Tuesday, January 22, 2013

`The Vast Uncertainties and Togetherness of the World'

As a reward for reading books, my nine-year-old’s teacher gave him a coupon for a free pizza, and at lunchtime on Monday I took him to the restaurant to redeem it. I’d forgotten about the presidential inauguration but there it was on the wall-mounted television. While we waited for the pizza, a woman bellowed “My Country, ’Tis of Thee” and Richard Blanco delivered “One Today,” the inaugural poem. Blanco has the decency not to lineate his words in an attempt to smuggle in prose. It is prose. Stylistically, his lineage can be traced to the Whitman/Sandburg/Thomas Wolfe School of Bombast. He delivered his blarney with great sincerity. Imagine these words intoned with a straight (or gay) face:

“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.”
“Pencil-yellow school buses” made my nine-year-old laugh. Of course, it would have been disingenuous of a reader or citizen to expect a poem, not posturing and pieties, on such an occasion. The same thing happened four years ago (go here and here). Much has been made of Blanco being Cuban-American (and gay), but ethnic pride is no guarantee of artistic gifts. Talent cannot be grandfathered in. Blanco’s parents fled Castro’s Cuba in 1968, briefly settled in Spain where Blanco was born, and then moved to New York City. He is an American.
I’m reading the work of another fugitive from Communism, Norman Manea, a Jew born in 1936 who spent time in a Nazi concentration camp and was forced out of Ceaușescu’s Romania in 1986. Recently he published The Fifth Impossibility: Essays on Exile and Language (Yale University Press, 2012). In “Another Genealogy,” Manea writes of “identity” and “entity” (the latter he defines as “what is left when we are alone”):
“…with both identity and entity, the particular premise or the main imprint of our biography (family, religion, persecution, victimhood, professional distinction, etc.) plays an important role. For are we not only the product of a family, religion, country, community, school, profession, etc. Are we not, in the end, the result of our readings, the product of our bibliography as well as our biography?”
If so, Blanco has a lot of reading to catch up on. Manea suggests, among others, Aristotle, Cervantes, Spinoza, Shakespeare and Darwin. Of our reading he writes:
“It’s an artificial but important genealogy that competes as well as cooperates with the natural one in structuring our personality, in shaping our options, our beliefs and projects. It expresses our need for something beyond our too-human limitations, our family, religion, territorial, linguistic narrowness, something that exposes us to the vast uncertainties and togetherness of the world.”

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