Richard Blanco's "One Today"
Introduction: Deconstructing a Piece of Inaugural Doggerel
Richard Blanco read his piece, "One Today," at the second inauguration of Barack Obama, January 21, 2013.
Blanco is the first Latino, first openly gay, and youngest poet to read his composition at an inauguration, which is either an eerie coincidence or a political expediency as the Obama administration and the Democratic Party continue to pander for votes to those three demographics.
The piece serves as a proper vehicle for celebrating this regime; it is technically flawed with poor word choices and tired talking points, while its theme of unity is as facile as well as disingenuous as the Obama administration itself.
The Guardian's Carol Rumens has correctly identified the doggerel infested piece as a "valiant flop." One might only argue with the term "valiant."
Blanco reading his piece, "One Today"
First Versagraph: "One sun rose on us today, kindled over our shores"
The opening versagraph 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.
The sun moves 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] ups rooftops." Again, one can image the rooftops opening their eyes and proclaiming, I have to get up, it's morning.
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 Versagraph: "My face, your face, millions of faces in morning's mirrors"
While the sun is going about its business of kindling, peeking, greeting, charging, and waking up rooftops, we the people are looking at our mugs 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"—hear the dog whistle in that rainbow imagery?
Like the historically and rhetorically challenged but ever ready to pepper his discourse with I-this and I-that president, Blanco inserts himself into the ceremonial piece through a cataloguing of workers from truckers, to restaurant works, 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 insincere.
Third Versagraph: "All of us as vital as the one light we move through"
As soon as the third versagraph 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 Howard Zinn-ization of history doesn't allow students to even know 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. Poetically, as well as politically, because this is political verse, referring to them 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 versagraph 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 Versagraph: "One ground. Our ground, rooting us to every stalk"
Again, a Whitmanesque cataloguing of American workers serves as just another place to insert himself Obamaesque 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 Versagraph: "The dust of farms and deserts, cities and plains"
The odd image of farm, desert, city, and plains "dust 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 versagraph commands the reader to breathe, and "hear it / through the days gorgeous din of honking cabs," etc.
It's as if the scribbler has run out of things to say but needed to continue because the piece had to meet certain length requirements.
Sixth Versagraph: "Hear: squeaky playground swings, trains whistling"
The meaninglessness continues as the speaker continues to command his readers to continue 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 dias / 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 Versagraph: "One sky: since the Appalachians and Sierras claimed"
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 that passes for poetry.
Eighth Versagraph: "One sky, toward which we sometimes lift our eyes"
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 Versagraph: "We head home: through the gloss of rain or weight"
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 versagraph.
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 versagraph is the gratuitous aping of the Obamic 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—a perfect piece of political propaganda for the most statist administration in the history of the United States of America.
© 2017 Linda Sue Grimes