Richard Blanco, who lives in Bethel with his husband, to whom he has dedicated his new book, is most famous for reading his poem “One Today” at President Obama’s second inauguration in 2013.

Blanco writes poems for public occasions, as well as public tragedies such as the Pulse nightclub shooting, but also personal lyrics “about the poundingness of love,” in the words of poet Eileen Myles. One of his primary goals is to demystify the writing of poetry, especially for the young, both of which – and more – are evident in the collection of new and old poems released last fall that make up “Homeland of My Body.”

Blanco was born in Madrid to parents fleeing Cuba; they eventually settled in Miami. A sense of flux surrounded by the cocoon of his family naturally fills Blanco’s work. His father, who hacked sugarcane with a machete in the fields of Cuba and then in the United States worked in a “brick factory, where he learned to polish/steel twelve hours a day,” was affectionate but reserved.

His mother was warm and protective. “Homeland of My Body” offers more poems about her. The poems about his father are as moving, though, perhaps more so because they are fewer. In one poem, “The Splintering,” his mother plucks mango tree splinters from his small hands, causing him to lose his original oneness with things and “splinter” into the other reality of himself and the world. In “Mother Picking Produce,” Blanco’s mother picks oranges, avocadoes and apples “with the same instinct and skill,” with which back “in the folklore of her childhood,” she picked fruit “from the very tree,” and pulled “wiry roots … out of the very ground.”

And then there was his abuela, his fiery grandmother who, knowing him perhaps better than anyone, saw that her grandson was gay and, to say the least, did not like it. In the hilarious and sad poem, “Queer Theory: According to my Grandmother,” she speaks out loud, with both harshness and unintentional humor, what no one wants to know.

“Stop eyeing your mother’s Avon catalog,/ and the men’s underwear in those Sears flyers./ I’ve seen you … Don’t draw rainbows or flowers or sunsets./ I’ve seen you … And for God’s sake never pee sitting down/ I’ve seen you … Don’t stare at The Six-Million Dollar Man./ I’ve seen you …”


She sees, him and that seeing is an act of love and proclamation, but it echoes the cries of “faggot” that pursued Blanco down the hallways of his schools.

Beyond his struggle with – and final embrace of – his sexuality, chronicled in poems about former lovers and his husband, Blanco wrestles with his cultural identity.

In “American Wandersong,” written in a Whitmanesque form, Blanco says, “yet I belonged nowhere/ and to no one, unable to love even myself or let my self be loved.” He does love America, he finally understands, though not, as he shows in many poems, unreservedly as do many of his Cuban brethren. America is “the only country/I know enough to know how to sing for.”

This combined sense of exile and at the same time belonging, as the book progresses, opens up to an acceptance of spirituality in a broad sense. Such poems as “Himeni,” based on the Hebrew phrase, “Here I am,” call upon, “God of this sunset’s tangerine eye burning holy/between eyelids of sky and sea … what would you/have me do with the rest of this/undone life of mine/– here as I am?” And in “Writing Home,” he wonders if his “ultimate/home is ultimately some wordless place.”

Meanwhile, in Maine, Blanco says, in “Thicker Than Country,” that he’s mostly “happy with hemlocks and birches/towering over the house, their shadows/like sundials, the cool breeze blowing/even in the summer.” And that he understands, “why the mountains here/are enough, white with snow or green/with palms, mountains are mountains,/but love is thicker than any country.”

Finally, as the book title suggests, Blanco celebrates “this constant homeland of my body,/wherein all my homelands reside at once, as/they will do, until my body’s memory/disappears into the dust of my own dust.”

This selection of poems old and new is the perfect introduction to a poet who writes with a style and manner approaching the control of Frost and the breadth of Whitman. Blanco has grown into, as Emerson wrote, “the fairest fortune that can befall a man … to be guided by his daemon to that which is truly his own.”

Frank Freeman is a poet and book reviewer who writes from Saco.

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