Place of Mind cover

Place of Mind

Richard Blanco

Copyright © 2011 Richard Blanco. All rights reserved.

Broken Covenant

after the storm rain                          scattered driftwood
starched sands     no footprints     of what once was
       the gossamer blue sails
       of man-o-wars
       gasping in the sun       pieces of broken coral
                                               snapped like wishbones
slivers of tiny fish                       a filmy green bottle
flickering on the shore
               a few reclaimed          a torn net
                   by the ebb
                            of a wave                    a lost buoy
a yellow bulldozer          heaps of spent seagrass
raking the sand
        diesel smoke like incense          a snapped fishline
        spiraling into the heavens
        in the name of the vanished              a dead fish

Unspoken Elegy for Tía Cucha

I arrive with a box of guava pastelitos,
a dozen red carnations, and a handful
of memories at her door: the half-moons
of her French-manicures, how she spoke
blowing out cigarette smoke, her words
leaving her mouth as ghosts, the music
of her nicknames: Cucha, Cuchita, Pucha.
I kiss her hello and she slaps me hard
across my arm: ¡Cabrón! Too handsome
to visit your Tía, eh? She laughs, pulls me
inside her efficiency, a place I thought
I had forgotten, comes back to life
with wafts of Jean Naté and Pine Sol,
the same calendar from Farmacia Galiano
with scenes of Old Havana on the wall,
the same peppermints in a crystal dish.
And her, wearing a papery housecoat,
sneakers with panty hose, like she wore
those summer mornings she'd walk me
down to the beach along First Street,
past the washed out pinks and blues
of the Art Deco hotels like old toys.
The retirees lined across the verandas
like seagulls peering into the horizon,
the mango popsicles from the bodeguita
and the pier she told me was once
a bridge to Cuba—have all vanished.
I ask how she's feeling, but we agree
not to talk about that today, though
we both know why I have come
to see her: in a few months, maybe
weeks, her lungs will fill up again,
her heart will stop for good. She too
will vanish, except what I remember,
of her, this afternoon: sharing a pastelito,
over a café she sweetens with Equal
at her dinette table crowded with boxes
of low-salt saltines and fibery cereals.
Under the watch of Holy Jesus' heart
burning on the wall, we gossip about
the secret crush she had on my father
once, she counts exactly how many
years and months since she left Cuba
and her mother forever, we complain
about the wars, diseases, fires blazing
on the mid-day news as she dunks
the flowers in a tumbler—a dozen red
suns burst in the sapphire sky framed
in the window, sitting by the table.

Of Consequence, Inconsequently

A bearded shepherd in a gray wool vest,
a beret lowered to his brow, that's how
my blood has always imagined the man
who was my great-grandfather, his eyes
hazel, I was told once. But I'll never see
what he saw of his life in the cold rivers
of Asturias. I can only imagine the fog
caressing the hills of his village and him
watching from the window of the train
he took to Sevilla—for love, my mother
explained to me once, holding a ghost
of him in a photo on his wedding day
with an ascot tie and buttoned shoes
standing in a room filled with mahogany
and red roses. Were they red? What color
were the tiers of Spanish lace cascading
from my great-grandmother's dress?
Nothing can speak for them now, tell me
what they saw in their eyes that morning
they left for love or war or both, crossing
the sea to Cuban palms and cane fields
quietly sweetening under the quite sun.
But what if they'd never met, what color
would my eyes be? Who would I be now
had they gone to Johannesburg instead,
or Maracaibo, or not left Sevilla at all?
Into what seas would I have cast thoughts,
what other cities would I've drowned in?
The countries I would've lost, or betrayed,
the languages I would speak or not speak,
the names that would've been my names—
I'd like to believe I've willed every detail
of my life, but I'm a consequence, a drop
of rain, a seed fallen by chance, here
in the middle of a story I don't know,
having to finish it and call it my own.

Missouri Sky Music

—after Pat Metheny

He plucks a string into a gust stirring dust,
spins a windmill lonely in a blanket of corn
covering Leesburg Summit where he grew up
in a back yard two hundred miles due south
of nothing, playing for the wind and hawks
and hope of leaving the state he returns to
in his music now, compositions of the sky
that held every minute for hours for him.
Notes lifting into clouds bulging with light,
strums ribboning the horizon with plum,
as I coast north on a train leaving a place
I once called my home too, my face against
the glass, my eyes blurring across some city
between cities with his songs in my ears
also listening to the scratches of his fingers
across the fret—those gritty imperfections
so necessary and inseparable from the music,
not knowing which is truer, which I prefer.

