Friday, April 12, 2013

Poet Richard Blanco: Not Grievance, but Gratitude

(Reflections on LOOKING FOR THE GULF MOTEL by Richard Blanco. Pittsburgh: University of Pittsburgh Press, 2012.)

Blanco at inauguration, Jan. 2013
President Obama may have appointed Richard Blanco his inaugural poet because a gay son of Cuban immigrants unites two categories that divide our parties. Publicity suggested as much, focused on his Cuban grandmother’s scorn for her grandson's "effeminacy."  Interviewers were interested in his causes for grievance.  But, while poems of his latest collection frequently relate to his growing up “a boy afraid of being a boy” (“Afternoons as Endora” 33), who “had to sing with [his father] like a real Cuban” (“Cousin Consuelo, On Piano” 12), his main impulse is to preserve memories of those people he has loved. 

The first poem, from which LOOKING FOR THE GULF MOTEL takes its title, gives a keynote.  ”There should be nothing here I don’t remember,” the epigraph tells us, and we can hear a driver muttering that the motel he remembers from childhood “should still be / rising out of the sand like a cake decoration” (1), but then, “My brother and I should still be pretending / we don’t know our parents,” embarrassed by their “scruffy” appearance and “reek” of garlic; and his father “should still be” poolside watching the two sons “he’ll never see / grow into men who will be proud of him.”  The ambivalence is thick, but the conclusion is clear, that the poet, now ashamed of the shame he felt, wants to redeem that time.

That idea of memories “still” living comes up often in this collection.  When he visits on his mother’s patio, “It’s always summer” and “Everything I am is here still” with a banyan tree nearby “dropping roots / as thick as my legs from its branches,” a fine image of how self is rooted in memory of a place (27).  The home of his Americanized aunt is both “the house we never went to again, [and] the house I never left” (Tia Margarita Johnson’s House in Hollywood” 11).  His own wide fingers, the veins on his knuckles, and ten little mirrors that are his fingernails reflect his father (“My Father, My Hands” 45). 

Photographs would seem to preserve memory, but Blanco invests some photos with meanings that are at least double.  He was posed to look perfect for a photo at Sears, except that he wouldn’t smile (“Birthday Portrait” 57). He poses a cousin at the Statue of Liberty with some irony (13), praying “may this be her country more than / it is mine when she lifts her Diet Coke like a torch… and hold still when I say, Smile.”  In childhood, Blanco is alarmed and mystified by a cheesy staged photo (“Mama with Indians: 1973, 2007” 59).  No irony, only gratitude, colors a memory of his father at the kitchen table planning how he’d provide for his son, “though there’s no black-and-white to prove it” (“Papa at the Kitchen Table” 43). 

The theme of memory takes a new direction in his apostrophe to a cousin (whose photo, he thinks, must be “somewhere”):  “Tell me / it’s true, we’re everything we remember, / tell me memories never fail us…” (68).  But what happens when the memory’s gone?  He remembers for his aged aunt what she cannot (69), and he reminisces with another aunt to avoid discussing the prognosis that brought him for the visit (72).  With his mother, he visits the grave where there’s surely nothing left of Blanco’s father but cuff links, the wedding ring, and “Bones, Teeth” (73).  Watching his mother step into the water at the beach, worrying the way she used to worry about him, Blanco sees her as Boticelli’s Venus in reverse, stepping back into the sea, “her eyes fixed on the horizon / at nothing I can see” (61).

Blanco gives us a lot of laughs for a “sad” boy who wouldn't smile for his portrait, who fit nowhere.  His family makes bets about who’ll be Miss America.  But, when Miss Ohio is crowned, “Gloves up to her elbows, velvet down / to her feet, crying diamonds into her bouquet / the queen of our country,” no one in the family knows where Ohio is (“Betting on America” 9). Considering celebrities with his name, he affects the pinky ring of Richard Dawson on Family Feud and knows he’s “as wholesome as Richie Cunningham” on Happy Days (7), and eventually arrives at an Anglicization of his name that encapsulates all of his adolescent pretensions.  “Killing Mark” tells about ways that an active imagination can kill a loved one who hasn’t arrived home at the expected time.  As the more sedentary of two middle-aged brothers, I especially appreciate “My Brother on Mt. Barker” (41) in which the less athletic one envies the one who skis with apparent ease:
…Funny, that’s the way
It’s always been: me looking up at him
conquering mountains, secretly wishing
I could be as daring as he, less like me. 

The poet wonders how “blood is not enough / to explain this handful of memories” that relate them.  But all’s well when the brother “tumbles down” and complains, “Damn, my bones are killing me.”  Been there, felt that!

Blanco often uses balanced phrases that reflect his in-the-middle, neither – one – nor – the – other identity.  So, his Tia Margarita Johnson’s home was “the house with a flower garden, not chickens” (11), a formula ("house with... not...") repeated many more times.  Blanco frames his ambivalent thoughts about America and Cuba in a sort of prayer for his cousin, that she “may always” do some things, and “may never” do the others (13). Other poems are built on repetition of single phrases:  “some days" and  “sometimes” (“Some Days The Sea” 77);  and “Maybe” (48).  A striking poem closes the collection asserting “I’ve been writing this since” a certain summer, since a certain class, since a certain night, and “since my eyes started seeing less, my knees aching more” (“Since Unfinished” 79-81).  He has arrived at another great "middle" condition, middle age.

Even in this cursory survey of the poems, a reader may pick up on an image that repeats in this collection: the sea.  Of course, writing of Florida, Cuba, and of his present home in Maine, he often pictures the sea.   “Today," he writes, "the waves open their lions’ mouths hungry / for the shore” (“Some Days the Sea” 77). But the previous poem in the collection asks, “Why am I always imagining the sea?” (“Place of Mind” 76), and it suggests that, like drops of rain that gather into streams and flow to the ocean, our individual lives and memories flow back into the larger sea of family history.  Imagining his great-grandparents’ love and life in Cuba, and what he might have been had they settled elsewhere, he concludes, “I’m a consequence, a drop / of rain,” “in the middle of a story I don’t know” (15).  An aunt at the end of her life is “like a wave drunk by the sand” or “a raindrop returned to the sea” (70).  The image is comforting in one way, though disturbing for a childless gay man when he watches his mother tend his father’s grave:  “Who’ll visit with flowers, speak to what’s left of me?” (74). 

Of course, if Blanco keeps producing works like this, he can find his answer in Shakespeare:  “So long as men can breathe, or eyes can see / So long lives this, and this gives life to thee.” It also gives life to your father, the aunts, and those other places and times you want to honor.

1 comment:

George said...

An interesting, thoughtful post (I expect no less from you!). I wish I had developed your later in life love of poetry, but, alas, no. Of course, it's probably not late. . . .