Richard Blanco - poems

Jacob Bond Hessler - photographs

Complaint of The Rio Grande

for Aylin Barbieri

I was meant for all things to meet:

to make the clouds pause in the mirror

of my waters, to be home to fallen rain

that finds its way to me, to turn eons

of loveless rock into lovesick pebbles

and carry them as humble gifts back

to the sea that brings life back to me. 

I felt the sun flare, praised each star

flocked about the moon long before

you did. I’ve breathed air you’ll never

breathe, listened to songbirds before

you could speak their names, before

you dug your oars in me, before you

created the gods that created you. 

Then countries, your invention, maps

jigsawing the world into colored shapes

caged in bold lines to say: you’re here,

not there, you’re this, not that, to say

yellow isn’t red, red isn’t black, black is

not white, to say mine, not ours, to say

war, and believe life’s worth is relative. 

You named me big river, drew me blue,

thick to divide, to say: spic and Yankee,

to say: wetback and gringo. You split me

in two—half of me us, the rest them, but

I wasn’t meant to drown children, hear

mothers’ cries, never meant to be your

geography: a line, a border, or murderer. 

I was meant for all things to meet:

the mirrored clouds and sun’s tingle,

birdsongs and the quiet moon, the wind

and its dust, the rush of mountain rain—

and us. Blood that runs in you is water

flowing in me, both life, the truth we

know we know: be one in one another. 

Rio Grande River

Letter from Yi Cheung

(Angel Island Immigration Station, 1938)

Beautiful and Respected Father: 

     When I saw you last, rain blessed

the ground orchids, all of Chung Lau

crowded your good face with goodbyes.

You took the long road to Hoi-Ping

to the sea—to America. I was young

as the kapok blooms but did not cry

for you gone. Remember? I cried joy

for the dream you sought for you,

and for me to know someday too. 

     Twice in age and height now, hair

braided no more, I crossed the seas

you crossed. I am here, so near you,

father, on this island called Angel, but

with no wings to fly me across the bay

between us, with no bridge to your city,

like the glowing bridge I sometimes see

when the fog clears, and I imagine you:

clinging to street cars, tending the soiled

clothes of strangers, thinking of mama

dying without you. But the fog returns

—everything disappears, even hope.

 

     How to say this, father: every day

they take me into a room of cold chairs

and blue eyes. They demand I remember

the streets of my childhood, the names

of our village neighbors, their children,

the colors of their houses. Sometimes

I forget. Sometimes I lie. Sometimes

I answer right, but they do not believe

I am your daughter, even when I speak

your full, honorable name or swear

I know the heart-shape of your face

is like mine. They do not yet let me go. 

     Months of bitter nights in barracks,

I make myself sleep by counting stars

I no longer see, turning my harsh sighs

into lullabies you once sang like chimes.

I try not to think of the pigeons trapped

and eaten by the men, or the old woman

whose name I knew, when she hanged

herself from her bedsheets in the hall.

I shy from the poems on the walls carved

by some who curse this place, this land,

and its people. I may understand why. 

     But those words never are mine—

nothing can stop our sun, our moon,

our tides and seasons, nor what I have

dreamed in you, and you in me. Our life t

rue against hardship, more now as I wish

to be where you are, as you are. But soon

I will have my wings, the fog will forever

clear, your gracious gaze will bless me,

your hand to hold mine, brush my face

like a feather. I will hear your voice call

me to my destiny by the beautiful name

you gave me, meaning: joy, harmony. 

view from Angel Island, California

What We Didn't Know About Cuba

for Emilio

 

Just a hired driver—or so Rita and I thought, his Cuban-American tourists for the day—

as we drove off from our sea-scoured hotel

in Havana, east to Matanzas, a town known

for great poets, but named after a massacre,

he said, offering us water and mints, looking

at us through the rearview mirror of his dinged but freshly waxed sedan. The seats faded but spotless, a cracked windshield but immaculate dashboard. San Lazaro’s sacred but sad eyes watching from a prayer card tucked in the visor. 

A real macho cubano, tall in his seat and stiff

as his starched guayabera, his eyes hidden

by aviator sunglasses. He spoke only to ask if

we were hungry or needed a restroom, only

gave one-word answers to our questions: Are you married? [Sí] Any children? [Sí] Any family in Miami? [No] Would you leave Cuba? [Sí]. Much like Rita’s father and my own, a man

we’d never quite know—or so it seemed. 