Key Deer

The mile markers count down [ 28 | 27 | 26 ] as Nikki and I sail in her Plymouth Fury cutting through saltwater marshes on our way to Key West for New Year's Eve again [ 25 | 24 | 23 ]. We cross the same bridges stringing the same islands together, under the same braille of stars, past the same road sign near Bahia Honda: KEY DEER HABITAT: ONLY 49 DEER REMAINING. Last year there were ninety, Nikki reminds me, tells me her story about summer camp again: the tiny deer standing no taller than a car tire, feeding them cabbage out of her hands, then having to clang on pots and pan to scare them away and keep them wild. I tell her I love that story [ 22 | 21 | 20 ], though what I really mean is that I love her, that I'm proud of her quitting Vodka, that she's not who her father says she is, and doesn't have to be her mother. I want to tell her that she'll survive—and so will I, though I'm not completely sure. I don't know yet that in a few years [ 19 | 18 | 17 ] she'll move to New York City, find a life among its poets and skyscrapers and a dog named Pepper, and I'll end up in love with the lonely woods of Maine. What I know is tonight [ 16 | 15 | 14 ] we'll be at Sloppy Joe's, she'll climb on my shoulders, we'll watch the giant plaster conch, and at the stroke of midnight embrace amid the crowd on Duval Street. Though now [ 13 | 12 | 11 ] there is only this stillness, the silence of mangroves clinging to each other, the last of the key deer nibbling berries on either side of the highway, and the two of us speeding through dusk as if we're the last two people on earth, one more time, one more year [10 | 9 | 8 ].

New Orleans Sestina Against Order

We're driving 900 miles in 17 hours, for a reason—
perhaps to feel like nothing through the nothing
of pasture flat as the highway tarmac, or to be lost
through the x's of Loxley and Biloxi, or to forget
like exit-number towns that have forgotten the meaning
of their Indian names. 10am at Shoney's we order
lunch instead of breakfast. I'll put in your order—
right away, the waitress smirks. Must be a reason,
why she hasn't left this place, I guess, nothing
to lose, I figure, the way we left last night, lost
and incidental down I-70 doing 80, forgetting
the stars hitting the windshield and the meanings
I give them—hope|awe|dream—against the mean
of my life, days like the billboards flashing orders:
sleep here|eat this now|exit here—for no reason.
Perhaps nothingness drives us to somethingness
and that's why we hit the road, to find what's lost
by losing ourselves, to remember by forgetting
who we are, only needing to find a station to forget
the hours left with preachers claiming we're meant
for the Kingdom of Heaven if we follow Jesus' orders.
Though I don't believe, I start conjuring up reasons
for my sins, can't forgive myself for wanting nothing
more than this easy ride on a weekend. We're lost
lambs in The Big Easy without a map, but don't lose
a minute of Bourbon St. sax and tap, before getting
voodoo dolls, Hurricanes, beads, and a meal meant
for a Cajun king: crawfish gumbo, catfish, an order
of beigné at Du Monde, thinking: Is this the reason?
Is this it? when our waiter says: Ain't heard nothing
‘til you go to Nugget's. So we go there, nothing
but a beat-up bass, an upright piano, drums lost
behind a spotlight on a woman dressed in forget-
me-not colors, her voice like cider, clove, menthe
liquoring my ears, her face a cameo ordering
me to feel every second—and that's the reason
why we came, nothing like N'awlins to lose
yourself in a song, forget order, find meaning
in a voice sing'n: ain't no reas'n, ain't no reas'n.

Photo of a Man on Sunset Drive: 1914, 2008

Groundbreaking Ceremony, City of South Miami, Sunset Drive Improvements

And so it began: the earth torn, split open
by a dirt road cutting through palmettos
and wild tamarind trees defending the land
against the sun. Beside the road, a shack
leaning into the wind, on the wooden porch,
crates of avocados and limes, white chickens
pecking at the floor boards, and a man
under the shadow of his straw hat, staring
into the camera in 1914. He doesn't know
within a lifetime the unclaimed land behind
him will be cleared of scrub and sawgrass,
the soil will be turned, made to give back
what the farmers wish, their lonely houses
will stand acres apart from one another,
jailed behind the boughs of their orchards.
He'll never buy sugar at the general store,
mail love letters at the post office, or take
a train at the depot of the town that will rise
out of hundred-million years of coral rock
on promises of paradise. He'll never ride
a Model-T puttering down the dirt road
that will be paved over, stretch farther and
farther west into the horizon, reaching for
the setting sun after which it will be named.
He can't even begin to imagine the shadows
of buildings rising taller than the palm trees,
the street lights glowing like counterfeit stars
dotting the sky above the road, the thousands
who will take the road everyday, who'll also
call this place home less than a hundred years
after the photograph of him hanging today
in City Hall as testament. He'll never meet
me, the engineer hired to transform the road
again, bring back tree shadows and birdsongs,
build another promise of another paradise
meant to last another forever. He'll never see
me, the poet standing before him, trying
to read his mind across time, wondering if
he was thinking what I'm today, both of us
looking down the road that will stretch on
for years after I too disappear into a photo.

