a childhood thanksgiving memory: “américa” by richard blanco

“The Cup of Coffee” by Cuban artist Lorenzo Romero Arciaga (1940)

 

When Presidential Inaugural Poet, author and civil engineer Richard Blanco was growing up in Miami with his Cuban-exile family during the early 70’s, he longed to be a “true American” like one of the kids in “The Brady Bunch.”

He describes it as living between two imagined worlds:

One world was the 1950s and ’60s Cuba of my parents and grandparents — that paradise, that homeland so near and yet so foreign to where we might return any day, according to my parents. A homeland that I had never seen . . .

The other, less obvious world was America . . . Typical of a child, I contextualized America through food, commercials, G-rated versions of our history in textbooks and television shows, especially The Brady Bunch. More than a fiction or fantasy, I truly believed that, just north of the Miami-Dade County line, every house was like the Brady house, and every family was like them.

Much of Blanco’s poetry centers around his search for cultural identity. Over and over, he asks the questions, “Where is my home? Where am I from? Where do I belong?”

When he was a graduate student at Florida International University, he wrote the following poem, inspired by a childhood memory of wanting an “authentic” Thanksgiving meal.

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“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)

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