When I was a child, my grandmother and I would sit on the shore during our summer vacation in Miami Beach. On the wet, grainy sand, amidst sharp–edged shells and seaweed, we couldn't help but look out to the horizon. The waves washed over us, tugging with their retreat as if to pull us into the sea.
In Richard Blanco's poem "Matters of the Sea," the Straits of Florida literally and metaphorically join and divide, confound and comfort. Commissioned by the U.S. State Department for the occasion of the reopening of the United States embassy in Havana, the poem begins, "The sea doesn't matter," for what we share, he says, is bigger than the water between us: "we all belong to the sea." It is the shared equity that connects us. We are all, to borrow a short story title from Edwidge Danticat, children of the sea.
Many years ago, I wrote a poem about those moments with my grandmother called "Healing Waters," and later a chapbook of poems, Passage to America, about my Cuban family's immigrant experience, from my parents meeting on the beach in Miramar to their separate journeys out of their island country. The poems continually return to that stretch of water between Cuba and the U.S., those "ninety miles of ocean" Blanco in the preface to the chapbook containing "Matters of the Sea" tells us "might as well be nine–thousand miles." For that is what it has felt like for over fifty years to several generations of Cubans, Cuban Americans, or as Blanco calls himself, Americubans.
As with so many conversations among generations of Cubans, in the poem the unspoken is left out—and ever present. What happened on the level of families and lives growing and struggling, Blanco shows, has been something of a parallel universe, whether "planting maple or mango trees / that outlived them" or "mothers teaching us how to read in Spanish / or English." He writes that he and his cousins in Cuba, all of us, scout
... the same stars
above skyscrapers or palms, waiting for time
to stop and begin again when rain falls, washes
its way through river or street, back to the sea.
With these words—sea, stars, rain—Blanco appeals to our shared yearnings and experiences, to our shared values as people. Despite borders and oceans, we have a shared humanity.
Blanco's voice is both truth-teller and scribe—"we've all walked / barefoot and bare-souled among the soar and dive / of seagull cries," the anguish of loss and displacement. The insistence of his all-inclusive "we" reminds us we all hold "our memories / and regrets like stones in our hands we can't toss." They are ours, what we hold on to, part of who we are now, yet, he reminds us, we have only to "listen / again to the echo—the sea."
Over a century and a half ago, Matthew Arnold also reminded us in "Dover Beach" that "Sophocles long ago / Heard it on the Aegean" and "we / Find also in the sound a thought." It is of the Caribbean, Blanco writes, "the sea still telling us the end / to our doubts and fears is to gaze into the lucid blues of our shared horizon." Only if we "breathe together," what Blanco's beautiful words, line by line, allow us to do, will we "heal together."