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Richard Blanco's "One Today"

Poetry became my passion after I fell in love with Walter de la Mare's "Silver" in Mrs. Edna Pickett's sophomore English class circa 1962.

Richard Blanco

Richard Blanco

Introduction and Text of "One Today"

On January 21, 2013, poet Richard Blanco read his piece, "One Today," at the second inauguration of Barack Obama. Blanco lays claim to several firsts as an inaugural reader: he is the first Latino, the first openly gay, and, until Amanda Gorman offered her word salad in 2021 to celebrate Joe Biden’s presidential ascendancy, had been the youngest poet to read his composition at an inauguration. This conglomeration of identities is either a welcome coincidence or a political expediency manufactured to please those dedicated to the political correctness of identity politics.

Blanco’s piece sports a number of technical deficiencies, including inappropriate word choices and trivial talking points, while its theme of unity remains facile and disingenuous; thus, it remains a proper vehicle for its purpose—celebrating the second swearing-in of the 44th occupier of the Oval Office. The Guardian's Carol Rumens has accurately identified this inaugural doggerel as a "valiant flop."

One Today

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 across 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 for all of us today.

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 all 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 cafe tables, Hear: the doors we open
each day for each other, 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.

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 the 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, 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.waiting for us to map it,
waiting for us to name it—together.

Blanco Reading "One Today"

Commentary

The difficulty of producing a "poem" for the occasion of celebrating the inauguration of president has been on display since Robert Frost first made the attempt at the swearing-in of John F. Kennedy in 1961. The poems have not improved, and a case might be made that they have, indeed, taken on the postmodern lackadaisical essence that can only be labeled doggerel. As poet and critic, Robert Bernard Hass has averred,

No American poet—not even Robert Frost—has written a good, let alone marginally acceptable inaugural poem. Puffed up with political pieties and generally employing coma-inducing, bureaucratic language, American inaugural poems lack the energy and insight of their authors’ best poems and, by and large, remain wholly forgettable.

Fortunately for Frost, the bright sunlight bouncing off the snow on that January day back in 1961 kept his weak composition, "Dedication," from getting an airing, and his strong poem, "The Gift Out-Right," which had been written much earlier and not for the purpose of an presidential inauguration, became the inaugural poem of record.

First Movement: Tracking the Sun

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 across windows.

The opening movement of this sprawling, awkward piece tracks the sun on its journey from east to west across the USA: "One sun rose on us today." The speaker finds it necessary to remind his listeners/readers that there is only one sun, not two, just one, and it rose today. But after rising on us, it "kindled over our shores." The word "kindled" is unfortunate because its literal meaning is to ignite or start a fire, but it is supposedly a poem so we are expected to accept the meaning as illuminate.

Through the absurd misuse of personification, the speaker then has the sun moving on, "peeking over the Smokies" and then "greeting the faces / of the Great Lakes." The faces of the lakes must have opened their eyes and shouted, "Hey, it time to wake up!" The sun continues, "spreading a simple truth / across the Great Plains, before "charging across the Rockies." The reader is left wondering what that simple truth is and then gets jarred by the sun which had merely peeked over the Smokies but is now in attack mode as it charges across the Rockies.

The next absurdity occurs when the speaker claims that the sun, this "one light wak[es] up rooftops." Again, one can image the rooftops opening their eyes and proclaiming, "I have to get up, it's mornin'!". And then the speaker makes voyeurs out of us by allowing us peer through windows behind which is moving, "a story / told by our silent gestures."

Second Movement: A Whitmanesque Catalogue

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 for all of us today.

While the sun is going about its business of kindling, peeking, greeting, charging, and waking up rooftops, we the people are looking at our faces in mirrors and yawning. Now, the Whitmanesque catalogue begins with "pencil-yellow school buses, the rhythm of traffic lights," and fruit stands: "apples, limes, and oranges arrayed like rainbows / begging our praise"; no doubt the poet felt a twinge of pride as he whistled to the dog through that rainbow imagery.

Like the historically and rhetorically challenged but ever-ready to pepper his discourse with "I-this" and "I-that" president, whom he is celebrating, Blanco inserts himself into the ceremonial piece through a cataloguing of workers from truckers, to restaurant workers, to accountants, to doctors, to teachers, and to grocery clerks like his mother who "r[a]ng-up groceries . . . / for twenty years, so I could write this poem." Richard's mother worked so Richard could write this piece of inaugural doggerel. The sentimentality of such a solipsistic line is breathtakingly unserious.

Third Movement: Revising History

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 all 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.

