All by Richard Blanco, 2015 Featured Poet
Although Tia 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—
Mama 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,
fried 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, Lazaro, 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 yucca, 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.
Mama 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 Tio 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,” Tio 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 Mama presented her ochre pie—
pumpkin was a home remedy for ulcers, not a dessert.
Tia Maria 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 meringue 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.
Tio Berto was the last to leave.
after the storm rain scattered driftwood
starched sands no footprints of what once was
the gossamer blue sails
gasping in the sun pieces of broken coral
snapped like wishbones
slivers of tiny fish a filmy green bottle
flickering on the shore
a few reclaimed a torn net
by the ebb
of a wave a lost buoy
a yellow bulldozer heaps of spent seagrass
raking the sand
diesel smoke like incense a snapped fishline
spiraling into the heavens
in the name of the vanished a dead fish
Burning in the Rain
Someday compassion would demand
I set myself free of my desire to recreate
my father, indulge in my mother’s losses,
strangle lovers with words, forcing them
to confess for me and take the blame.
Today was that day: I tossed them, sheet
by sheet on the patio and gathered them
into a pyre. I wanted to let them go
in a blaze, tiny white dwarfs imploding
beside the azaleas and ficus bushes,
let them crackle, burst like winged seeds,
let them smolder into gossamer embers—
a thousand gray butterflies in the wind.
Today was that day, but it rained, kept
raining. Instead of fire, water—drops
knocking on doors, wetting windows
into mirrors reflecting me in the oaks.
The garden walls and stones swelling
into ghostlier shades of themselves,
the wind chimes giggling in the storm,
a coffee cup left overflowing with rain.
Instead of burning, my pages turned
into water lilies floating over puddles,
then tiny white cliffs as the sun set,
finally drying all night under the moon
into papier-mâché souvenirs. Today
the rain would not let their lives burn.
El Florida Room
Not a study or a den, but El Florida
as my mother called it, a pretty name
for the room with the prettiest view
of the lipstick-red hibiscus puckered up
against the windows, the tepid breeze
laden with the brown-sugar scent
of loquats drifting in from the yard.
Not a sunroom, but where the sun
both rose and set, all day the shadows
of banana trees fan-dancing across
the floor, and if it rained, it rained
the loudest, like marbles plunking
across the roof under constant threat
of coconuts ready to fall from the sky.
Not a sitting room, but El Florida where
I sat alone for hours with butterflies
frozen on the polyester curtains
and faces of Lladro figurines: sad angels,
clowns, and princesses with eyes glazed
blue and gray, gazing from behind
the glass doors of the wall cabinet.
Not a TV room, but where I watched
Creature Feature as a boy, clinging
to my brother, safe from vampires
in the same sofa where I fell in love
with Clint Eastwood and my Abuelo
watching westerns, or pitying women
crying in telenovelas with my Abuela.
Not a family room, but the room where
my father twirled his hair while listening
to 8-tracks of Elvis, and read Nietzsche
and Kant a few months before he died,
where my mother learned to dance alone
as she swept, and I learned Salsa pressed
against my Tía Julia’s enormous breasts.
At the edge of the city, in the company
of crickets, beside the empty clothesline,
telephone wires and the moon, tonight
my life is an old friend sitting with me
not in the living room, but in the light
of El Florida, as quiet and necessary
as any star shining above it.
The mile markers count down [ 28 | 27 | 26 ] as
Nikki and I sail in her Plymouth Fury cutting
through saltwater marshes on our way to Key West
for New Year’s Eve again [ 25 | 24 | 23 ]. We cross
the same bridges stringing the same islands
together, under the same braille of stars, past the
same road sign near Bahia Honda: KEY DEER
HABITAT: ONLY 49 DEER REMAINING. Last
year there were ninety, Nikki reminds me, tells me
her story about summer camp again: the tiny deer
standing no taller than a car tire, feeding them
cabbage out of her hands, then having to clang on
pots and pan to scare them away and keep them
wild. I tell her I love that story [ 22 | 21 | 20 ],
though what I really mean is that I love her, that
I’m proud of her quitting Vodka, that she’s not
who her father says she is, and doesn’t have to be
her mother. I want to tell her that she’ll survive—
and so will I, though I’m not completely sure. I
don’t know yet that in a few years [ 19 | 18 | 17 ]
she’ll move to New York City, find a life among its
poets and skyscrapers and a dog named Pepper,
and I’ll end up in love with the lonely woods of
Maine. What I know is tonight [ 16 | 15 | 14 ] we’ll
be at Sloppy Joe’s, she’ll climb on my shoulders,
we’ll watch the giant plaster conch, and at the
stroke of midnight embrace amid the crowd on
Duval Street. Though now [ 13 | 12 | 11 ] there is
only this stillness, the silence of mangroves clinging
to each other, the last of the key deer nibbling
berries on either side of the highway, and the two
of us speeding through dusk as if we’re the last two
people on earth, one more time, one more year [10 | 9 | 8 ].
