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."

Follow Matthew Rothschild @mattrothschild on Twitter.

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By Wendell Berry

Manifesto: The Mad Farmer Liberation Front

Love the quick profit, the annual raise,
vacation with pay. Want more 
of everything ready made. Be afraid 
to know your neighbors and to die.
And you will have a window in your head.
Not even your future will be a mystery 
any more. Your mind will be punched in a card 
and shut away in a little drawer.
When they want you to buy something 
they will call you. When they want you
to die for profit they will let you know. 
So, friends, every day do something
that won’t compute. Love the Lord. 
Love the world. Work for nothing. 
Take all that you have and be poor.
Love someone who does not deserve it. 
Denounce the government and embrace 
the flag. Hope to live in that free 
republic for which it stands. 
Give your approval to all you cannot
understand. Praise ignorance, for what man 
has not encountered he has not destroyed.
Ask the questions that have no answers. 
Invest in the millennium. Plant sequoias.
Say that your main crop is the forest
that you did not plant,
that you will not live to harvest.


Say that the leaves are harvested 
when they have rotted into the mold.
Call that profit. Prophesy such returns.
Put your faith in the two inches of humus 
that will build under the trees
every thousand years.
Listen to carrion—put your ear
close, and hear the faint chattering
of the songs that are to come. 
Expect the end of the world. Laugh. 
Laughter is immeasurable. Be joyful
though you have considered all the facts. 
So long as women do not go cheap 
for power, please women more than men.
Ask yourself: Will this satisfy 
a woman satisfied to bear a child?
Will this disturb the sleep 
of a woman near to giving birth? 
Go with your love to the fields.
Lie easy in the shade. Rest your head 
in her lap. Swear allegiance 
to what is nighest your thoughts.
As soon as the generals and the politicos 
can predict the motions of your mind, 
lose it. Leave it as a sign 
to mark the false trail, the way 
you didn’t go. Be like the fox 
who makes more tracks than necessary, 
some in the wrong direction.
Practice resurrection.

Wendell Berry is a poet, farmer, and environmentalist in Kentucky. This poem, first published in 1973, is reprinted by permission of the author and appears in his “New Collected Poems” (Counterpoint).


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