By Richard Blanco – 1968-
A Poem for Barack Obama’s Presidential Inauguration
January 21, 2013
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 café 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
Watch Richard Blanco read “One Today” at President Obama’s inauguration in 2013:
About Richard Blanco
Born on February 15, 1968, in Madrid, Spain, Blanco grew up in Miami, where he received a Bachelor of Science degree in civil engineering as well as an MFA in creative writing from Florida International University.
He is the author of the poetry collections How to Love a Country (Beacon Press, 2019); Directions to the Beach of the Dead (University of Arizona Press, 2005), winner of the 2006 PEN/American Center Beyond Margins Award; and City of a Hundred Fires (University of Pittsburgh Press, 1998), winner of the 1997 Agnes Lynch Starrett National Poetry Prize, among others.
Blanco’s first book of poetry, City of a Hundred Fires, was published in 1998 to critical acclaim, winning the Agnes Lynch Starrett Poetry Prize from the University of Pittsburgh Press. The collection explored his cultural yearnings and contradictions as a Cuban American and captured the details of his transformational first trip to Cuba, his figurative homeland. After the success of his first book, Blanco took a hiatus from his engineering career and accepted a position at Central Connecticut State University as a professor of creative writing. While living in Connecticut, he met his current life-partner, Dr. Mark Neveu, a renowned research scientist.
Driven by a desire to examine the essence of place and belonging, Blanco traveled extensively through Spain, Italy, France, Guatemala, Brazil, Cuba, and New England. Eventually, in 2002, he and Mark moved to Washington, DC, where he taught at Georgetown and American universities, The Writers Center, and the Arlington County Detention Facility.
In 2004, Blanco returned to Miami and resumed his engineering career. Engineer by day, he designed several town revitalization projects; poet by night, he began working on another collection before moving once again, this time to Bethel, Maine, where he sought the peace and tranquility of nature. While in Maine, he completed his third book of poetry, Looking for The Gulf Motel (2012), which related Blanco’s complex navigation through his cultural, sexual, and artistic identities, and received the Paterson Poetry Prize, the 2012 Maine Literary Award for Poetry, and the Thom Gunn Award.
He is the recipient of two Florida Artist Fellowships, a Residency Fellowship from the Virginia Center for the Creative Arts, and the John Ciardi Fellowship from the Bread Loaf Writers Conference. Blanco has taught at various schools, including American University, Georgetown University, and Wesleyan University, and has been an artist in residence at Colby College’s Lunder Institute for American Art. He is currently a distinguished visiting professor at Florida International University.
Richard Blanco is first Latino, immigrant, and gay person to serve as an inaugural poet, Blanco read “One Today,” an original poem he wrote for the occasion, at Obama’s inauguration ceremony on January 21, 2013. I’m posting this poem today in honor of Presidents’ Day (officially Washington’s Birthday), which was yesterday. Since the inauguration, Blanco has been named a Woodrow Wilson Visiting Fellow and has received honorary doctorates from Macalester College, Colby College and the University of Rhode Island. His memoir, The Prince of Los Cocuyos: A Miami Childhood (Ecco Press, 2014), is a poignant, hilarious, and inspiring exploration of his coming-of-age as the child of Cuban immigrants and his attempts to understand his place in America while grappling with his burgeoning artistic and sexual identities. It received the 2015 Maine Literary Award for Memoir and the 2015 Lambda Literary Award for Gay Memoir. He is also the author of For All of Us, One Today: An Inaugural Poet’s Journey (Beacon Press, 2013). His inaugural poem, One Today, was also published as a children’s book illustrated by Dav Pilkey (Little, Brown, 2015).
Whether speaking as the Cuban Blanco or the American Richard, the homebody or the world traveler, the shy boy or the openly gay man, the engineer or the presidential inaugural poet, Blanco’s writings possess a story-rich quality that illuminates the human spirit. His work asks those universal questions we all ask ourselves on our own journeys: Where am I from? Where do I belong? Who am I in this world?