Posted by Matthew Rothschild on January 22, 2013

I was impressed with the Inaugural poem by Richard Blanco. In “One Today,” he stressed what unites us a nation, starting with the “one sun” rising at dawn to its setting in the “plum blush of dusk,” describing the “one ground” we live on, the “one wind” in the air, the “one sky” above us, and the “one moon/like a silent drum tapping on every rooftop/and every window, of one country.”

This is the unum of e pluribus, so fitting for the occasion.

But what moved me beyond the appropriate and the poetic was Blanco’s insertion of the personal.

In his description of the dignity of work people do “to clean tables, read ledgers, or save lives--/to teach geometry,” he added: “or ring up groceries as my mother did for twenty years, so I could write this poem.” Two stanzas later, describing the hands of hardworking people, he added: “hands as worn as my father’s cutting sugarcane/so my brother and I could have books and shoes.”

This brought home the reality of striving and sacrificing that so many Americans experience.

And then, in a touching moment, he brought his parents back toward the end: “praising a mother/who knew how to give, or forgiving a father/who couldn’t give what you wanted.” (He also waved at “a love that loves you back,” which was a delicate reference to his being gay.)

There was another touching moment, but it may have gone too far. And that was when he invoked the victims of Sandy Hook elementary, citing “the empty desks of twenty children marked absent/today, and forever.” It was a jarring reminder of that awful tragedy, and it pinned the poem so closely to this one event that it jeopardized the spirit and the durability of the poem. Also, the expression “marked absent” often carries a negative connotation toward the pupil who is absent, which he obviously didn’t want here.

One other captious note: When he said, “Breathe,” and elongated his expression, I though he brought unnecessary attention to a meditation practice, and for those unfamiliar with it, the expression might have seemed odd.

I did love, though, his flash of beauty when, after describing cabs and buses and subways, he spied “the unexpected song bird on your clothes line.”

And I loved his ending, with all of us heading home after the hard day’s work:

“facing the stars/hope—a new constellation/waiting for us to map it,/ waiting for us to name it—together.”

The reintroduction of Pres. Obama’s initial theme of “hope,” mingling with the echo of Adrienne Rich’s insistence that we map our own new world, was stellar in its own right.

If you liked this story by Matthew Rothschild, the editor of The Progressive magazine, check out his story “Obama in the Shadow of Martin Luther King."

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