A new collection from the renowned inaugural poet exploring immigration, gun violence, racism, LGBTQ issues, and more, in accessible and emotive verses. Richard Blanco digs deep into the very marrow of our nation through poems that interrogate our past and present, grieve our injustices, and note our flaws, but also remember to celebrate our ideals and cling to our hopes.
As presidential inaugural poet, memoirist, public speaker, educator, and advocate, Richard Blanco has crisscrossed the nation inviting communities to connect to the heart of human experience and our shared identity as a country. In this new collection of poems, his first in over seven years, Blanco continues to invite a conversation with all Americans. Through an oracular yet intimate and accessible voice, he addresses the complexities and contradictions of our nationhood and the unresolved sociopolitical matters that affect us all.
The poems form a mosaic of seemingly varied topics: the Pulse Nightclub massacre; an unexpected encounter on a visit to Cuba; the forced exile of 8,500 Navajos in 1868; a lynching in Alabama; the arrival of a young Chinese woman at Angel Island in 1938; the incarceration of a gifted writer; and the poet’s abiding love for his partner, who he is finally allowed to wed as a gay man. But despite each poem’s unique concern or occasion, all are fundamentally struggling with the overwhelming question of how to love this country.
Seeking answers, Blanco digs deep into the very marrow of our nation through poems that interrogate our past and present, grieve our injustices, and note our flaws, but also remember to celebrate our ideals and cling to our hopes. In the landmark poem “American Wandersong,” which forms the center of the book, the poet reveals himself to readers in a disarming and kinetic sequence of stanzas, striving to find his place amid the physical and emotional landscapes of our country.
Through this groundbreaking volume, Blanco unravels the very fabric of the American narrative and pursues a resolution to the inherent contradiction of our nation’s psyche and mandate: e pluribus unum (out of many, one). Charged with the utopian idea that no single narrative is more important than another, this book asserts that America could and ought someday to be a country where all narratives converge into one, a country we can all be proud to love and where we can all truly thrive.
Complaint of El Río Grande
for Aylin Barbieri
I was meant for all things to meet:
to make the clouds pause in the mirror
of my waters, to be home to fallen rain
that finds its way to me, to turn eons
of loveless rock into lovesick pebbles
and carry them as humble gifts back
to the sea which brings life back to me.
I felt the sun flare, praised each star
flocked about the moon long before
you did. I’ve breathed air you’ll never
breathe, listened to songbirds before
you could speak their names, before
you dug your oars in me, before you
created the gods that created you.
Then countries—your invention—maps
jigsawing the world into colored shapes
caged in bold lines to say: you’re here,
not there, you’re this, not that, to say:
yellow isn’t red, red isn’t black, black is
not white, to say: mine, not ours, to say
war, and believe life’s worth is relative.
You named me big river, drew me—blue,
thick to divide, to say: spic and Yankee,
to say: wetback and gringo. You split me
in two—half of me us, the rest them. But
I wasn’t meant to drown children, hear
mothers’ cries, never meant to be your
geography: a line, a border, a murderer.
I was meant for all things to meet:
the mirrored clouds and sun’s tingle,
birdsongs and the quiet moon, the wind
and its dust, the rush of mountain rain—
and us. Blood that runs in you is water
flowing in me, both life, the truth we
know we know: be one in one another.
Declaration of Interdependence
Such has been the patient sufferance…
We’re a mother’s bread, instant potatoes, milk at a checkout line. We’re her three children pleading for bubble gum and their father. We’re the three minutes she steals to page through a tabloid, needing to believe even stars’ lives are as joyful and bruised.
Our repeated petitions have been answered only by repeated injury…
We’re her second job serving an executive absorbed in his Wall Street Journal at a sidewalk café shadowed by skyscrapers. We’re the shadows of the fortune he won and the family he lost. We’re his loss and the lost. We’re a father in a coal town who can’t mine a life anymore because too much and too little has happened, for too long.
A history of repeated injuries and usurpations…
We’re the grit of his main street’s blacked-out windows and graffitied truths. We’re a street in another town lined with royal palms, at home with a Peace Corps couple who collect African art. We’re their dinner-party talk of wines, wielded picket signs, and burned draft cards. We’re what they know: it’s time to do more than read the New York Times, buy fair-trade coffee and organic corn.
In every stage of these oppressions we have petitioned for redress…
We’re the farmer who grew the corn, who plows into his couch as worn as his back by the end of the day. We’re his TV set blaring news having everything and nothing to do with the field dust in his eyes or his son nested in the ache of his arms. We’re his son. We’re a black teenager who drove too fast or too slow, talked too much or too little, moved too quickly, but not quick enough. We’re the blast of the bullet leaving the gun. We’re the guilt and the grief of the cop who wished he hadn’t shot.
