Looking for the Gulf Motel by Richard Blanco (Pittsburgh, 2012)
Scene: pile of recent poetry volumes, all surely deserving fond attention. Bleary reviewer browses one for a while, sighs, puts it down, and repeats this behavior with several more. After she opens to the middle of the sixth, she jumps as if jolted by electricity. The reviewer laughs, turns to the beginning, and begins to read straight through.
Extremely boring theater, but it illuminates how the author-reader loop gets wired. The voltage came from Richard Blanco’s prose poem, “Afternoons as Endora”:
I’m a boy who hates being a boy who loves cats and paint-by-number sets. She’s a witch who loves being a witch who hates mortals… I paint my fingernails crayon-red, wrap a towel around my head like her bouffant, tie my sheets around my chest into a chiffon muumuu just like hers, the bedspread draped over my shoulders like her mauve cape.
In this case, weird identity slippages closed the circuit. For me the role model was Samantha—I remember the witch in human drag controlling everybody and only pretending to feel guilty about it, although I haven’t checked on Bewitched recently—but in any case, Blanco had me. “Afternoons as Endora” is not the best poem in the book, but it performed the essential magic. Seventies childhood, misfit pretending to power, uncanny games of dress-up: I recognize them. It’s just as unlikely for me to see myself in Blanco as it was for Blanco to see himself in Endora, so the connections I perceived are probably illusory, but they worked. I like being rattled and confused, but only if I have some sense of the person performing the tricks; otherwise the poems are just dead spells.
The title poem of Blanco’s third collection, “Looking for the Gulf Motel,” inaugurates his dominant themes: memory, place, and longing to revisit an unrecoverable past. For Blanco, a civil engineer and a prize-winning poet, this means a Cuban-American childhood that once embarrassed and distressed him. Escape involves assimilation to some TV-inspired fantasy of Americanness (being “not Ricardo but Richard”) but also flight from his grandmother’s criticisms of his suspiciously effeminate tastes and habits. Blanco conjures home primarily through relationships. This is as much a suite of love poems as a meditation n displacement.
This book’s formal variety and vivid sensorium are attractive. Sometimes Blanco’s sentences are a little too straightforward for me; I prefer sleight-of-hand to declarations such as “I confess I pitied you” (“The Island Within”). But his elegies for his father are exceptionally powerful: the extended sentence of “The Port Pilot” is movingly breathless, and again, I recognize the loving, angry resistance of “Bones, Teeth.” Whatever metaphor one uses—electricity, enchantment—Blanco’s poems conduct a potent spark.