Inauguration 2013: Richard Blanco's poem captures nation's hope, unease
By Hector Tobar
10:55 AM PST, January 21, 2013
In about 550 words, Richard Blanco’s inaugural poem created a metaphorical country and took it through the journey of a metaphorical day.
“One Today” was an intimate and sweeping celebration of our shared, single identity as a people, and Blanco recited it in a voice that was both confident and tenderly soft-spoken.
Blanco built his poem on a foundation of the concrete and the everyday. He began with people going to work and school in “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…” And then he placed these ordinary people in a recognizably American landscape of “one ground. Our ground, rooting us to every stalk of corn, every head of wheat sown by sweat and hands. …”
It was a masterfully polished, disciplined and heartfelt response to the task Blanco faced: crafting a poem that not only commemorated the civic ritual for which it was commissioned, but that also captured the collective hope and unease of our shared national experience. Blanco invoked the tragedy in Newtown (“the empty desks of 20 children marked absent today, and forever”) and also his own Cuban-immigrant family, describing those who go to work “… to teach geometry, or ring up groceries, as my mother did for 20 years, so I could write this poem.”
And finally, Blanco closed the circle of the poem’s central metaphor wonderfully and simply. His poem began with a sunrise, and it ended with the moon and the stars filling “one sky, toward which we sometimes lift our eyes. …”
One expects the reviews of Obama’s speech will be as varied as the political opinions of those who heard it. To this ear, it often drifted into territory that might have been more appropriate to the State of a Union address he has to deliver next month. But Blanco’s poem was a reminder of why so many presidents have resisted the idea of having an inaugural poem — the fear that the professional wordsmith’s lines will somehow outshine the politician’s.
The full text of "One Today," as provided by the inaugural committee:
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 20 years, so I could write this poem.
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 20 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 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.
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