Glosses and Conjectures on the Inaugural Poem
February 1, 2013
Richard Blanco reads “One Today” at Barack Obama’s inauguration ceremony, January 21, 2013.
by Harris Feinsod
In Gawker’s, wry estimation, most of the U.S. simply didn’t “get” Richard Blanco’s inaugural poem “One Today.” In the Washington Post’s absurd trollgazing account, Blanco’s poem merely signals the “death of poetry.” Perhaps this is because the Post imagines the polity as something more like a giant Nielsen Family than a potential readership. In any case, popular media seems to suffer from an allergy to engaging with the actualities of the poetry itself. In Blanco’s case, it is as if the symbolic fact of a very handsome gay Latino man on stage rendered illegible the symbolic imaginary of his verse. No one seems willing to suggest that at the least, Blanco offered a carefully modulated rhetorical performance that can only be characterized up to a point by the pith of the Twitterati. Mike Chasar’s Onionesque post on his Poetry & Popular Culture blog (“Breaking News: Did Richard Blanco Lip-Sync the Inaugural Poem?“) lampoons an amorphous public willingness to swap a conversation about the authenticity of the poet’s mere presence for a sustained evaluation of his poetry. Earlier this week, I led an impromptu reading and discussion of the poem with the undergraduates in my course “The Raw & the Cooked: Poetry in the Cold War Americas,” a course which is preparing the students quite well for a poem such as this in so far as we investigate several moments in the history of state-sponsored poetry in the U.S., Cuba, Chile, Nicaragua, Brazil and elsewhere from 1945-1989. We did not end up endorsing the poem in any great measure, but we did wind up agreeing that our time spent close reading it was a meaningful way to come to our conclusions. Here are our preliminary, stanza-by-stanza glosses and conjectures:
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.
One light, waking up rooftops, under each one, a story
told by our silent gestures moving behind windows.
Apparently there was some confusion on Twitter about the fact that Blanco’s poem does not rhyme. It does rhyme occasionally, beginning with the first two words: One sun. This suggests that the figure of rhyme can also be the figure of redundancy. If the poem had opened with the unlikelier premise of two or three suns, would it have been more likely to make an immediate claim on national attention?
Here the sun in its singularity is an overdetermined symbol of national unification, rising and setting on a singular nation, illuminating a movement of westward expansion (from the Smokies to the Great Lakes and the Great Plains to the Rockies). It proposes that the fact of the solar system is an alibi for the revival of the rhetorical drift of manifest destiny. At this point, perhaps “we” Americans should ask ourselves if the same sun is not also “kindled” over Venezuela or China or Uganda or France, to say nothing of the U.S. coastlines, cities from Provincetown to San Francisco, or territories from Puerto Rico to Guam. These categories are all elided from Blanco’s well-composed, Whitmanian enumeration of national space. But the poem is not really Whitmanian. It does not want to let its catalog flood or gush so much as it wants to contain it. As one student noted, the word “rooftops” is one keen index of just how un-Whitmanian the poem is. In Whitman, the poet sounds his “barbaric yawp over the rooftops of the world.” Here, Blanco’s rooftops do not stage the clamor of enunciation; they enclose “silent gestures.” As the next stanza makes clear, this is a poem of “yawns” not “yawps.” Nor does Blanco’s national space illuminate a boundless democratic multitude. Rather, it is a claustrophobic, depopulated space of balance, framing and composure. Perhaps it is a space of what Robert Smithson might have called “mirror travel”: the Smokies mirror, (or echo, or half-rhyme) the Rockies, enclosing a basin in which the Great Lakes mirror the Great Plains. A rhythm of observation has been announced. In this poem, duos, trios and quartets will stand in through the figure of metonymy for entire landscapes, for social and economic processes, and so on. One student pointed out that the stanza accidentally evokes the early verses in Pablo Neruda’s 1948 Que despierte el leñador (Let the Railsplitter Awake), which is perhaps the most vitriolically “anti-American” poem of the early Cold War. In Jack Schmidt’s translation: “Yes, through acrid Arizona and knotty Wisconsin, / to Milwaukee raised against the wind and snow, or in the burning swamps of West Palm, / near Tacoma’s pine groves…” An astute reader might ask at this moment if Blanco’s poem is a poem, like Neruda’s, that will rouse the spirit of Abraham Lincoln as the ur-figure of conjunction for our plight of political disunity. But of course, Blanco has conceded that task to Kushner & Spielberg.
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.
