“November Eyes” from Richard Blanco’s How to Love a Country

 

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.

 

“Small Town Diner” by Layne Cook

 

NOVEMBER EYES
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.

~ from How to Love a Country (Beacon Press, 2019)

*

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?

 

“E Pluribus Unum” by James Kearns (1960)

 

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?

 

“MOAI’s NYC Women’s Cabinet” by Aliza Nisenbaum (2016)

 

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!! 🌺

🎉 CONGRATULATIONS, ABIGAIL! 🎈

👏 👏👏 👏👏

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!


Copyright © 2019 Jama Rattigan of Jama’s Alphabet Soup. All rights reserved.

44 thoughts on ““November Eyes” from Richard Blanco’s How to Love a Country

  1. Jama, you ask sharp questions. For many days…weeks…even years after 2016 I wondered, who? Who among people I love and trust allowed “this” to happen? The hatred for Hillary, the preference for white nationalism. It sickens me. It’s not the country I thought existed. Even now, the polls aren’t showing much different thinking. Hate groups have been emboldened to action. I think I need Blanco’s book. I think I need it like medicine.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Yes, I feel the same, Linda. Even after several years, those who support this administration still seem unmoved by what they’ve seen. Maybe the problem is that they refuse to see what’s right in front of them, and then resent anyone else pointing things out to them. Blanco’s book is definitely good medicine. Though it covers many troubling topics, there is that sense of hope for the future. We are definitely at a crossroads.

      Like

  2. Richard Blanco’s worries are my worries, too, and I didn’t realize how many there were until I read November Eyes. I don’t have Mr. Blanco’s talent as a poet, but I do have a sign taped to the back window of my car which says simply, Let’s not be Hateful.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Hopefully the right people will heed your sign, Pat. Same thing happened with me when I read Blanco’s list — wow, there are SO many things/issues to solve and the greatest problem is that the current administration is working counter to implementing real solutions.

      Like

  3. I will find this book, Jama, but imagine it will make me sad. Yes, we are seeing people we didn’t know felt the way they’re now “telling us”, in words and sharing of things on the internet. That day after, my daughter cried because she had to explain to the girls how there would not be a woman president, something they were so excited about. And two different former students, now teachers, messaged me to ask what to tell students, what, what? Thank you for sharing Richard Blanco’s poem & book, a treasure of feelings for us to respond: “Yes, that’s how it was, how it still is.”

    Liked by 1 person

    1. The book will definitely be sad and moving in places, but it’s things we need to hear. Part of why we’re where we are today is because of complacency. Think of all the people who didn’t bother to vote in 2016! Fair to say, most of us have become estranged from a few friends and/or family members. It’s not a matter of political party or policy differences. This time it’s a vote for or against morality — and I always thought those who were close to me were decent, moral people. They will argue that they are — but they cannot have it both ways.

      Liked by 1 person

    1. Not feeling especially cheery this week, sad to say — or really, for the last several years. But we must go on and try our best. I’m baffled as to why some cannot understand the concept of interdependence and why our nation, and indeed, the world cannot thrive without it.

      Liked by 1 person

  4. My husband likes to tell me about the polls and I don’t like to hear it because I refuse to believe that 40% of the public is that disappointing. It just doesn’t sound right. But then this morning, I got an email from someone who has been following my Art Thursday posts for over a decade and she unsubscribed because of my Poetry Friday post today. She said my political posts are “ugly and depressing.” I think what Trump is doing to the country is ugly and depressing, and me not mentioning it doesn’t make it any less so. (Also, I missed the part where I promised to just run uplifting posts.) I feel like it’s been really great for the bad politicians to reveal themselves, though. They got away with a lot when we weren’t looking, but we see them now.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I’m totally with you, Tabatha — those polls baffle me. As many as 40% of Americans, and about 80% of Republicans still support this President?

      I’ve had a few people unsubscribe too. It doesn’t bother me that they no longer wish to read my posts; what bothers me is willful ignorance. It’s like if you see a child about to step off a cliff and you frantically try to help him avert disaster, but he refuses to listen. We’re all in this together; open your mind, open your eyes!

      You make a good point about your unsubscriber. Ugly and depressing? She couldn’t stand ugly and depressing posts — but it’s perfectly fine to condone the actions of this President, an admitted assaulter, a blatant power abuser, etc., etc.?

      I realize people don’t like to admit when they’re wrong. The old saying, “the truth hurts.”

      Like

  5. I loved Richard Blanco’s poem at President Obama’s inauguration. I will have to read more of his work! Thank you for telling us about this book. Ruth, thereisnosuchthingasagodforsakentown.blogspot.com

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I hadn’t read all that much of his work before I picked up this book. It’s been interesting learning about his background too. Didn’t realize he lives in Maine. 🙂

      Like

  6. I loved his inaugural poem and the PB version of it in One Day–so inspiring and moving. I will look for this collection. Hoping for better things in 2020 (and impeachment!)

    Liked by 1 person

  7. “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.”