We turned our attention, began speaking to ourselves in English, believing he only spoke Spanish. As he kept his eyes on the road, we

kept talking about building cultural bridges to and from Cuba, wanting to mend it, ourselves. As he hugged the curves along the coast, we clung to our ideas about the power of poetry

to create dialog and shape the island’s future.

We chatted mile after mile to Matanzas where,

as planned, we spent the day at an art gallery sharing poems about our hopes, our losses.

 

Praised by applause, pleased with ourselves,

we strolled back to the car where he’d waited, sleeping all afternoon. We had asked him to

join us, but he refused. Minutes after we left Matanzas, he pulled over near a cliff edging

the azure waters of a cove. Personal, he said,

and stepped out with his cell phone in hand.

He returned, sighed into his seat, grabbed

San Lazaro and ripped him in half. He tore

his sunglasses off, pinched his eyes—two

hazel stars exploded with sudden tears. 

Everything—the seagulls, the palm trees,

their shadows, the sunset, its rusty clouds,

the waves, the wind, and our next breath— stopped—until he breathed again—yelled

in broken English at the broken windshield:

She gone—left us like nothing! She, his wife, mother of his son. She, adrift on a raft hoping

for Florida. Her vow of for better or worse ...broken like my damn country! Why? he asked, a rhetorical question, we thought—but no—

it was meant for us: Why you don’t write

a damn poem about this? Why? he repeated

to us, to the sea, to the horizon, to her ghost already dawning in dusk’s far, fleeting light. 

Hallandale Beach, Florida - Where many Cuban refugees make landfall in the U.S.

From How to Love a Country: Poems by Richard Blanco
Copyright © 2019 by Richard Blanco
Reprinted by permission of Beacon Press, Boston

Richard Blanco

Selected by President Obama as the fifth inaugural poet in U.S. history, Richard Blanco is the youngest and the first Latino, immigrant, and gay person to serve in such a role. Born in Madrid to Cuban exile parents and raised in Miami, the negotiation of cultural identity characterizes his four collections of poetry: How To Love a Country, City of a Hundred Fires, which received the Agnes Starrett Poetry Prize from the University of Pittsburgh Press; Directions to The Beach of the Dead, recipient of the Beyond Margins Award from the PEN American Center; and Looking for The Gulf Motel, recipient of the Paterson Poetry Prize and the Thom Gunn Award. He has also authored the memoirs For All of Us, One Today: An Inaugural Poet’s Journey and The Prince of Los Cocuyos: A Miami Childhood, winner of a Lambda Literary Award. His inaugural poem “One Today” was published as a children’s book, in collaboration with renowned illustrator Dav Pilkey. Boundaries, a collaboration with photographer Jacob Hessler, challenges the physical and psychological dividing lines that shadow the United States. And his latest book of poems, How to Love a Country, both interrogates the American narrative, past and present, and celebrates the still unkept promise of its ideals. Blanco has written occasional poems for the re-opening of the U.S. Embassy in Cuba, Freedom to Marry, the Tech Awards of Silicon Valley, and the Boston Strong benefit concert following the Boston Marathon bombings. He is a Woodrow Wilson Fellow and has received numerous honorary doctorates. He has taught at Georgetown University, American University, and Wesleyan University. He serves as the first Education Ambassador for The Academy of American Poets.

Jacob Bond Hessler is a contemporary fine art photographer, known for his expansive and meditative landscapes. Hessler’s work has explored rising seas, industrialized farming, borders and boundaries, invasive species, extinction, and more broadly, mankind's relationship with, and impact on, the natural world. His keen eye and use of scale connects viewers with the vastness of the human experience.

Hessler is a graduate of the Brooks Institute of Photography in Santa Barbara, and pursued his master’s degree in graphic design at Parsons, The New School for Design. He worked in New York as a commercial photographer and art director from 2006-2011.

In 2011, Hessler left New York and moved back to his childhood hometown in Mid Coast, Maine to focus on his fine art landscape photography.

In 2017, Hessler released Boundaries, a limited-edition fine-press book of photographs and poetry in collaboration with 2013 presidential inaugural poet Richard Blanco (Two Ponds Press). The original photographs and poems from Boundaries have been exhibited at Coral Gables Museum, Center for Maine Contemporary Art, and the Ogunquit Museum of American Art. He is a represented artist at Dowling Walsh Gallery in Rockland Maine, Corey Daniels Gallery in Wells Maine and Soapbox Arts in Burlington Vermont. 

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