We mutually pledge to each other our lives, our fortunes and our sacred honor…
We’re the dead, we’re the living amid the flicker of vigil candlelight. We’re in a dim cell with an inmate reading Dostoevsky. We’re his crime, his sentence, his amends, we’re the mending of ourselves and others. We’re a Buddhist serving soup at a shelter alongside a stockbroker. We’re each other’s shelter and hope: a widow’s fifty cents in a collection plate and a golfer’s ten-thousand-dollar pledge for a cure.
We hold these truths to be self-evident…
We’re the cure for hatred caused by despair. We’re the good morning of a bus driver who remembers our name, the tattooed man who gives up his seat on the subway. We’re every door held open with a smile when we look into each other’s eyes the way we behold the moon. We’re the moon. We’re the promise of one people, one breath declaring to one another: I see you. I need you. I am you.
To love a country as if you’ve lost one: 1968,
my mother leaves Cuba for America, a scene
I imagine as if standing in her place—one foot
inside a plane destined for a country she knew
only as a name, a color on a map, or glossy photos
from drugstore magazines, her other foot anchored
to the platform of her patria, her hand clutched
around one suitcase, taking only what she needs
most: hand-colored photographs of her family,
her wedding veil, the doorknob of her house,
a jar of dirt from her backyard, goodbye letters
she won’t open for years. The sorrowful drone
of engines, one last, deep breath of familiar air
she’ll take with her, one last glimpse at all
she’d ever known: the palm trees wave goodbye
as she steps onto the plane, the mountains shrink
from her eyes as she lifts off into another life.
To love a country as if you’ve lost one: I hear her
—once upon a time—reading picture books
over my shoulder at bedtime, both of us learning
English, sounding out words as strange as the talking
animals and fair-haired princesses in their pages.
I taste her first attempts at macaroni-n-cheese
(but with chorizo and peppers), and her shame
over Thanksgiving turkeys always dry, but countered
by her perfect pork pernil and garlic yuca. I smell
the rain of those mornings huddled as one under
one umbrella waiting for the bus to her ten-hour days
at the cash register. At night, the zzz-zzz of her sewing
her own blouses, quinceañera dresses for her grown nieces
still in Cuba, guessing at their sizes, and the gowns
she’d sell to neighbors to save for a rusty white sedan—
no hubcaps, no air-conditioning, sweating all the way
through our first vacation to Florida theme parks.
To love a country as if you’ve lost one: as if
it were you on a plane departing from America
forever, clouds closing like curtains on your country,
the last scene in which you’re a madman scribbling
the names of your favorite flowers, trees, and birds
you’d never see again, your address and phone number
you’d never use again, the color of your father’s eyes,
your mother’s hair, terrified you could forget these.
To love a country as if I was my mother last spring
hobbling, insisting I help her climb all the way up
to the US Capitol, as if she were here before you today
instead of me, explaining her tears, cheeks pink
as the cherry blossoms coloring the air that day when
she stopped, turned to me, and said: You know, mijo,
it isn’t where you’re born that matters, it’s where
you choose to die—that’s your country.
My Father in English
First half of his life lived in Spanish: the long syntax
of las montañas that lined his village, the rhyme
of sol with his soul—a Cuban alma—that swayed
with las palmas, the sharp rhythm of his machete
cutting through caña, the syllables of his canarios
that sung into la brisa of the island home he left
to spell out the second half of his life in English—
the vernacular of New York City sleet, neon, glass—
and the brick factory where he learned to polish
steel twelve hours a day. Enough to save enough
to buy a used Spanish-English dictionary he kept
bedside like a bible—studied fifteen new words
after his prayers each night, then practiced them
on us the next day: Buenos días, indeed, my family.
Indeed más coffee. Have a good day today, indeed—
and again in the evening: Gracias to my bella wife,
indeed, for dinner. Hiciste tu homework, indeed?
La vida is indeed difícil. Indeed did indeed become
his favorite word which, like the rest of his new life,
he never quite grasped: overused and misused often
to my embarrassment. Yet the word I most learned
to love and know him through: indeed, the exile who
tried to master the language he chose to master him,
indeed, the husband who refused to say I love you
in English to my mother, the man who died without
true translation. Indeed, meaning: in fact/en efecto,
meaning: in reality/de hecho, meaning to say now
what I always meant to tell him in both languages:
thank you/gracias for surrendering the past tense
of your life so that I might conjugate myself here
in the present of this country, in truth/así es, indeed.
published in The New Yorker, February 2019
Dreaming a Wall
are redder, bluer, whiter than theirs, believes
his bees work harder, his soil richer, blacker.
