Richard Blanco

Richard Blanco is a poet whose cultural heritage and professional interests epitomize diversity. According to his website Blanco “was made in Cuba, assembled in Spain, and imported to the United States-meaning his mother, seven months pregnant, and the rest of the family arrived as exiles from Cienfuegos, Cuba to Madrid, where he was born.” The family then immigrated to New York, and Blanco eventually ended up in Miami, where he still resides. Blanco is trained as an engineer and a poet, and he has also been known to design furniture, play the bongos, and take underwater photographs.

Blanco’s first book, City of a Hundred Fires, won the University of Pittsburgh Agnes Starrett Prize in 1997. City of a Hundred Fires has garnered much praise for its lyricism and its vivid portrayal of Cuban-American life. According to Campbell McGrath, it is “one of the most exciting first books of the decade.” Sandra Cisneros writes, “What a delicia these poems are, sad, tender, and filled with longing. Like an old photograph, a saint’s statue worn away by the devout, a bolero on the radio on a night full of rain. Me emocionan. There is no other way to say it. They emotion me.”

Richard Blanco lives in Miami, where he works as an engineer and oversees local literary events and programs.

Poetry Center Reading:

Fall 2001 (with Martin Espada)

Photo Shop

These faces are fifteen under faux diamond tiaras
and grandmother’s smuggled brillantes;
these faces are pierced with the mango smiles
that dress hopeful Teresitas and Marías-
quinceañeras with coffee bean eyes;
these pearl faces are mother’s taffeta dream,
a decorated anguish in painful pink manicures.
These young faces can’t remember that last day-
the innocence of their small steps into the propeller
plane drifting above palms waving elegant farewells.
These barefoot faces are those red mountains
never climbed, a Caribbean never drunk,
they are a guajiro sugar never tasted.
These faces are displaced Miritas and Susanitas.
These faces are a 50s revolution
they are the Beatles and battles,
they are Celia Cruz-AZUCAR-loud and brown;
these faces rock-n-roll and roll their r’s,
they are eery botánicas and 7-Elevens.
These fiery faces are rifles and bongos,
they are maracas shaking, machetes hacking;
these faces carry too many names:
their white eyes are toppling dominoes
their glossy eyes are rum and iced tea
their African eyes are gods and Castilian saints
haloed with the finest tabaco smoke.
These faces rest an entire ocean on Taino eyebrows;
they are Kennedy, Batista, and Nixon,
they are a dragon in uniform;
these faces are singing two anthems,
nailed against walls, the walls are chipping.
These overflowing faces are swollen barrels
with rusting hoops and corset seams straining;
these faces are beans: black, red, white and blue,
with steaming rice on chipped china;
these faces are pork fat and lace gowns.
These standing faces are a sentinel-
when the Vietnamese kitchen next door stops
when the alley veils itself and closes like a fresh widow
when the flower shop draws in buckets of red carnations
when gold and diamonds are pulled from late windows
when neon flashes relieve the sun over these fading faces.
These chromatic faces are nothing important,
they are nada we need to understand,
they will transform in their photo chemistry,
these faces will collage very Americanly.

From CITY OF A HUNDRED FIRES (University of Pittsburgh Press, 1998)

Shaving

I am not shaving, I’m writing about it.
And I conjure the most elaborate idea—
how my beard is a creation of silent labor
like ocean steam rising to form clouds,
or the bloom of spiderwebs each morning;
the discrete mystery of how whiskers grow,
like the drink roses take from the vase,
or the fall of fresh rain, becoming
a river, and then rain again, so silently.
I think of all these slow and silent forces
and how quietly my father’s life passed us by.

I think of those mornings, when I am shaving,
and remember him in a masquerade of foam, then,
as if it was his beard I took the blade to,
the memory of him in tiny snips of black whiskers
swirling in the drain—dead pieces of the self
from the face that never taught me how to shave.
His legacy of whiskers that grow like black seeds
sown over my cheek and chin, my own flesh.

I am not shaving, but I will tell you about the mornings
with a full beard and the blade in my hand,
when my eyes don’t recognize themselves
in a mirror echoed with a hundred faces
I have washed and shaved—it is in that split second,
when perhaps the roses drink and the clouds form,
when perhaps the spider spins and rain transforms,
that I most understand the invisibility of life
and the intensity of vanishing, like steam
at the slick edges of the mirror, without a trace.

From CITY OF A HUNDRED FIRES (University of Pittsburgh Press, 1998)

Tía Olivia Serves Wallace Stevens a Cuban Egg

The ration books voided, there was little to eat,
so Tía Olivia ruffled four hens to serve Stevens
a fresh criollo egg. The singular image lay limp,
floating in a circle of miniature roses and vines
etched around the edges of the rough dish.
The saffron, inhuman soul staring at Stevens
who asks what yolk is this, so odd a yellow?

Tell me Señora, if you know, he petitions,
what exactly is the color of this temptation:
I can see a sun, but it is not the color of suns
nor of sunflowers, nor the yellows of Van Gogh,
it is neither corn nor school pencil, as it is,
so few things are yellow, this, even more precise.

He shakes some salt, eye to eye hypothesizing:
a carnival of hues under the gossamer membrane,
a liqueur of convoluted colors, quarter-part orange,
imbued shadows, watercolors running a song
down the spine of praying stems, but what, then,
of the color of the stems, what green for the leaves,
what color the flowers; what of order for our eyes
if I can not name this elusive yellow, Señora?

Intolerant, Tía Olivia bursts open Stevens’s yolk,
plunging into it with a sharp piece of Cuban toast:
It is yellow, she says, amarillo y nada más, bien?
The unleashed pigments begin to fill the plate,
overflow onto the embroidered place mats,
stream down the table and through the living room
setting all the rocking chairs in motion then
over the mill tracks cutting through cane fields,
a viscous mass downing palm trees and shacks.

In its frothy wake whole choirs of church ladies
clutch their rosary beads and sing out in Latin,
exhausted macheteros wade in the stream,
holding glinting machetes overhead with one arm;
cafeteras, ’57 Chevys, uniforms and empty bottles,
mangy dogs and fattened pigs saved from slaughter,
Soviet jeeps, Bohemia magazines, park benches,
all carried in the egg lava carving the molested valley
and emptying into the sea. Yellow, Stevens relents,
Yes. But then what the color of the sea, Señora?

From CITY OF A HUNDRED FIRES (University of Pittsburgh Press, 1998)