Instead we awaken into a Sesame Street queertopia. And it seems marvelous. The roadways are empty. There are no Ford F150s roaring to strip mines and frack wells or bumper-to-bumper bumbles down potholed roads by a texting, Venti Mocha drinking, white collar work force. There is only an orderly rhythm of “stop and go” traffic lights on streets evacuated of everything but schoolchildren. But colors are accumulating: the monochromatic bus prefigures the tri-colored stop light, which now echoes the nation’s “fruitsands,” with their “apples, limes, and oranges arrayed like rainbows.” The rainbow is “like” fruits. The poet is being similitudinous. Whether we are El Salvadoreños in New Mexico selling watermelons from a pick up truck or Brooklynites at the farmers market, we have been granted permission to wink at the poem’s queer pride. The fruit stand is not a simple fact of agriculture coming to market, but rather a reminder that the fruits have taken a stand. Only the most imbecilic literalists or bigots will not enter this figural circle of queer sentiment. Most of us are really “getting the poem” at this point, and we can feel really democratic about it.
But wait, the rainbow of fruit is not democratic. It is also monarchical or pantheistic or something: it is “begging our praise.” Why is the rainbow of fruit so solicitous of encomium? Should we stop and think about this odd turn of phrase? No! For the diesel trucks have finally arrived, as if to remind us that this really is America, where we really do transport things across our most comprehensive national highway system. These unbranded “silver trucks” carry a curious collection of raw materials: paper, oil, bricks, and milk. What vision of American industry has been metonymically invoked here? Paper: is this a bit anachronistic to find in a blossoming digital information economy? Oil: should we kiss the clean energy future goodbye? Bricks: so much for a 21st century building trade? Milk: so much for the de-industrialized, locally-sourced agriculture of fruit-stand America? Or just a nostalgic return to 1950s milk truck America? In any case, what does it matter? As we soon learn, we are not a nation of writers, oilmen, masons, milkmen, and truck drivers, but one of busboys (“cleaning tables”), businesspeople before the advent of the personal computer (“reading ledgers”), as well as firemen and EMTs (“saving lives”). Oh, also: STEM-subject teachers and supermarket checkers. And on that note, almost as if by accident, we are invited to share in a moment of this poet’s exceptional autobiography: his mother was a supermarket checker, and this poem owes to that fact. The poem is brought to you by the dream of upward mobility, just as NPR programming is brought to you by the MacArthur Foundation. This moment also punctures the poem’s fabric of plurality. Just as the poet is licensed to announce his “I” amid the clamorous “we,” so are we all entitled to see our own exceptional individuality in the midst of the bustling multitude. What’s good for me is good for us.
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.
Here, my students began by wondering in what sense light is “vital?” Sure it is life-giving (hooray for photosynthesis!) but is it alive? And what of the dangling prepositional phrase “we move through”? Is this purposively unpoetical? Is it a stumbling block on the way to the disclosure of Newtown’s elegaic absence? In the previous stanza the schoolchildren arrived on the bus and the math teachers drove to school: now the sun is streaming through the classroom windows (this is not one of those bunkerized, cinder-block middle schools with little more than florescent lights. It is a school that has natural light, math, history, physics, and a social studies course that may not have the budget to purchase the DVD of the “I Have a Dream” speech from the King Estate, but does have the pluck to dream it up anew). However, this vision has much of its wind knocked out by a moment of painful, elegaic unspeakability– “the impossible vocabulary of sorrow” of the Newtown massacre. This is so far easily the most moving line in the poem, and shows that Blanco is a much better poet when he is pointing toward what is hard to say than when he is busy saying too much already. However, one student was moved at this point to recall a line from Nicanor Parra’s “Warning to the Reader” (1954), in which some strange mid-century Chilean “legal experts” show up to declare an interdiction against poems that do not use the words rainbow and/or sorrow. What Parra reminds us is that rainbows and sorrows belong to the licit diction of poetry–the “impossible vocabulary of sorrow” is a normative vocabulary of social control.
But enough school. Some of us have got to get to work:
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.
Here the students wondered why they were being thrown back into the 1930s, which most of their grandparents weren’t even old enough to remember. “Wheat sown by sweat?” Hasn’t Blanco watched the tractors and combines out on the Iowa plains? “Hands gleaning coal?” Hasn’t the poet seen how coal is mined by huge machines in the mountains of Appalachia or the open pits of Wyoming? “Planting windmills?” Has the poet not seen how wind energy infrastructure is installed in the Mojave desert? “hands … routing pipes and cables?” Is the cable grid wearing out hands in quite the same way that the Cuban cane fields wore out hands? Why does this America seem to be the same false populist America of Carl Sandburg’s The People, Yes!? Hands are a synecdoche for the human body, but Blanco should be looking for a good synecdoche for automation. Why must we reawaken the old New Deal rather than prospect on a new New Deal? The students thought Blanco could benefit from the precision of observation advocated by Ezra Pound’s imagism and Ernesto Cardenal’s exteriorismo.
