Do you remember how you felt right after the 2016 Presidential election? How the world as you knew it suddenly upended? I was devastated and filled with such dread — but I never imagined it could get this bad.
In this powerful poem, Presidential Inaugural Poet Richard Blanco describes our new reality in painful detail.
by Richard Blanco
I question everyone, everything, even the sun
as I drive east down Main Street — radio off–
to Amy’s diner. She bobby-pins her hair, smiles
her usual good mornin’ but her eyes askew say
something like: You believe this? as she wipes
the counter, tosses aside the Journal Times —
the election headlines as bitter as the coffee
she pours for me without a blink. After a cup
and a blueberry muffin I remember my bills
are due by the fifteenth — so I cross on Main
to the post office. Those American flag stamps
are all Debbie has left. I refuse to buy them:
a never mind in my eyes which she dismisses
with a gesture of suit yourself. Bills can wait,
but not my dog’s treats or the milk I’m out of
— so I drive up Main again to the Food Basket.
Paper or plastic, Jan asks me at the checkout,
but it doesn’t matter. What matters is this:
she’s been to my bar-b-ques, I’ve donated
to her son’s football league, we’ve shoveled
each other’s driveways, we send each other
Christmas cards. She knows I’m Latino and
gay. Yet suddenly I don’t know who she is
as I read the button on her polyester vest:
Trump: Make America Great Again, meaning
she doesn’t really know me either. We manage
smiles when she hands me my change, but
our locked eyes say: nothing — so I dash off —
go see Tom at the bank to cash a measly check
from some grand magazine for some grand
poem of mine loaded with some grand words
like transcend, as if my inked verbs could bend
a river’s will, shuffle stars, change the fate of
our nation, or the blur in Tom’s eyes thinking
what I think of our reflection on the bullet-
proof window, asking: So now what, Mr. Poet?
I can’t answer. I can only remember today
I’m supposed to buy a rake, lightbulbs, nails
to hang my aging mother’s photos — so I swing
by Union Hardware, see Dan who knows me,
and what I need. He rings me up, doesn’t say
Goodbye, says Good luck, as if his eyes can see
the uncertainty in my own, worried about:
my immigrant cousin, factory jobs, groped
women, hijabs, blacklists, bans, the church,
the deep state, cops, race, and which lives
matter, hacked votes, refugee camps, dead
children, missiles, suicide bombers, carbon
footprints, polar bears, sunk islands, my gay
marriage, the bills for my preexisting ulcer
flaring, guns at malls, guns at schools, guns
at clubs, more guns, more corporate rights,
soulless cubicles, the empty Supreme Court
seats, the border wall, bullying, the demise
of language, news, the silence of suspicion,
the uneasy guessing, the surprise of who’s
who, the cheers and gloating, or jeers and
swearing, the final picking of sides, right or
left, red or blue state, city, or town, but no
grey today except for the November clouds
looming over Main Street with all the rest
of our unrest, arrested in our eyes clashing
against each other’s glares, ready for battle.
Did Blanco’s litany of worries echo your own? Do you find yourself looking at others differently — a little more cautious, judgmental, breathing a sigh of relief when you learn they voted as you did?
Blanco gets to the heart of what I consider to be the most hurtful part of this whole mess: realizing that some of your own friends and relatives are not really who you thought they were.
“November Eyes” is included in Blanco’s latest poetry collection, How to Love a Country (Beacon Press, 2019), in which he addresses many of our most pressing concerns: racism, immigration, gun violence, LGBTQ issues, polarization, America post-election. Timely, relevant, eloquent, far reaching, and often heart-wrenching, these powerful poems examine essential truths every citizen of this country should ponder, discuss, and internalize as we seek a better way forward.
I think many of us are pointedly asking ourselves: What does it mean to be American or truly patriotic? Who belongs here and who doesn’t? Why do some have the audacity to claim certain rights while denying them to others? How can our fellow human beings be capable of such hate, corruption, and hypocrisy?
You will find occasional/commissioned poems referencing the Boston Marathon bombings, the Pulse Nightclub massacre, and the Parkland shooting (“Seventeen Funerals” is heartbreaking), as well as the other two poems Blanco submitted for President Obama’s inauguration (he was asked for three; “One Today” was selected).
In contrast to these public, “civic-minded, socially engaged” poems are personal/autobiographical ones, detailing different immigrant experiences and Blanco’s own struggles with assimilation, dual cultural identity, and marriage equality. All shed light on the overarching themes of unity and inclusiveness. Inspired by the stories of ordinary people, these poems are wholly accessible and resonate on a deeply human level. Blanco sees America as a work in progress, an endlessly challenging and exhilarating evolution. Will we widen our definition of “we the people” or narrow it?
At a time when we may doubt everything we once believed in, this book underscores the fundamental principles upon which our democracy was founded, astutely giving voice to the marginalized and disenfranchised groups whose narratives have always been an important part of our shared identity as a nation.
Indeed, how to love a country when half of it doesn’t love you back? How to love a country you can’t even recognize anymore?
In the last stanza of his opening poem, “Declaration of Inter-Dependence,” Blanco says:
We hold these truths to be self-evident . . .
We’re the cure for hatred caused by despair. We’re the good morning of a bus driver who remembers our name, the tattooed man who gives up his seat on the subway. We’re every door held open with a smile when we look into each other’s eyes the way we behold the moon. We’re the moon. We’re the promise of one people, one breath declaring to one another: I see you. I need you. I am you.
HOW TO LOVE A COUNTRY
written by Richard Blanco
published by Beacon Press, 2019
Poetry collection, 112 pp.
*starred review* from Booklist
“In these times of hate, we need poets who speak of love. Richard Blanco’s new collection is a visionary hymn of love to the human beings who comprise what we call this country. Whether he speaks in the voice of an immigrant who came here long ago, or the very river an immigrant crosses to come here today, Blanco sings and sings. This, the song says, is the way out—for all of us.”
—Martín Espada, author of Vivas to Those Who Have Failed
📚 CARAVAN TO THE NORTH GIVEAWAY WINNER! 🌄
Thanks to all who entered last week’s giveaway. Appreciate all your comments and hope everyone has a chance to read Jorge Argueta’s new novel-in-verse very soon.
We are pleased to announce that the lucky person who’ll be receiving a free copy is:
🌺 ABIGAIL MARBLE!! 🌺
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Please send along your snail mail address so we can get the book out to you lickety split. 🙂
Meanwhile, if anyone hasn’t yet entered this week’s giveaway for What’s Cooking at 10 Garden Street?, read about it here.
The lovely, talented and always welcoming Michelle H. Barnes is hosting the Roundup at Today’s Little Ditty. Today she’s celebrating the release of her latest anthology, The Best of Today’s Little Ditty: 2017-2018!! Be sure to check out the full menu of poetic goodness being served up in the blogosphere this week. Happy Weekend!
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