Best known for being one of only five poets to compose and read a poem for an American president's inauguration — One Today — Richard Blanco has had three books published within the year by University of Pittsburgh Press, including another slender volume, an ode to Boston after the Boston Marathon tragedy entitled Boston Strong. The two poems commemorating large occasions are like orations honoring certain admirable qualities of character. Boston Strong reveres the resilience of the city in the wake of the terrorist attack; One Today celebrates the diversity and majesty of the nation. Both are admirable poems but not so controversial, and why would they be? They are ultimately meant to be triumphant.
But the poems in Looking for the Gulf Motel are much more personal though no less universal, dealing with themes of identity, love, family and the effects of time on all of the above – heartbreak and loss. Indeed, the eponymous poem, which serves as a sort of preface to the entire volume, a memory of family vacations to Marco Island on Florida's west coast, concludes with the lines:
I want to find the Gulf Motel exactly as it was
and pretend for a moment, nothing lost is lost.
An openly gay Latino, born in Spain to Cuban émigrés only to move to New York and then Miami shortly afterward, Blanco tackles the complexity of identity issues from a keenly personal point of view. The poems in Looking for the Gulf Motel are separated into three sections that address the nuances of identity in different ways. In the first section, poems deal with his identity as an American from a Latino background. "The Name I Wanted" ("Richard" as distinct from "Ricardo") is a poignant meditation on finding one's self amid the pressures of family and culture, both solidly Latino. Similarly, "Betting on America" is a hilarious take on his family watching the Miss America pageant, picking the winner as if at a racetrack betting on horses. Miss Wisconsin, Miss Wyoming, Miss Alabama all get their odds and handicaps from various family members. At the end, after Miss Ohio is crowned, and Bert Parks leads her down the runway, the family implicitly celebrates along with the rest of America,
though no one bet on her, and none of us
— not even me — could answer Mamá
when she asked: ¿Dónde está Ohio?
"Cousin Consuelo, on Piano" and "Taking My Cousin's Photo at the Statue of Liberty" and others in this section enlarge upon the confusion of cultural identity. Almost summing this up, "Of consequence, Inconsequently" concludes:
The countries I would've lost or betrayed,
the names that would've been my names —
I'd like to believe I've will every detail
of my life, but I'm a consequence, a drop
of rain, a seed fallen by chance, here
in the middle of a story I don't know,
having to finish it and call it my own.
The poems in the second section deal with being gay, the confusion of identity this involves growing up, in the context of a Latino family, but it could probably be any family, the expectations of being male. "Playing House with Pepin" and "Afternoons as Endora" (the magical mother-in-law in the television show Bewitched, played by Agnes Moorehead) deal with a gay child's imaginative life in a conventionally straight household. "Queer Theory: According to My Grandmother" also addresses the family's beliefs and anticipations for the male child. "Love as if Love" recounts an attempt at a heterosexual relationship, concluding with the line: "loving her as if I could love her."
Other poems tell stories of tentative, failed relationships with other men, but by the end of the section Blanco is writing poems of love for his partner, Mark, with whom he has lived in Maine for more than a decade.
The poems in the third section are a bit more outwardly directed, in dealing with family members, mainly his mother, but they implicitly address the responsibilities and heartaches of being a son, a nephew, a cousin, particularly as we watch those we love grow old and feeble. Remember that line that concludes "Looking for the Gulf Motel"? "...pretend for a moment, nothing lost is lost." Pushing fifty now, Blanco is witnessing the passing of the older generation. Babyboomers have all been there and can relate. "Venus in Miami Beach," about his mother, begins with the stunning opening stanza:
What calls her to the sea? She rises, steps
toward the shore with the temperament
of a bride, her shadow a long train pulled
across the sand behind her, parting a flock
of seagulls screeching away into the wind.
But the poet's heart breaks, contemplating his mother. She is vulnerable, fragile.
Once, as gorgeous as her name — Geysa —
once a girl chasing fireflies who hadn't lost
her home and country, sisters and husband,
once a mother who watched me as I watch
her now, afraid of her alone with the sea.
Other poems in the section express similar concerns —"Remembering what Tia Noelia Can't," "Unspoken Elegy for Tia Cucha" and others — and seem to provide an answer to the concluding question of the section's first poem, "Birthday Portrait," in which the poet is contemplating a framed photo in his mother's living room taken years ago at a department store studio, the question it seems to be posing him and that "I"
still don't know what to answer myself
every time I look into my eyes, hanging
in my mother's living room asking me:
Why have you been sad all your life?
Let me count the ways, eh? But the collection as a whole concludes with several more philosophical mediations on the circularity of existence and our place in it — "Place of Mind," "Some Days the Sea," "Some Unfinished."
The main thing about Blanco's poems is how lyrical his voice is and how universal his themes, how easily we can relate to his concerns, how access bile his verse.