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.
We skipped fairly quickly over this rather dismal and infelicitous vision of auditory America (“The gorgeous din of honking cabs?”) We did stop long enough to wonder if these images of aestheticized noise pollution had been drawn from stock footage at the beginning of a film such as Crocodile Dundee II.
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.
Here we wanted very much to endorse Blanco. Multilingualism! Non-prejudicial language politics! What a great message to communicate (if in fact communicating messages is what poems are for). First English, then Hebrew, Italian, and Cowboy English (we need both English and Cowboy English in this sequence to appeal to both Americans and to what Sarah Palin used to call “real Americans,” and to smuggle the idioms of frontier expansionism present in the first stanza back into the poem). Then we get Hindi (although most of us had trouble hearing an everyday salutation here so much as a Yoga studio work out), and finally Spanish (obviously). What a great start. But we were tempted to consider the languages in which the poem does not say hello. For instance, it does not say as-salam alaykum or ni hao. It does not even say aloha. Would these be more meaningful declarations of linguistic pluralism? One student was also reminded of the scene of multilingual congress at the beginning of Ernesto Cardenal’s poem “Greytown,” where the meeting of languages in mid-19th century Nicaragua is a meeting of adventure capital as it speculates at the edges of empires. There are many modes of multilingualism, and some multilingualisms are better than others. One student incisively asked: “if this poem is so invested in the vernacular ‘howdy,’ why can’t it just say ‘what’s up?’ or ‘hey?’”
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.
Again we are presented with the obsessive, anachronistic fantasy about hands. A neatly enjambed zeugma (“stitching another wound / or uniform”) collocates, in the act of sewing, nurses and surgeons with the workers of some obscure outfitter of the police and the military, and connects this army of metaphorical textile workers to the steelworkers “weaving steel into bridges.” Perhaps Blanco does not know how few commercial textiles are fabricated in the U.S. or how American steelworkers have protested the fact that our biggest current bridge projects (the new San Francisco-Oakland Bay Bridge) have imported their steel from China. Zanier still, this national landscape, in all of its sublime “majesty,” is utterly pliable to our delicate handiwork. Just as we overcome mountains with highways, bays with bridges, wounds with surgery, and conflict with war, so the sky itself will relent to our symbolic phalluses. We need not be daunted by nature. Our exertions improve it. This is a poem for patriotic geo-engineers.
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.
We head home: through the gloss of rain or weight
of snow, or the plum blush of dusk, but always—home,
Except, perhaps, for the homeless, the exiled, and the undocumented.
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.
And now, in closing, it is time to look at the moon and the stars. After the intriguing, oxymoronic figure of the moon faintly tapping tapping at our chamber doors like a surveillance state, the singularity of the sun suddenly yields to the multiplicity of the constellations. Unification gives up to arrangement. The orderly fussiness of all the previous stanzas gives into a bit of disorder, an unwillingness to invite perfect closure. Hyphens intrude. The lines, like the day, grow shorter. But one thing is sure: just as we have mapped, named and dominated national space, now we shall map, name and dominate interstellar space. It is as if we have not just dismantled our space program. The year is 1968. The future is here!
The students ultimately proposed that this poem offered a pastiche of tone notes from 1930s populism, 1950s cultures of abundance, a very moderate smattering of 1960s civil rights and 1990s multiculturalism, and then asked us to walk backward into the future with this dubious rhetorical arsenal. But they also wondered if it was a poem that was subtly queering this overdetermined national symbolic imaginary in efficacious ways that made a vanilla, middle-class fantasy available to a wider circuitry of contemporary subjects. They wondered why Blanco had not felt entitled to let his poetry stray any farther from normative political rhetoric, and if he had been able to forge a space of articulation for himself when he had so clearly been pigeonholed by the media to give a “command performance.” For myself, I wondered what kind of cultural amnesia permitted Blanco to reenergize Carl Sandburg’s populism and Robert Frost’s nativism, while managing to almost completely step away from the queer Whitmanism of Crane and Ginsberg, and while managing a total unrecognizability to the politics of Latin American poetry since the 1940s, the poetry of Latino cultural nationalism post-1967, or the innovations of Cuban diasporic poetry from Padilla to Kozer and beyond. In conjuring these untrod lineages, Blanco can’t help but be a poet of the Americas, even as he vociferously claims his participation in a national poetry to the exclusion of other traditions. In the end, I wondered what it must have been like in the 1940s in the classroom of New Critic John Crowe Ransom, beginning to formulate the question of the way in which a poem might be “like” a democratic subject, and if in fact it might be a technology capable of convening a democratic plurality to decipher it.
Piece originally published at Arcade |