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Richard Blanco’s Looking for The Gulf Motel (University of Pittsburgh Press) is a compelling series of poems that explore Blanco’s Cuban heritage and his journey from adolescence to manhood, from places like Florida to places like Maine and, most importantly from places like adolescence to places like manhood. Along the way he chronicles the gender stereotypes that haunted his youth, as well as the dynamics of a long-term relationship.
Opening with the title poem, “Looking for The Gulf Motel,” Blanco sets the mood and tone for the book as he remembers a motel in Florida he once visited with his family—a motel, a vacation and a time that is now lost to him but which he is able to recover through poetry, in vivid memory and detail:
My mother should still be in the kitchenette
of The Gulf Motel, her daisy sandals from Kmart
squeaking across the linoleum, still gorgeous
in her teal swimsuit and amber earrings
stirring a pot of arroz-con-pollo, adding sprinkles
of onion powder and dollops of tomato sauce.
My father should still be in a terrycloth jacket
smoking, clinking a glass of amber whiskey
in the sunset at the Gulf Motel, watching us
dive into the pool, two boys he’ll never see
grow into men who will be proud of him.
With this wonderful gift of observation and lyricism, Blanco goes on to render the various members of his Cuban family—his grandmother and grandfather, his aunts and uncles, visits back to Cuba and the many moments of cultural bewilderment they have all experienced in their adopted country.
In “Betting on America,” for instance, his grandmother and family place bets on the new Miss America only to be bewildered by the crowning of Miss Ohio, the one candidate that not one of them bothered to vote on. Why? Because Miss Ohio didn’t reflect their own culture’s idea of beauty.
Blanco writes humorously and with great affection at the end of “Betting on America” when he comments that none of his family could honestly answer his mother when she asked where exactly Ohio was.
In “Tía Margarita Johnson’s House in Hollywood” Blanco gives us the not so subtle differences in culture between a Cuban aunt married into an all-American household and the woman she was back in Cuba. We are told that, in America, instead of being a señora, the aunt who is no longer a Gómez but a Johnson has transformed herself into a woman with house slippers and an embroidered housecoat brandishing Good Housekeeping. This Brady Bunch style house watches Sonny and Cher and Lawrence Welk on Sunday nights and not his mother’s telenovelas or his grandfather’s Westerns dubbed-over in Spanish. Blanco tells us his aunt’s house is now the house that speaks English and “the house where I wasn’t Cuban anymore,/the house without a revolución.
This great sensitivity to cultural differences as well as to the high price of gender conformity are the hallmarks of Blanco’s great gift as a poet. “Queer Theory: According to My Grandmother” is a wonderful list poem in which Blanco gives us his grandmother’s do’s and don’ts for gender normalcy. It is clever and smart but ends with the devastating lines by the grandmother: “you will not look like a goddamn queer,/ I’ve seen you. . ./even if you are one.”
The pressures of gender conformity also find expression in the poems “Playing House with Pepín” and “Afternoons as Endora.” In the former a young boy pretends with another boy to act out scenes of domestic bliss including a kiss on the lips. In the latter, an adolescent Blanco wishes he could vanish as he identifies so strongly with the female witch character in the TV sitcom Bewitched.
Blanco looks back on his family and on his adolescent self with love and great understanding, and that is his strength as a poet. Despite all the estrangements and the great distance from the island of Cuba and all its significance, he tells us that “love is thicker than any country.” Love and tenderness can win out in making the necessary adjustment of past to present and Cuban culture to American.
Towards the end of the collection Blanco gives us two very moving tributes to his mother. “Cooking with Mamá in Maine” and “House of the Virgin Mary” both pay homage to his mother.
Blanco’s poetry and writing is autobiographical in nature, narrative and lyrical and comes directly from that impulse to express his attempt to meld his past with his present, his gay life with his family’s expectations. In “Since Unfinished,”the closing poem of the book, he writes:
I’ve been writing this since
the woman I slept with the night
of my father’s wake, since
my grandmother first called me
a faggot and I said nothing, since
I forgave her and my body
pressed hard against Michael
on the dance floor at Twist, since
the years spent with a martini
and men I knew couldn’t love.
The temporality in these poems is curious. Blanco often suspends time as he flashes back to the past, weaving both in and out and holding moments together by the use and repetition of prepositions such as “before,” and “since.” Antithesis is gained in one instance by the repletion of “not” to accentuate and call attention to the descriptive richness of his memory as in the poem “El Florida Room”:
Not a sunroom, but where the sun
both rose and set, all day the shadows
of banana trees fan-dancing across
the floor. . .
Not a sitting room, but El Florida, where
I sat alone for hours with butterflies
frozen on the polyester curtains. . .
Not a TV room, but where I watched
Creature Feature as a boy, clinging
to my brother, safe from vampires . . .
Looking for The Gulf Motel is a wonderful, beautifully observed collection–a likely contender to be a classic work of multicultural poetry.
Looking for The Gulf Motel
By Richard Blanco
University of Pittsburgh Press
Paperback, 9780822962014, 83 pp.