Richard Blanco, Poet of Memory

Note: Before I started reviewing on my own blog, I reviewed books on Now that it is ceasing to publish, I am moving my reviews to this site.

If most people remember Richard Blanco, it is probably due to the fame he gained when President Obama tapped him to read a poem at his inauguration. In Looking for The Gulf Motel, Richard Blanco charts memory: his own memories, the memories of his family members, and the risks and limits of memory in general. Blanco is the child of Cuban immigrants who grew up in Florida, struggled with his sexuality and eventually coming out as gay to his family, and moved with his partner to Maine. The book opens with the title poem announcing a visit back to Florida. More importantly, the first line announces the theme of memory that dominates the book: “There should be nothing here I don’t remember…”

Cover of Richard Blanco's Looking for the Gulf Motel

Poem after poem in this book distills a memory while announcing that the memory is impermanent or even flawed. The concept even goes into the structure of the book. “Questioning My Cousin Elena” ends with a protestation against the possibility of memory failing:




Tell me
it’s true, we’re everything we remember,
tell me memories never fail us, tell me
we take them with us that I’ll take you
with me, and you’ll take me with you.

The next poem, “Remembering what Tia Noelia Can’t”, lets the reader know that memories do in fact fail us as he how “every memory/one by one slipped out of her body, her cells/until she never was…”

The power of memory to draw and construct us is constantly in tension with the way that memory slips away and vanishes. While watching his mother clean the headstone at his father’s grave, he wonders where he will be buried and who will remember him. Whereas poets in the 16th century would take this concept and move into the theory that art lasts forever, Blanco takes a more naturalistic view:

I suppose I’ll return someplace like waves
trickling through the sad, back to sea
without any memory of being
–“Some Days the Sea”

Blanco accepts the impermanence of life and memory even as he strives against forgetting and losing his past. This collection is a powerful meditation on the significance of memory in our lives.


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