Richard Blanco is the fifth inaugural poet of the United States. He read his now famous poem “One Today” after Barack Obama was re-elected in 2012. Blanco was the first Latino, immigrant, and gay writer bestowed by such an honor, as well as the youngest ever, at the age of 44. He is also a civil engineer. Yes, he has a degree in Civil Engineering. But he is also building cities from his personal history in his poems, and he is building bridges across the cultures that have shaped him. A child of the Cuban diaspora who grew up in Miami, he crafts his poems with tenderness and careful attention to his heritage, both American and Cuban, through his rich connection to family. For the reader to experience these cultures, he often describes his family through the lens of adulthood. The fluid descriptions of his loved ones and loved places show a careful attention and bring great richness to his work.
“There should be nothing here I don’t remember . . .” he repeats in his newest collection’s title poem “Looking for the Gulf Motel,” the story of a childhood family vacation. Blanco recalls the details with great specificity– the mermaid lampposts, his parents bringing pork roast with them through the lobby in a pressure cooker–using these images not only to create a setting, but to let culture become a character in his poems.
He blends the typical thoughts of American childhood with the specific experience of growing up in the Cuban diaspora. In his poem “El Malibú,” Blanco describes “cruising our new country in our new car” – his father’s prized possession that he’d saved up for years to buy working at el mercado. He recalls “eight tracks of melancholy boleros playing / through cypress swamps and billboard holler / on a whirlwind of motel pools and theme parks.”
Blanco connects the reader to place through poems about travelling in his second collection, Directions to the Beach of the Dead. In the poem “Garden of Fugitives” Blanco touches a wall in a historic district covered in graffiti; “I’m astounded, O wall, / that you do not crumble under the weight of all these writers.” Blanco pays close attention to what came before him and how things become what they are. His poems are deeply rooted in history yet remain directly connected to the physical space.
“After all the centuries / that have been tolled, hour by hour, and disappeared / above these domes, can it matter that I am here now” he wonders in his poem “Time as Art in The Eternal City”. And this is the heart of Blanco’s questioning; he says in an interview for La Bloga “I see ‘family’ as the glue that bonds the poems together into one collection.” And his connection to family, culture and place is what makes his poems so rich in spirit and takes him from one place to another – be it Rome, Cuba, Miami or Maine…Blanco will always build a bridge to take you there.
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