Richard Blanco's Looking for The Gulf Motel
I volunteered to review Richard Blanco’s latest work because I was familiar with his first collection, City of a Hundred Fires (1998). Though more than a decade has passed since I first read Blanco’s work, I’m happy to report that reading his new poems in a time so drastically different than those pre-9/11, halcyon days still evokes questions about identity as only Blanco can—impressively.
Blanco’s newest bundle, Looking for The Gulf Motel, marries memory, experience, and sometimes regret with “a pork roast reeking garlic” and “a pot of arroz-con-pollo.” I’m pleased to find that Blanco still creates characters whose memories are revealed as the inheritance of a first-person speaker. Blanco’s language, syntax, and characteristic form haven’t changed much; he deftly strings emotion and memory together like a Liguus shell necklace—like ornaments collected across the time line of a boy’s life. To his credit, Blanco’s crafty beachside memento needn’t fear TSA tussling during its return trip. No, his work isn’t fragile; it endures, conjures, and procures—that’s why I’m reading him again some fourteen years later.
Looking for The Gulf Motel opens a wider discursive space than Blanco’s previous work. In this collection both social and cultural marginalization are mapped onto an island of individual identity. In the poem “The Island Within,” dedicated to fellow poet, Ruth Behar, the speaker confesses, “I pitied you, still trying to reach / that unreachable island within the island / you still call home. I thought I was done / with Cuba, tired of filling in the blanks, / but now I’m not sure.” With this first confession in a chain of confessional poems, we are clearly not in Blanco’s earlier book whose poems address the gap between identity and culture, but wherein the speaker often seems trapped. Instead, we are thrust into the heart of this work and his identity, the results of acknowledging, exploring, and exposing an island within.
Blanco’s newly explored island is sexuality, a layer of identity largely neglected in his first work. As I write this review, I’m reflecting on just how hard it was to openly discuss sexuality back in the 1990s, and I’m struck that the gap between then and now was so wide a swim. That said, I am also struck by the fresh look this layer brings to Blanco’s overall project of metaphorically and literally traversing the gulf that divides the poet as in the poem “Love as if Love.” This poem’s narrative follows a speaker who confesses that “Before I dared kiss a man I kissed / Elizabeth” and later, “Before I ever took a man, I gave in / to Elizabeth.” The poem’s well placed line breaks mark the sexual distance between the speaker and Elizabeth while revealing a topic rarely fodder for poetry, the often overlooked difficulties that arise when sexual identity—at odds with social expectations—is revealed through experimentation. Though Blanco handles the poem’s situation delicately and lovingly, as a reader (and a onetime experimenter) I can’t help but feel empathy for Elizabeth, while at the same time sympathizing with the poem’s speaker as a socially constructed individual.
In “Queer Theory: According to My Grandmother” Blanco captures the fear, degradation, and longing for place that members of the LGBTQ community often face. It’s easy to read this poem—with an abeula scolding its speaker for seemingly unmanly infractions, like sitting down to urinate—as the semi-humorous chidings of anyone’s grandmother; however, a deeper narrative about freedom, agency, and social construction quickly surfaces revealing an attempt to encapsulate identity: “You will not look like a goddamn queer, / I’ve seen you . . . / even if you are one.” Blanco leaves his readers guessing whether grandmother or grandson is in the right and begs the question whether isolation protects or victimizes.
I’m not suggesting that there isn’t more to explore in Looking for The Gulf Motel; the book offers exposure to all the layers of identity readers expect of Blanco’s poems, but today the poems resonate at the individual rather than familial level, as in the poem, “Birthday Portrait.” The final lines of this, the most iconic “Blanco” poem in this collection, reveal a possible impetus for his newest book: “I look into my eyes, hanging / in my mother’s living room asking me: / Why have I been sad all my life.” It appears that Blanco’s long run as an American-Spanish-Cuban writer has come full circle and rather than concluding it’s expanding.
Looking for The Gulf Motel comes vis-á-vis with Gloria Anzaldúa, and Blanco opens a space where nationality, sexuality, gender, and socioeconomics subside. Here, Blanco asks his readers to smell the “pork roast reeking of garlic” and the “pot of arroz-con-pollo” that compose their own memories—those memories that we carry like shells strung on a string.