In the latest edition of "Village Voice," our recurring conversation about poetry and how it can help us to make sense of the news of the day, Jim and Margery discussed the themes of age and aging with poet Richard Blanco. Their discussion celebrated the recent publication of Blanco’s poem “My Father In English” in the New Yorker, and Blanco’s birthday on Feb. 15. To mark the occasion, Blanco spoke about the phenomenon of getting older and the passage of time, and he shared four of his own poems on these themes.

Blanco is the fifth presidential inaugural poet in U.S. history and a poetry professor at Florida International University. His new book, "How to Love a Country," deals with various socio-political issues that shadow America. It will be released in March.

Birthday Portrait
Richard Blanco

Every time I look into my eyes hanging
on the wall of my mother’s living room
I relive that morning: her dressing me
in my Mickey Mouse shirt still warm
from her iron, my white leather shoes—
the good ones—like two little moons
on my feet, my father’s black comb
in her hand fussing with my cowlicks,
dabbing my hair with Agua de Violetas,
parting it over and over until perfect.

I recall the long drive to the big Sears,
the tall racks of dresses and trousers
I couldn’t see over as I followed her
through the store to some strange lady
who picked me up, plopped me down
before a frightful man in a red top hat,
a mean puppet in his hand, ordering me:
look at the camera, the birdie—smile, smile,
and then my mother: smile, mi’jo, smile,
then the crowd: smile—come on—smile.

But I didn’t. I couldn’t. I stared coldly
through everyone into a world far away
from the scent of violets, my perfect hair,
the Mickey Mouse smiling on my shirt.
Was I scared? Did I know something
I shouldn’t have? That I can’t remember,
still don’t know what to answer myself
every time I look into my eyes, hanging
in my mother’s living room asking me:
Why have you been sad all your life?

Since Unfinished
Richard Blanco

I’ve been writing this since
the summer my grandfather
taught me how to hold a blade
of grass between my thumbs
and make it whistle, since
I first learned to make green
from blue and yellow, turned
paper into snowflakes, believed
a seashell echoed the sea,
and the sea had no end.

I’ve been writing this since
a sparrow flew into my class
and crashed into the window,
laid to rest on a bed of tissue
in a shoebox by the swings, since
the morning I first stood up
on the bathroom sink to watch
my father shave, since our eyes
met in that foggy mirror, since
the splinter my mother pulled
from my thumb, kissed my blood.

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.

I’ve been writing this since
the night I pulled off the road
at Big Sur and my eyes caught
the insanity of the stars, since
the months by the kitchen window
watching the snow come down
like fallout from a despair I had
no word for, since I stopped
searching for a name and found
myself tick-tock in a hammock
asking nothing of the sky.

I’ve been writing this since
spring, studying the tiny leaves
on the oaks dithering like moths,
contrast to the eon-old fieldstones
unveiled of snow, but forever
works-in-progress, since tonight
with the battled moon behind
the branches spying on the world—
same as it ever was—perfectly
unfinished, my glasses and pen
at rest again on the night table.
I’ve been writing this since
my eyes started seeing less,
my knees aching more, since
I began picking up twigs, feathers,
and pretty rocks for no reason
collecting on the porch where
I sit to read and watch the sunset
like my grandfather did everyday,
remembering him and how
to make a blade of grass whistle.

Mamá with Indians: 1973, 2007
Richard Blanco

I thought Mamá could never die, then
I saw her—right there—in full color
captured by two Indians, their faces
streaked with blood, one wielding
a tomahawk above her, the other a spear
inches away from her neck, her mouth
frozen in a scream that wouldn’t stop
trembling in my hand. I peeled the photo
from the album, hid it in my drawer,
daring a peek every night at bedtime.
How could this be—

there aren’t any Indians
in Miami? Who saved her—Papá?
Where was I? I questioned silently
for days, until I saw the Indians’ eyes
had no pupils, their skin was too shiny,
their weapons too dull—like plastic.
Then I found a door in the prairie sky
painted behind the stuffed buffalo,
a twinkle in Mamá’s not-so-scared eyes,
and I put the photo back, believing
once again she would live

forever, but now
she forgets names, doesn’t sew or talk
about my father much anymore, today
I found her tossing his shoes and boxes
of old photos, hobbling on her bad knee
until it hurt and she had to take her throne—
the faded La-Z-Boy with gashed armrests
she won’t replace: This one will outlive me,
she chuckles, and I see the Indians again
surrounding her, knowing this time she
might not escape—and I can’t save her.

Unspoken Elegy for Tía Cucha
Richard Blanco

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 León
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, disease, fires blazing
on the midday 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.