From Ordinary to Extraordinary

In the spirit of politics and poetry, I wanted to talk about the United States Inaugural Poet. For the past five presidential inaugurations, the United States as chosen a poet to read their work as part of the ceremony. I didn’t even know this was a part of the ceremony until I read about it online a few days ago, but I couldn’t get over how cool it is that the U.S. would make this a part of their political culture. Go America!

Way back in 2012, Richard Blanco was chosen to read during President Barack Obama’s inauguration. It was a huge deal for a number of reasons: not only was he the youngest (he was 44 at the time), he was the first immigrant (he was born in Cuba), first Latino, and first openly gay poet to read at the ceremony. I’ll include the full text of the poem at the bottom of this post, but you can listen to him read it in the video below (notice the awkward clapping when they introduce him as a poet – people don’t know what to make of us)

In an interview with Maayan Silver for NPR Milwaukee, he stated that “poetry makes us slow down and pay attention to things, to really pause and focus on those things that seemingly pass us by everyday as inconsequential.” When asked how he manages to notices these ordinary occurrences, he talks about how one day, while his mother was cooking dinner, he begin thinking about how many times he’s seen her in the kitchen, doing the same motions over and over, and how meaningful these motions meant over the course of his life. He states, “These are the quiet moments that speak to something infinite and important to our lives.” His poems are an attempt to slow down time, to make us meditate on a moment that otherwise would be taken for granted. He also mentions William Carlos Williams “Red Wheel Barrow,” which we’ve discussed in class as being a testament to the ordinary items we overlook. The poem is so very, very slow, but the effect on the reader is that we look closer at the item, and realize it function is truly extraordinary. The so called “ordinary” is transformed into a reflection on the beauty of it’s place in our world.

“One Today”

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.


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