Outstanding Alum: Richard Blanco

Richard Blanco

On January 21, 2013, two-time FIU alumni Richard Blanco stood on the steps of the Capitol and read the first inaugural poem to be delivered by a Hispanic or gay man:

One sun rose on us today, kindled over our shores,
peeking over the Smokies, greeting the faces
of the Great Lakes, spreading a simple truth
across the Great Plains, then charging across the Rockies.

The fifth and youngest inaugural poet joins the august company of Robert Frost (Kennedy, 1961), Maya Angelou (Clinton, 1993), and Elizabeth Alexander (Obama, 2008). Historically, inaugural poems are hopeful, yet self-reflective. As Dr. James Sutton, Chair of the Department of English, explains “By its very nature, the political “occasional poem” of the grand event is almost always conservative, and cautious with semantic meaning to all readers. The challenge therefore is to be specific and crisp without being trite, to speak clearly to the masses without sacrificing artfulness.” Blanco achieves this from stanza to stanza as he methodically narrows the poem’s perspective from the universal, to the particular:

One light, waking up rooftops, under each one, a story
told by our silent gestures moving behind windows.
My face, your face, millions of faces in morning’s mirrors,
each one yawning to life, crescendoing into our day:
pencil-yellow school buses, the rhythm of traffic lights,
fruit stands: apples, limes, and oranges arrayed like rainbows
begging our praise. Silver trucks heavy with oil or paper—
bricks or milk, teeming over highways alongside us,
on our way to clean tables, read ledgers, or save lives—
to teach geometry, or ring-up groceries as my mother did
for twenty years, so I could write this poem.

As the child of Cuban immigrants, Blanco continuously circles back to the notion of sacrifice. Not heroic or dramatic sacrifice, but the daily sacrifices parents make for their children, and children make for their parents. During an interview with the Miami Herald, Blanco’s mother Geysa Blanco, said “it still seems surreal that a woman who grew up in a sugar refinery in Cienfuegos will stand in front of the National Capitol, watching her son recite a poem for the nation and the president of the United States.” In the midst of the daily, banal drudgery there is hope, hope that the sacrifices made today will mean better opportunities tomorrow. Yet, this hope is met with the friction of the reality of a sometimes senseless world:

All of us as vital as the one light we move through,
the same light on blackboards with lessons for the day:
equations to solve, history to question, or atoms imagined,
the “I have a dream” we keep dreaming,
or the impossible vocabulary of sorrow that won’t explain
the empty desks of twenty children marked absent
today, and forever. Many prayers, but one light
breathing color into stained glass windows,
life into the faces of bronze statues, warmth
onto the steps of our museums and park benches
as mothers watch children slide into the day.

Blanco’s ability to make the familiar rhythms of the day suddenly poignant within a few lines is one of the most forceful elements of the poem. The particular Sandy Hook allusion juxtaposed immediately with universal daily activity of mothers and children emphasizes the sense of pain, loss, and tragedy without touching the gun debate that is currently tearing the country apart. By particularizing the universal, Blanco unassumingly humanizes the controversial issues that are causing such vitriol within our communities and on Capitol Hill:

One ground. Our ground, rooting us to every stalk
of corn, every head of wheat sown by sweat
and hands, hands gleaning coal or planting windmills
in deserts and hilltops that keep us warm, hands
digging trenches, routing pipes and cables, hands
as worn as my father’s cutting sugarcane
so my brother and I could have books and shoes.

As an exile, Blanco pays homage to the generation that comes before. The generation that works brutally, physically demanding jobs with long hours and low pay, so that the next generation can get the education and opportunities the first was denied. Because of the sacrifice of his parents Blanco was able to attend Florida International University, obtain an degree in engineering, begin a successful career, and then go back to get a Masters’ degree in creative writing:

The dust of farms and deserts, cities and plains
mingled by one wind—our breath. Breathe. Hear it
through the day’s gorgeous din of honking cabs,
buses launching down avenues, the symphony
of footsteps, guitars, and screeching subways,
the unexpected song bird on your clothes line.

Dr. Campbell McGrath, professor in the Creative Writing Program, credits Blanco’s unique blend of art and science with the success of his poetry, “I've always said that Richard's engineering background was great preparation for writing poetry-- not a combination people usually think of. We often speak of the "structure" of a piece of writing, whether a poem, a story or an essay; as someone used to looking at the blueprints of bridges and tunnels, Richard was able to grasp the "structure" of poems with great ease, and understood how to change, evolve or rebuild them. That's a great strength as a writer.”

Hear: squeaky playground swings, trains whistling,
or whispers across café tables, Hear: the doors we open
for each other all day, saying: hello| shalom,
buon giorno |howdy |namaste |or buenos días
in the language my mother taught me—in every language
spoken into one wind carrying our lives
without prejudice, as these words break from my lips.

Miami, like Blanco, is a unique balance and blend, a microcosm of America, past, present, and future. “Miami is a unique place, in general,” McGrath explains, “As a writer interested in questions of identity and American culture, as Richard is-- and as I am-- Miami offers a unique perspective. Miami is both a model of a "new" America-- Spanish speaking, multicultural-- but also an "old" America, in that it resembles the huge immigrant cities at the end of the 19th Century, whether New York, Chicago or Boston. So that's a lot to think about, in terms of what makes America unique, and also continually evolving. Add to that our natural beauty and cultural vigor-- some would call it chaos-- and you've got a great place to write.”

One sky: since the Appalachians and Sierras claimed
their majesty, and the Mississippi and Colorado worked
their way to the sea. Thank the work of our hands:
weaving steel into bridges, finishing one more report
for the boss on time, stitching another wound
or uniform, the first brush stroke on a portrait,
or the last floor on the Freedom Tower
jutting into a sky that yields to our resilience.

"One Today" is a remarkable achievement, grounded by details of Blanco's life as a Cuban exile struggling for voice, purpose and education in Miami, and taking flight in its broad passages envisioning national unity through common breath and daily handiwork. Blanco's poem gives all of us a sense of common purpose in a deeply divided time: important work for any writer to endeavor.

One sky, toward which we sometimes lift our eyes
tired from work: some days guessing at the weather
of our lives, some days giving thanks for a love
that loves you back, sometimes praising a mother
who knew how to give, or forgiving a father
who couldn’t give what you wanted.

The FIU English department—students, alumni, staff and faculty—take great pride in Richard's accomplishment, which is emblematic of the work the department strives to do every day. Dr. Sutton reminds all students, “Look at where an FIU degree in English can lead you—to the steps of the US Capitol. You don't need an Ivy League degree to do great things—just work hard, excel, and remain true to yourself.”

We head home: through the gloss of rain or weight
of snow, or the plum blush of dusk, but always—home,
always under one sky, our sky. And always one moon
like a silent drum tapping on every rooftop
and every window, of one country—all of us—
facing the stars
hope—a new constellation
waiting for us to map it,
waiting for us to name it—together./