Place of Mind

Mist haunts the city, tears of rain fall
from the awnings and window ledges.
The search for myself begins an echo
drifting away the moment I arrive.
From the awnings and window ledges
follow the rain flowing down the streets.
The moment I arrive, I drift away:
Why am I always imagining the sea?
Follow the rain flowing down the streets
vanishing into the mouths of gutters.
Why am I always imagining the sea?
A breath, a wave—a breath, a wave.
Vanishing into the mouths of gutters,
rain becomes lake, river, ocean again.
A breath, a wave—a breath, a wave
always beginning, yet always ending.
Rain becomes lake, river, ocean, again
mist haunts the city, tears of rain fall
always ending, yet always beginning,
the search for myself ends in an echo.

Some Days the Sea

The sea is never the same twice. Today
the waves open their lions-mouths hungry
for the shore and I feel the earth helpless.
Some days their foamy edges are lace
at my feet, the sea a sheet of green silk.
Sometimes the shore brings souvenirs
from a storm, I sift spoils of sea grass:
find a broken finger of coral, a torn fan,
examine a sponge's hollow throat, watch
a man-of-war die a sapphire in the sand.
Some days there's nothing but sand
quiet as snow, I walk, eyes on the wind
sometimes laden with silver tasting salt,
sometimes still as the sun. Some days
the sun is a dollop of honey and raining
light on the sea glinting diamond dust,
sometimes there are only clouds, clouds—
sometimes solid as continents drifting
across the sky, other times wispy, white
roses that swirl into tigers, into cathedrals,
into hands, and I remember some days
I'm still a boy on this beach, wanting
to catch a seagull, cup a tiny silver fish,
build a perfect sand castle. Some days I am
a teenager blind to death even as I watch
waves seep into nothingness. Most days
I'm a man tired of being a man, sleeping
in the care of dusk's slanted light, or a man
scared of being a man, seeing some god
in the moonlight streaming over the sea.
Some days I imagine myself walking
this shore with feet as worn as driftwood,
old and afraid of my body. Someday,
I suppose I'll return someplace like waves
trickling through the sand, back to sea
without any memory of being, but if
I could choose eternity, it would be here
aging with the moon, enduring in the space
between every grain of sand, in the cusp
of every wave, and every seashell's hollow.


"Unspoken Elegy for Tía Cucha," "Of Consequence, Inconsequently," "Place of Mind," and "Some Days the Sea" are from the forthcoming book Looking for the Gulf Motel, by Richard Blanco, © 2012, by permission of the University of Pittsburgh Press and Stuart Bernstein Representation for Artists.

"Some Days the Sea" and "Unspoken Elegy for Tía Cucha" appeared in Review: Literature and Arts of the Americas, no 78. "Of Consequence, Inconsequently" appeared as "Thoroughly Incomplete Autobiography" in MiPoesias.

Richard Blanco

Richard Blanco was made in Cuba, assembled in Spain, and imported to the United States—meaning his mother, seven months pregnant, and the rest of the family arrived as exiles from Cuba to Madrid where he was born. Only forty-five days later, the family emigrated once more and settled in New York City, then eventually in Miami where he was raised and educated. His acclaimed first book of poetry, City of a Hundred Fires, explores the yearnings and negotiation of cultural identity as a Cuban-American; and received the Agnes Starrett Poetry Prize from the University of Pittsburgh Press. His second book, Directions to the Beach of the Dead, won the Beyond Margins Award from the PEN American Center for its further exploration the universal themes of cultural identity and homecoming. His third collection, Looking for The Gulf Motel, is forthcoming from the University of Pittsburgh Press. Blanco's poems have appeared in top literary journals and anthologies including, The Best American Poetry 2000 and Great American Prose Poems. He has been featured on National Public Radio’s All Things Considered, and various conferences and venues including the The Sunken Garden Poetry Festival and the Dodge Poetry Festival. A practicing engineer, Blanco received a bachelors of science degree in Civil Engineering and also a Master in Fine Arts in Creative Writing.