As soon as the third movement begins, "All of us as vital as the one light we move through, / the same light on blackboards with lessons for the day," the reader can predict what is coming. The only question is how exploitative it will be. We have a hint when he says, regarding the study of history, "we question history." Unfortunately, the revisionist trend of history through the ilk of Howard Zinn does not even allow students to become acquainted with history, much less question history.

Alluding to the Newtown school shooting, the speaker refers to those dead children as being "marked absent / today and forever." Being marked absent can hardly begin to describe those children's absence. This exploitation of the dead might be the most heinous example ever scribbled. Poetically, as well as politically—because this is political verse—referring to those children this way jolts the mind and startles the heart with the absurdity that henceforth the teacher will be marking these students absent "forever."

The rest of this movement limps into stained glass windows and faces of bronze statues without purpose, without meaning. The image of mothers watching their children on playgrounds "slide into their day" is contrived, thus silly.

Fourth Movement: Self-Assertion

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.

Again, a Whitmanesque cataloguing of American workers serves as just another place for the poet to insert himself into his narrative: a nod to farmers, coal miners which gets politically corrected by planters of windmills, ditch diggers, construction workers, whose hands are "as worn as my father's cutting sugarcane / so my brother and I could have books and shoes." At least, Richard's father's work seems goal oriented, fastened to the harsh reality of material existence.

Fifth Movement: Postmodern Meaninglessness

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.

The odd image of the "dust" of farm, desert, city, and plains "being mingled by one wind—our breath" heralds the postmodern meme that meaning does not exist; therefore, meaning can be anything the scribbler says it is, and here the speaker deigns to indulge meaninglessness by juxtaposing breath and dust.

Pushing the absurdity even further, the rest of the movement commands the reader to breathe, and "hear it / through the days gorgeous din of honking cabs," etc. It is as if the scribbler has run out of things to say but needed to continue because the piece had to meet a certain length requirement.

Sixth Movement: Continued Meaninglessness

Hear: squeaky playground swings, trains whistling,
or whispers across cafe tables, Hear: the doors we open
each day for each other, 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.

The meaninglessness drones on as the speaker continues to command his readers to hear stuff such as playground swings, train whistles, people saying hello in different languages, which again serves as a prompt to insert himself into the piece: or "buenos días / in the language my mother taught me." And the speaker lets his readers know that his words break from his lips without prejudice. We have to take his word for it.

Seventh Movement: Absurd Sky Claims

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 the sky that yields to our resilience.

There is one sky and has been "since Appalachians and Sierras claimed / their majesty, and the Mississippi and Colorado worked / their way to the sea." This empty line must hope the reader fixates on the proper nouns and does not try to make a connection between their putative relationships with the sky as proclaimed here.

Then after another catalogue from steel workers to business report writers, to doctors/nurses/seamstresses, to artists, and back to construction workers who set "the last floor on the Freedom Tower / jutting into a sky that yields to our resilience." Again, an absurd claim that the sky yields to our resilience offers itself as the posturing of postmodernist drivel pretends to have significance.

Eighth Movement: The Sky and Disconnect

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.

Again, the speaker emphasizes one sky; again, unfortunately, to insert himself, this time however obliquely, into the poem. There is, however, a disconnect between the opening lines in which we all look at the sky, tired from work or to try to guess the weather. We are not necessarily looking at the sky when we give thanks for love or as the speaker is leading up to, "sometimes praising a mother / who knew how to give, or forgiving a father / who couldn't give what you wanted."

Ninth Movement: Best Image in Emptiest Vessel

We head home: through the gloss of rain or weight
of snow, or the plum blush of dusk, but always, 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.waiting for us to map it,
waiting for us to name it—together.

The best image in this piece is the "plum blush of dusk." Unfortunately, it is set in the emptiest vessel on the page, the last movement. The speaker says, "We head home." Nothing had actually taken us away from home. We did, however, crescendo into our day, and the speaker has certainly alluded to a wide variety of workers who would have left home to work, but the very specific, "we head home," seems to come out of nowhere and fastens readers to a journey on which they had not necessarily been traveling. But the real deficit of this final movement is the gratuitous aping of the statist notion of the collective.

At this point, readers realize that they have been manipulated with all the "ones," beginning with the awkward title, "One Today." Now the speaker continues to hammer away with one sky, one moon, one country. The moon becomes a drummer, "silently tapping on every rooftop / and every window." We "all of us" are "facing the stars" and "hope" becomes "a new constellation," which we will have "to map," and we will have to name it "together." The idea that everyone is acting in lock step is pleasing only to a committed statist.

Sources

© 2017 Linda Sue Grimes

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