Looking for the Gulf Motel
Marco Island, Florida
There should be nothing here I don’t remember . . .
The Gulf Motel with mermaid lampposts
and ship’s wheel in the lobby should still be
rising out of the sand like a cake decoration.
My brother and I should still be pretending
we don’t know our parents, embarrassing us
as they roll the luggage cart past the front desk
loaded with our scruffy suitcases, two-dozen
loaves of Cuban bread, brown bags bulging
with enough mangos to last the entire week,
our espresso pot, the pressure cooker—and
a pork roast reeking garlic through the lobby.
All because we can’t afford to eat out, not even
on vacation, only two hours from our home
in Miami, but far enough away to be thrilled
by whiter sands on the west coast of Florida,
where I should still be for the first time watching
the sun set instead of rise over the ocean.
There should be nothing here I don’t remember . . .
My mother should still be in the kitchenette
of The Gulf Motel, her daisy sandals from Kmart
squeaking across the linoleum, still gorgeous
in her teal swimsuit and amber earrings
stirring a pot of arroz-con-pollo, adding sprinkles
of onion powder and dollops of tomato sauce.
My father should still be in a terrycloth jacket
smoking, clinking a glass of amber whiskey
in the sunset at the Gulf Motel, watching us
dive into the pool, two boys he’ll never see
grow into men who will be proud of him.
There should be nothing here I don’t remember . . .
My brother and I should still be playing Parcheesi,
my father should still be alive, slow dancing
with my mother on the sliding-glass balcony
of The Gulf Motel. No music, only the waves
keeping time, a song only their minds hear
ten-thousand nights back to their life in Cuba.
My mother’s face should still be resting against
his bare chest like the moon resting on the sea,
the stars should still be turning around them.
There should be nothing here I don’t remember . . .
My brother should still be thirteen, sneaking
rum in the bathroom, sculpting naked women
from sand. I should still be eight years old
dazzled by seashells and how many seconds
I hold my breath underwater—but I’m not.
I am thirty-eight, driving up Collier Boulevard,
looking for The Gulf Motel, for everything
that should still be, but isn’t. I want to blame
the condos, their shadows for ruining the beach
and my past, I want to chase the snowbirds away
with their tacky mansions and yachts, I want
to turn the golf courses back into mangroves,
I want to find The Gulf Motel exactly as it was
and pretend for a moment, nothing lost is lost.
Missouri Sky Music
–after Pat Metheny
He plucks a string into a gust stirring dust,
spins a windmill lonely in a blanket of corn
covering Leesburg Summit where he grew up
in a back yard two hundred miles due south
of nothing, playing for the wind and hawks
and hope of leaving the state he returns to
in his music now, compositions of the sky
that held every minute for hours for him.
Notes lifting into clouds bulging with light,
strums ribboning the horizon with plum,
as I coast north on a train leaving a place
I once called my home too, my face against
the glass, my eyes blurring across some city
between cities with his songs in my ears
also listening to the scratches of his fingers
across the fret—those gritty imperfections
so necessary and inseparable from the music,
not knowing which is truer, which I prefer.
“Of Consequence, Inconsequently”
A bearded shepherd in a gray wool vest,
a beret lowered to his brow, that’s how
my blood has always imagined the man
who was my great-grandfather, his eyes
hazel, I was told once. But I’ll never see
what he saw of his life in the cold rivers
of Asturias. I can only imagine the fog
caressing the hills of his village and him
watching from the window of the train
he took to Sevilla—for love, my mother
explained to me once, holding a ghost
of him in a photo on his wedding day
with an ascot tie and buttoned shoes
standing in a room filled with mahogany
and red roses. Were they red? What color
were the tiers of Spanish lace cascading
from my great-grandmother’s dress?
