BookBar Book Review: How To Love A Country by Richard Blanco

By Ginny Short

Blanco’s recent book of poems is vivid and startling. There is no pretense of language or cleverness or attempt at intellectual gymnastics in this collection. What I love about it most is that it is completely approachable. Blanco, the Inaugural Poet for Barack Obama’s second inauguration, describes himself as “Latinx, immigrant, gay,” and sets himself the task to “explore more deeply my own civic and artistic duty in questioning and contributing to the American narrative…” This collection represents his exploration, and what a dark and radiant collection it is.

The collection is divided into three sections with an introductory declarative poem to start and an anthem to end. The trajectory of the collection is both an inner journey and an outer reflection. It is my belief that without the ability to self-reflect we will not make progress. This is self-reflection at its most luminous and most painful. Whether Blanco is exploring his own immigrant background or the cultural milieus in which he finds himself/ourself, there is no blame cast in his net, only his inciteful eye looking, watching reporting.

The entire book is Whitmanesque, and this is such a masterful form to explore how to love a country, given the boastful declaration of passion that Whitman had for this country. I love the introductory poem, Declaration of Inter-Dependence – indeed this book – for its subtle reverse cultural appropriation. By using the style of Whitman, Blanco hears America singing: a new America, the real America. I am not sure Whitman was singing for non-white America and Blanco fills in Whitman’s tenor with a resounding alto. This is just the opening sally of his exploration of “Country.”

In the first section, Blanco explores Country from the point of view of immigrants. The opening salvo is a comparison of our lives / our country with a garden that tends to become overgrown with weeds. Then, overnight, a vine you’ve never battled/creeps out of the dark furrows. He addresses his complex feelings on Election Day: what he feels about what we’ve gained, what we’ve lost. This poem is pitted with hope and despair and is in vivid contrast to the opening line of his inaugural poem One Today (One sun shone on us today…) read at Barack Obama’s second inauguralThis section shows clearly Blanco’s extreme sensitivity to the conditions that we are faced with in these difficult times and repeats a theme that resounds throughout this collection: we are one, we are all we have. Blood that runs in you is water/flowing in me, both life, the truth we/know we know: be one in one another. We see through the eyes of the immigrant what the flavor of this country is. It is too easy to forget that most of our families were immigrants at one point. His lyrical poetry is filled with longing, heartache, and belonging. This is about belonging, about all of us belonging: belonging to ourself, belonging to each other, belong to our Country.

Section II is a single poem, a “song of myself.”  Again – as most of this poetry does – it is in the style or spirit of Whitman. It is beautiful and poignant, full of longing and satisfaction. And despair – something I don’t recall reading in Whitman’s vocabulary of Country. We were and are a troubled nation. Here Blanco segues into his own self-reflection about his immigration history, his sexual identity, his racial identity. It is personal and yet, he draws you in to see we are not that different. His remarkable and lyrical poetry reads like a story, again making this so relatable.  There is no hint of the intellectual here.

9780807025918            Section III opens with Imaginary Exile, and it makes me imagine myself in exile from my own Country. I think this is Blanco’s gift: to get us to see through the eyes of these others, to empathize. The dawn dares him to write “a poem that finds a word for the emptiness of suddenly becoming a stranger in my own kitchen.” It’s a hard section: lynching, school shootings, the Pulse Nightclub shootings, the Boston Marathon bomber. It is a hard section but filled with the things we need to remember if we are to rise above, to love in spite of the difficulties, to find a way out. His sensitivity is extraordinary. His sadness is apparent and yet in the final poem, he shows the power of empathy. His hope is an Anthem that I hope many people will find as uplifting and shocking as I did. Though we/collude into storms that ravage, we can also/ sprinkle ourselves like memories.

I believe that this Bard, with his Love of the layers that comprise our Country, out Whitman’d Whitman.