In days of old, poets were often expected to write “occasional verse,” which was poetry written for official occasions. It came with the job description of “poet” and was a major source of income, a way of paying back the patron who financed you. The greatest occasional poems know how to walk the fine line between flattery and insight.
Today, when poetry is regarded as a far more self-expressive medium, there’s not a lot of demand for occasional verse, at least at the national level. But the presidential inaugurations of Kennedy, Clinton (twice), and now, for the second time, Obama have propelled certain poets into the genre. Today as part of the festivities, we as a nation will be introduced to Richard Blanco, a Cuban exile and gay man.
I didn’t know Blanco’s poetry before the announcement that he would be the inauguration poet, but I like the few poems of his I have seen. According to an article in The New York Times, there are reasons that Blanco and Obama are drawn to each other:
Like Mr. Obama, who chronicled his multicultural upbringing in a best-selling autobiography, Dreams From My Father, Mr. Blanco has been on a quest for personal identity through the written word. He said his affinity for Mr. Obama springs from his own feeling of straddling different worlds; he is Latino and gay (and worked as a civil engineer while pursuing poetry). His poems are laden with longing for the sights and smells of the land his parents left behind.
“América,” one of Blanco’s best known pieces, is a quintessential immigration poem. Wave after wave of American immigrants have undergone versions of the drama he describes, where the children adapt to the new culture and put pressure on their parents to adapt as well. But the parents, wanting to hold on to precious traditions, resist. What emerges are often fascinating compromises that occasionally work their way into the prevailing culture and redefine what it means to be American.
The reelection of a president of color signals significant demographic changes underway in America—changes that threaten some and inspire others. We will see how Blanco handles those fears and hopes in today’s inauguration poem, but “América” shows that he understands them well.
By Richard Blanco
Although Tía Miriam boasted she discovered
at least half a dozen uses for peanut butter—
topping for guava shells in syrup,
butter substitute for Cuban toast,
hair conditioner and relaxer—
Mamá never knew what to make
of the monthly five-pound jars
handed out by the immigration department
until my friend, Jeff, mentioned jelly.
There was always pork though,
for every birthday and wedding,
whole ones on Christmas and New Year’s Eve,
even on Thanksgiving day—pork,
fried, broiled, or crispy skin roasted—
as well as cauldrons of black beans,
friend plantain chips, and yuca con mojito.
These items required a special visit
to Antonio’s Mercado on the corner of Eighth Street
where men in guayaberas stood in senate
blaming Kennedy for everything—“Ese hijo de puta!”
the bile of Cuban coffee and cigar residue
filling the creases of their wrinkled lips;
clinging to one another’s lies of lost wealth,
ashamed and empty as hollow trees.
By seven I had grown suspicious—we were still here.
Overheard conversations about returning
had grown wistful and less frequent.
I spoke English; my parent’s didn’t.
We didn’t live in a two-story house
with a maid or a wood-panel station wagon
nor vacation camping in Colorado.
None of the girls had hair of gold;
none of my brothers or cousins
were named Greg, Peter, or Marcia;
we were not the Brady Bunch.
None of the black and white characters
on Donna Reed or on the Dick Van Dyke Show
were named Guadalupe, Lázaro, or Mercedes.
Patty Duke’s family wasn’t like us either—
they didn’t have pork on Thanksgiving,
they ate turkey with cranberry sauce;
they didn’t have yuca, they had yams
like the dittos of Pilgrims I colored in class.
A week before Thanksgiving
I explained to my abuelita
about the Indians and the Mayflower,
how Lincoln set the slaves free;
I explained to my parents about
the purple mountain’s majesty,
“one if by land, two if by sea,”
the cherry tree, the tea party,
the amber waves of grain,
the “masses yearning to be free,”
liberty and justice for all, until
finally they agreed:
this Thanksgiving we would have turkey,
as well as pork.
Abuelita prepared the poor fowl
as if committing an act of treason,
faking her enthusiasm for my sake.
Mamá set a frozen pumpkin pie in the oven
and prepared candied yams following instructions
I translated from the marshmallow bag.
The table was arrayed with gladiolas,
the plattered turkey loomed at the center
on plastic silver from Woolworth’s.
Everyone sat in green velvet chairs
we had upholstered with clear vinyl,
except Tío Carlos and Toti, seated
in the folding chairs from the Salvation Army.
I uttered a bilingual blessing
and the turkey was passed around
like a game of Russian Roulette.
“DRY,” Tío Berto complained, and proceeded
to drown the lean slices with pork fat drippings
and cranberry jelly—“esa mierda roja,” he called it.
Faces fell when Mamá presented her ochre pie—
pumpkin was a home remedy for ulcers, not a dessert.
Tía María made three rounds of Cuban coffee
then Abuelo and Pepe cleared the living room furniture,
put on a Celia Cruz LP and the entire family
began to merengue over the linoleum of our apartment,
sweating rum and coffee until they remembered—
it was 1970 and 46 degrees—
After repositioning the furniture,
an appropriate darkness filled the room.
Tío Berto was the last to leave.
Added note: Complicating Blanco’s identity drama is the fact that his grandmother, although going along with his American Thanksgiving obsession, also throughout his life directed against him a not-so-nice Cuban trait, an ugly homophobia. Here is a video of him reading “Queer Theory: According to My Grandmother.” Blanco now lives with his partner in Maine, which not only is a lot colder than 46 degrees but in the past election legalized same sex marriage. Another way in which America is the land of opportunity.