Nothing can speak for them now, tell me
what they saw in their eyes that morning
they left for love or war or both, crossing
the sea to Cuban palms under the quite sun.
But what if they’d never met, what color
would my eyes be? Who would I be now
had they gone to Johannesburg instead,
or Maracaibo, or not left Sevilla at all?
Into what seas would I have cast thoughts,
what other cities would I’ve drowned in?
The countries I would’ve lost, or betrayed,
the languages I would speak or not speak,
the names that would’ve been my names—
I’d like to believe I’ve willed every detail
of my life, but I’m a consequence, a drop
of rain, a seed fallen by chance, here
in the middle of a story I don’t know,
having to finish it and call it my own.
New Orleans Sestina Against Order
We’re driving 900 miles in 17 hours, for a reason—
perhaps to feel like nothing through the nothing
of pasture flat as the highway tarmac, or to be lost
through the x’s of Loxley and Biloxi, or to forget
like exit-number towns that have forgotten the meaning
of their Indian names. 10am at Shoney’s we order
lunch instead of breakfast. I’ll put in your order—
right away, the waitress smirks. Must be a reason,
why she hasn’t left this place, I guess, nothing
to lose, I figure, the way we left last night, lost
and incidental down I-70 doing 80, forgetting
the stars hitting the windshield and the meanings
I give them—hope|awe|dream—against the mean
of my life, days like the billboards flashing orders:
sleep here|eat this now|exit here—for no reason.
Perhaps nothingness drives us to somethingness—
and that’s why we hit the road, to find what’s lost
by losing ourselves, to remember by forgetting
who we are, only needing to find a station to forget
the hours left with preachers claiming we’re meant
for the Kingdom of Heaven if we follow Jesus’ orders.
Though I don’t believe, I start conjuring up reasons
for my sins, can’t forgive myself for wanting nothing
more than this easy ride on a weekend. We’re lost
lambs in The Big Easy without a map, but don’t lose
a minute of Bourbon St. sax and tap, before getting
voodoo dolls, Hurricanes, beads, and a meal meant
for a Cajun king: crawfish gumbo, catfish, an order
of beigne at Du Monde, thinking: Is this the reason?
Is this it? when our waiter says: Ain’t heard nothing
‘til you go to Nugget’s. So we go there, nothing
but a beat-up bass, an upright piano, drums lost
behind a spotlight on a woman dressed in forget-
me-not colors, her voice like cider, clove, menthe
liquoring my ears, her face a cameo ordering
me to feel every second—and that’s the reason
why we came, nothing like N’awlins to lose
yourself in a song, forget order, find meaning
in a voice sing’n: ain’t no reas’n, ain’t no reas’n.
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.
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.
All of us are 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.
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.
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.
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 dias
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.
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 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,
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.
Photo of a Man on Sunset Drive: 1914, 2008
Groundbreaking Ceremony, City of South Miami, Sunset Drive Improvements
And so it began: the earth torn, split open
by a dirt road cutting through palmettos
and wild tamarind trees defending the land
against the sun. Beside the road, a shack
leaning into the wind, on the wooden porch,
crates of avocados and limes, white chickens
pecking at the floor boards, and a man
under the shadow of his straw hat, staring
into the camera in 1914. He doesn’t know
within a lifetime the unclaimed land behind
him will be cleared of scrub and sawgrass,
the soil will be turned, made to give back
what the farmers wish, their lonely houses
will stand acres apart from one another,
jailed behind the boughs of their orchards.
He’ll never buy sugar at the general store,
mail love letters at the post office, or take
a train at the depot of the town that will rise
out of hundred-million years of coral rock
on promises of paradise. He’ll never ride
a model-T puttering down the dirt road
that will be paved over, stretch farther and
farther west into the horizon, reaching for
the setting sun after which it will be named.
He can’t even begin to imagine the shadows
of buildings rising taller than the palm trees,
the street lights glowing like counterfeit stars
dotting the sky above the road, the thousands
who will take the road everyday, who’ll also
call this place home less than a hundred years
after the photograph of him hanging today
in City Hall as testament. He’ll never meet
me, the engineer hired to transform the road
again, bring back tree shadows and birdsongs,
build another promise of another paradise
meant to last another forever. He’ll never see
me, the poet standing before him, trying
to read his mind across time, wondering if
he was thinking what I’m today, both of us
looking down the road that will stretch on
for years after I too disappear into a photo.
