snow, or the plum blush of dusk, but always—home,
always under one sky, our sky. And always one moon
like a silent drum tapping on every rooftop
and every window, of one country—all of us—
facing the stars
hope—a new constellation
waiting for us to map it,
waiting for us to name it—together.
Thank you, Richard. Thank you for making it to that podium.
- Richard Blanco Becomes First Hispanic or Gay Man to Recite Inaugural Poem (washington.cbslocal.com)
- Cuban exile mother of poet laureate Richard Blanco now in spotlight as his inspiration (miamiherald.com)
- See interview with inaugural poet Richard Blanco (pinkbananaworld.com)
- Inaugural poet Richard Blanco speaks about his writing process (onewildword.com)