Reviewed by PQ Contributing Editor Brian Fanelli
If the 2012 U.S. presidential election proved anything, it is that America’s demographics are rapidly changing. President Obama handily won re-election with a broad, diverse coalition, reflective of the transforming population. Richard Blanco’s latest collection of poems, Looking for the Gulf Motel, symbolizes that change in the sense that his poems mix Spanish and English, explore his Latino identify, and challenge what it means to be an American today. Beyond that, Blanco’s work packs an emotional wallop, especially when he deals with the themes of place and identity, the loss of his father, and the ache we’ve all felt at one point for connection and love. Based on the poet’s subject matter and personal history, it is fitting he was chosen to read at the president’s inauguration.
The book opens with the title poem, “Looking for the Gulf Motel,” and it contains several tropes used throughout the collection, including a longer narrative form, re-occurring characters, a sense of place, Latino heritage, and the eagerness to relive childhood, a time when the poet’s father was alive and the family was happy. From the opening lines, the reader can visualize the hotel and hear the waves cracking on the shoreline, thanks to Blanco’s vivid sensory details. He uses repetition to cling to what used to be there and to show what’s changed, repeating the phrase “should still be” at the beginning of the stanzas.
However, by the end of the poem, the speaker snaps back to reality, realizing he is older, 38, and the Gulf Motel is no longer there, instead replaced by condos, golf courses, mansions, and yachts. Despite the realization, the poet continues searching for the Gulf Motel throughout the book, longing for love and reliving memories of his childhood, before his father died.
Later on in the book, the poet craves the typical American dream- love, a family, and a house. In the poem “Maybe,” he writes, “Maybe there’d finally be a house, a dog/named Chu, a lawn to mow, neighbors/dinner parties, and you forever obsesses/with crossword puzzles and Carl Young.” It is safe to assume the “you” in the poem is an ex-lover, and it’s clear by the end of the poem the relationship fizzled. However, a few pages later, Blanco includes a few poems to a lover named Mark, and the reader feels a sense of relief knowing the poet did find love, especially after reading poems earlier in the book about the poet’s struggle with his homosexuality, including harsh comments from his grandmother.
In one of the collection’s final poems, “Bones, Teeth,” Blanco returns to the subject of his father, but this time he doesn’t relive a previous memory, but instead confronts the fact his father is deceased. The poem opens with an image of his mother on her knees, pouring water over the grave, “her palm gently washing the bronze letters/as if she were stroking his face once again.” As he watches his mother tend to the gravesite, he confronts mortality and questions what is left of his father, other than his wedding band, cuff links, bones, and teeth. He punctuates the poem with further questioning and an epiphany about how frail and short life is.
Who will tend his grave when she’s gone
too? I worry, suddenly thinking of winters
driving past old cemeteries, gravestones
under snowdrifts, the dead and their dead
children and grandchildren-forgotten.
By publishing Looking for the Gulf Motel, Blanco is able keep memories of his working-class father alive, while honoring the rest of his family and mixed heritage. His verse will resonate with any reader of any background because we’ve all ached to relive the past, especially during those times when we long for love and connection. Blanco’s poems are at times deeply personal, while also reflecting the shifting demographics of America.