Place of Mind
Mist haunts the city, tears of rain fall
from the awnings and window ledges.
The search for myself begins an echo
drifting away the moment I arrive.
From the awnings and window ledges
follow the rain flowing down the streets.
The moment I arrive, I drift away:
Why am I always imagining the sea?
Follow the rain flowing down the streets
vanishing into the mouths of gutters.
Why am I always imagining the sea?
A breath, a wave—a breath, a wave.
Vanishing into the mouths of gutters,
rain becomes lake, river, ocean again.
A breath, a wave—a breath, a wave
always beginning, yet always ending.
Rain becomes lake, river, ocean, again
mist haunts the city, tears of rain fall
always ending, yet always beginning,
the search for myself ends in an echo.
Some Days the Sea
The sea is never the same twice. Today
the waves open their lions-mouths hungry
for the shore and I feel the earth helpless.
Some days their foamy edges are lace
at my feet, the sea a sheet of green silk.
Sometimes the shore brings souvenirs
from a storm. I sift spoils of sea grass:
find a broken finger of coral, a torn fan,
examine a sponge’s hollow throat, watch
a man-of-war die a sapphire in the sand.
Some days there’s nothing but sand
quiet as snow, I walk, eyes on the wind
sometimes laden with silver tasting salt,
sometimes still as the sun. Some days
the sun is a dollop of honey and raining
light on the sea glinting diamond dust,
sometimes there are only clouds, clouds—
sometimes solid as continents drifting
across the sky, other times wispy, white
roses that swirl into tigers, into cathedrals,
into hands, and I remember some days
I’m still a boy on this beach, wanting
to catch a seagull, cup a tiny silver fish,
build a perfect sand castle. Some days I am
a teenager blind to death even as I watch
waves seep into nothingness. Most days
I’m a man tired of being a man, sleeping
in the care of dusk’s slanted light, or a man
scared of being a man, seeing some god
in the moonlight streaming over the sea.
Some days I imagine myself walking
this shore with feet as worn as driftwood,
old and afraid of my body. Someday,
I suppose I’ll return someplace like waves
trickling through the sand, back to sea
without any memory of being, but if
I could choose eternity, it would be here
aging with the moon, enduring in the space
between every grain of sand, in the cusp
of every wave, and every seashell’s hollow.
Unspoken Elegy for Tia Cucha
I arrive with a box of guava pastelitos,
a dozen red carnations, and a handful
of memories at her door: the half-moons
of her French-manicures, how she spoke
blowing out cigarette smoke, her words
leaving her mouth as ghosts, the music
of her nicknames: Cucha, Cuchita, Pucha.
I kiss her hello and she slaps me hard
across my arm: Cabron! Too handsome
to visit your Tia, eh? She laughs, pulls me
inside her efficiency, a place I thought
I had forgotten, comes back to life
with wafts of Jean Nate and Pine Sol,
the same calendar from Farmacia Galiano
with scenes of Old Havana on the wall,
the same peppermints in a crystal dish.
And her, wearing a papery housecoat,
sneakers with panty hose, like she wore
those summer mornings she’d walk me
down to the beach along First Street,
past the washed out pinks and blues
of the Art Deco hotels like old toys.
The retirees lined across the verandas
like seagulls peering into the horizon,
the mango popsicles from the bodeguita
and the pier she told me was once
a bridge to Cuba—have all vanished.
I ask how she’s feeling, but we agree
not to talk about that today, though
we both know why I have come
to see her: in a few months, maybe
weeks, her lungs will fill up again,
her heart will stop for good. She too
will vanish, except what I remember,
of her, this afternoon: sharing a pastelito,
over a café she sweetens with Equal
at her dinette table crowded with boxes
of low-salt saltines and fibery cereals.
Under the watch of Holy Jesus’ heart
burning on the wall, we gossip about
the secret crush she had on my father
once, she counts exactly how many
years and months since she left Cuba
and her mother forever, we complain
about the wars, diseases, fires blazing
on the mid-day news as she dunks
the flowers in a tumbler—a dozen red
suns burst in the sapphire sky framed
in the window, sitting by the table.