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Inauguration 2013: Richard Blanco’s poem captures nation’s hope, unease

Inauguration 2013: Richard Blanco’s poem captures nation’s hope, unease
Richard Blanco is greeted by President Obama during the 57th presidential inauguration.
(Win McNamee / Associated Press)

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.

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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. …”

FULL COVERAGE: 57th presidential inauguration

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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.

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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.

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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

hector.tobar@latimes.com

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