Monday, January 21, 2013

The poetry of the inauguration


This was the big day in Washington, the day that the Republican Party had devoted itself heart and soul for the last four years to prevent. It was the day of Barack Hussein Obama's second inauguration as president

These events are always inspiring and are full of pomp and circumstance, but occasionally they do reach the level of poetry. Perhaps I am prejudiced but I thought today's event did and not just when the poet Richard Blanco came to read the poem he had written for the day. Throughout the ceremony, at least the parts that I saw, it seemed to me that this inauguration had a poetic grandeur, and the president's speech matched that sense of poetry.

I was happy to hear him refer to some concrete policy issues in the speech and not just in the typical airy fairy pie-in-the-sky kind of way of these kinds of speeches. He spoke about the need to further enhance equality for all citizens, about the need to make sure that children are safe and that they have what they need to prepare fore the future. But he also addressed the fact that citizens in some states in this country had to stand in line for six to eight hours to vote in November's election. That is unconscionable and he said we must fix it. He is also the first president, in my memory at least, to actually mention addressing climate change in his inaugural address. And all of this he tied together with the progressive march of American history toward perfecting itself and living up to the ideals expressed in its Constitution. I thought it was a terrific speech.

And speaking of poetry, I really liked Richard Blanco's poem. I don't know that it rises to the level of great and memorable poetry, but I thought it was perfect for the moment.

One Today
by Richard Blanco

One sun rose on us today, kindled over our shores,
peeking over the Smokies, greeting the faces
of the Great Lakes, spreading a simple truth
across the Great Plains, then charging across the Rockies.
One light, waking up rooftops, under each one, a story
told by our silent gestures moving behind windows.

My face, your face, millions of faces in morning’s mirrors,
each one yawning to life, crescendoing into our day:
pencil-yellow school buses, the rhythm of traffic lights,
fruit stands: apples, limes, and oranges arrayed like rainbows
begging our praise. Silver trucks heavy with oil or paper -- bricks or milk, teeming over highways alongside us,
on our way to clean tables, read ledgers, or save lives -- to teach geometry, or ring up groceries as my mother did
for twenty years, so I could write this poem.

All of us as vital as the one light we move through,
the same light on blackboards with lessons for the day:
equations to solve, history to question, or atoms imagined,
the “I have a dream” we keep dreaming,
or the impossible vocabulary of sorrow that won’t explain
the empty desks of twenty children marked absent
today, and forever. Many prayers, but one light
breathing color into stained glass windows,
life into the faces of bronze statues, warmth
onto the steps of our museums and park benches 
as mothers watch children slide into the day.

One ground. Our ground, rooting us to every stalk
of corn, every head of wheat sown by sweat
and hands, hands gleaning coal or planting windmills
in deserts and hilltops that keep us warm, hands
digging trenches, routing pipes and cables, hands
as worn as my father’s cutting sugarcane
so my brother and I could have books and shoes.

The dust of farms and deserts, cities and plains
mingled by one wind -- our breath. Breathe. Hear it
through the day’s gorgeous din of honking cabs,
buses launching down avenues, the symphony
of footsteps, guitars, and screeching subways,
the unexpected song bird on your clothes line.

Hear: squeaky playground swings, trains whistling,
or whispers across cafe tables, Hear: the doors we open
for each other all day, saying: hello, shalom,
buon giorno, howdy, namaste, or buenos días
in the language my mother taught me -- in every language
spoken into one wind carrying our lives
without prejudice, as these words break from my lips.

One sky: since the Appalachians and Sierras claimed
their majesty, and the Mississippi and Colorado worked
their way to the sea. Thank the work of our hands:
weaving steel into bridges, finishing one more report
for the boss on time, stitching another wound 
or uniform, the first brush stroke on a portrait,
or the last floor on the Freedom Tower
jutting into a sky that yields to our resilience.

One sky, toward which we sometimes lift our eyes
tired from work: some days guessing at the weather
of our lives, some days giving thanks for a love
that loves you back, sometimes praising a mother
who knew how to give, or forgiving a father
who couldn’t give what you wanted.

We head home: through the gloss of rain or weight
of snow, or the plum blush of dusk, but always -- home,
always under one sky, our sky. And always one moon
like a silent drum tapping on every rooftop
and every window, of one country -- all of us --
facing the stars
hope -- a new constellation
waiting for us to map it,
waiting for us to name it -- together.

One sun, one moon, one planet, one country and one people who will rise or fall together. It is a noble sentiment, well-expressed by Blanco and by the president in his speech, and, call me a dreamer, but I hope it carries not only this "one today" but the next four years. 

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