He hears birds sing sweeter in his trees, taller
and fuller, too, but not enough to screen out
the nameless faces next door that he calls
liars, thieves who’d steal his juicier fruit, kill
for his wetter rain and brighter sun. He keeps
a steely eye on them, mocks the too cheery
colors of their homes, too small and too close
to his own, painted white, with room to spare.
He curses the giggles of their children always
barefoot in the yard, chasing their yappy dogs.
He wishes them dead. Closes his blinds. Refuses
to let light from their windows pollute his eyes
with their lives. Denies their silhouettes dining
at the kitchen table, laughing in the living room,
the goodnight kisses through every bedroom.
Slouched in his couch, grumbling over the news
he dismisses as fake, he changes the channel
to an old cowboy western. Amid the clamor
of gunshots he dozes off thinking of his dream
where he stakes a line between him and all
his neighbors, stabs the ground as he would
their chests. Forms a footing cast in blood-red
earth, bends steel bars as he would their bones
with his bare fists and buries them in concrete.
Mortar mixed thick with anger, each brick laid
heavy with revenge, he smiles as he finishes
the last course high enough to imagine them
more miserable and lonely than him alone
behind his wall, worshiping his greener lawn,
praising his fresher air, under his bluer, bluer sky.
Until We Could, Video Poem
Praise & Reviews
“This clear-seeing and forthright volume marks Blanco as a major, deeply relevant poet.”
– Booklist, Starred Review ★
“Generous and deeply felt, the long prose poems in this moving new collection from presidential inaugural poet Blanco (after Looking for the Gulf Motel) help us understand what it means to cross a border . . . . Submit to the fierce pleasure of Blanco’s art.”
– Library Journal
“Blanco’s contributions to the fields of poetry and the arts have already paved a path forward for future generations of writers . . . Our Nation was built on the freedom of expression, and poetry has long played an important role in telling the story of our Union and illuminating the experiences that unite all people.
– President Barack Obama
“From a country courting implosion, a country at odds with its own brutal and breathless backstory, a country with a name that sparks both expletive and prayer, rises Richard Blanco’s muscular, resolute voice—sounding stanzas of the confounded heart and clenched fist, of indignation and insurrection. This is an urgent gathering of sweet, fractured, insistent American noise—the stories that feed us and the stories we’d rather forget—re-teaching us all the right ways there are to love a country that so often forgets how to love us back.
– Patricia Smith, author of Incendiary Art
“At a time when we are once again debating our identity as Americans, this splendid collection of poems from a great storytelling poet is an absolute treasure that speaks to the things that hold us together despite the things that split us apart.
– Doris Kearns Goodwin, author of Leadership in Turbulent Times
“In these times of hate, we need poets who speak of love. Richard Blanco’s new collection is a visionary hymn of love to the human beings who comprise what we call this country. Whether he speaks in the voice of an immigrant who came here long ago, or the very river an immigrant crosses to come here today, Blanco sings and sings. This, the song says, is the way out—for all of us.
– Martín Espada, author of Vivas to Those Who Have Failed
“A frank and wonderful collection that calls America a work in progress, that describes the poet himself as a grade school bully who loved the other boy he hit and one could readily cry with him now, everything is alive here in his book: the Rio Grande as sentient and knowing, all this with a jazz musician’s timing. Richard Blanco writes about the elusive poundingness of love.
– Eileen Myles, author of Evolution
“This new collection is vibrant, tragic, exhilarating, deeply in love with people and their stories and heartbreakingly engaged with our struggling nation. These are poems for every season, for large and small moments and very much for our time.
– Amy Bloom, author of White Houses
“Richard Blanco has risen to the challenge of writing poetry that serves our nation. This is both a responsibility and an honor. I am moved, proud, overjoyed, and inspired.
– Sandra Cisneros, author of The House on Mango Street
“Powerful, personal, and full of life, these poems delve into the complex intricacies of what it means to call the United States home. A masterful poet who is clear-eyed and full of heart, Blanco explores the country’s haunted past while offering a bright hope for the future.
– Ada Limón, author of Bright Dead Things
“In this timely collection, Richard Blanco masterfully embraces his role as a civic poet, confronting our nation’s riddled history in the light of conscience. At once personal and political, these lyric narratives decry injustice and proclaim our hopes.
– Carolyn Forché, author of The Country Between Us
“There is a uniting oneness to these passionate and remarkable poems, each finely wrought line a bridge from one heart to another, a love song of this burdened earth and all its flawed inhabitants. Richard Blanco is this century’s Walt Whitman.
– Andre Dubus III, author of Gone So Long