    WHEW. This, all the way to the grocery store, the bank, the car wash, the church.
    Suddenly, everyone is a stranger… and really, you just don’t want to ask how people voted; you counted on being able to assume a reasonable point of view… but no. We took each other for granted, and this painful surprise is… a reminder to speak up and be present and be real to our neighbors, I guess? Or something.

    I LOVE that Richard Blanco wrote about this — I need to read more of him. Thanks for sharing.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I know what you mean about not wanting to ask people how they voted — especially family members because you want to keep the peace. Plus, how do you live with the disappointment once you hear what you don’t want to hear?

      Like

    1. Enjoyed your post, Michelle. Isn’t it ironic about the slogan “Make America Great Again” — Not only is America not “greater” because of this administration, America is not even recognizable! It is very painful to watch our democracy being systematically dismantled. Greed, self-interest, and hypocrisy totally off the scale by elected officials.

      Liked by 1 person

  8. Ah, this is powerful, and painful, post, Jama. I live in Trump country now, very conservative farmers and set in their ways folk. They don’t seem to understand the evil that this man and his henchmen embody. Let’s hope the election of 2020 is a return to sanity…and let’s work for it!

    Liked by 1 person

  9. I need to read this book ASAP. In the wake of the 2016 election, it was family members who I was saying “Do I really know you? Can you care about me/my kids and still support this president?” Blanco draws the picture of those fraught days so well. I’m still asking those questions of family, neighbors.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Yes, I think it’s hardest with family members, because all along you kind of assumed you were all on the same page. Not that everyone has to agree on everything — but this President? I’m sure you’ll find much food for thought and reflection in Blanco’s book.

      Like

  10. Oh, Jama, this is such an important post. I love Richard Blanco’s To Love a Country. I always loved the inaugural poem, but this past summer I was fortunate enough to be at Chautauqua when Blanco was interviewed by Krista Tippet, and I heard him read from his new collection. All I can say is, his voice ratchets up the power in his poems! It was a wonderful interview. Blanco’s voice is so important for our times, and I think we all need to realize that our voices are important, too. Thank you for sharing your voice.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I wonder if that interview is online? I’ll have to look for it. I’ve heard other recordings of him reading his work, and you’re right — it makes his words even more powerful. I’m in awe of how he’s able to tap so deeply into our collective psyche, pressing parts that especially hurt these days.

      Like

      1. I searched the Chautauqua archives, and the interview is not included. It was recorded live, so it will be on Krista Tippet’s show, “On Being,” sometime.

        Liked by 1 person

  11. Oh, Jama, yes, yes, I remember so clearly how I felt in November of 2016. I remember the sick feeling in the pit of my stomach, my pounding heart when I finally went to bed so late on election night, thinking, “This can’t be, this can’t be, this can’t be.” I still cannot believe this is where we are. I truly cannot fathom how anyone who loves their country can think that Trump is worth a nanosecond of support. How can people defend his actions? Every time something new and vile surfaces, I think, “This is it, finally, his supporters will see ….” and yet, I’ve been thinking that since before the 2016 election.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. It’s very disheartening that his supporters won’t budge — and I don’t think they ever will. That’s why it’s important for those who didn’t vote in 2016 — who didn’t care either way — take a stand in 2020.

      Like

  12. Blanco’s words are heartbreakingly perfect for a time such as this. I pray that our next election will bring compassion, wisdom, and leadership to the White House and the beginning of a healing to the country. We’ve taken so many steps back since 2016. I hope our nation can move forward in unity and love. I look forward to reading more of Blanco’s work.

    Liked by 1 person

  13. I wish this poem didn’t resonate–it feels like a lifetime since listening to Blanco’s One Today (and oh what a glorious picture book that became.) But yes to being the cure for hatred, and speaking of love. (And voting the b$%#st##rds out. Oops.)

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I sure miss President Obama, and in general, the respect and dignity of the office of the presidency. I’m always suspicious of people who don’t like art, music, animals, books, and the TRUTH.

      Like

  14. Jama, I tried to post this comment on your Nov. 24th blog post, but it wouldn’t go through. So I’m trying it here! I love Richard Blanco! Thank you for the recording of “America” in his voice. He read that poem when we saw him last summer. We need the voice of this brave poet. I appreciate the photos of his family and the Cuban art, too. At our Thanksgiving we always have turkey, lovingly prepared by daughter and husband. She make divine gravy! We eat pumpkin chiffon pie from Grammie’s recipe, dried figs and olives to symbolize the heritage of my Greek grandfather, and cranberry orange relish because my husband loves it. Happy Thanksgiving, Jama!

    Like

    1. I’m still so envious that you got to hear Blanco read in person. We need voices like his more than ever.

      Thanks for sharing about your Thanksgiving foods — love the nod to your Greek heritage as well as Grammie’s pumpkin chiffon pie. I like that most of us have special family recipes we look forward to — and that we pass down to succeeding generations. Happy Thanksgiving to you and yours, Joyce!

      Like

What do you think?

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.