April 25, 2014
Guests: Marie Howe - Richard Blanco
DAVID BIANCULLI, HOST: This is FRESH AIR. I'm David Bianculli, editor of the website TV Worth Watching, sitting in for Terry Gross. April is National Poetry Month, and we're going to celebrate the occasion by listening back to some of our favorite poetry interviews. Let's start with Terry's interview with Marie Howe, who is now the poet laureate of New York state. This was first broadcast in 2011.
TERRY GROSS, HOST: A couple of weeks ago, our book interview producer, Sam Briger, showed me the new Penguin anthology of 20th-century American poetry. He told me it includes one of his favorite poems, by a poet I'd never heard of, named Marie Howe.
So I read it and agreed this is really good. Sam went on to tell me that Howe had been one of his teachers at Tufts, and although he didn't know her well, he spoke very highly of her. So I read a couple of her books and was particularly moved by how she wrote about the deaths of her mother and of her younger brother.
Here's how her writing was described by the late Stanley Kunitz, the Pulitzer Prize-winning poet and former poet laureate who was also Howe's teacher and friend: Her long, deep-breathing lines address mysteries of flesh and spirit in terms accessible only to a woman who is very much of our time and yet still in touch with the sacred.
Marie Howe, welcome to FRESH AIR. And I thought the best way to start would be with the poem that's anthologized in the new Penguin anthology, and it's about having a new comprehension of life and of being alive after your brother died. He died of AIDS-related causes in 1989. Do I have that right?
MARIE HOWE: Yes, I think I was '89. I was just wondering, Terry, this morning, is it '88 or '89. But I think it was '89.
GROSS: So would you read that poem for us?
HOWE: Sure. The poem is a letter, actually, written to John that I started to write when I was struggling with writing poems all day, and I decided to just quit that and write John a letter, "What the Living Do."
(Reading) Johnny, the kitchen sink has been clogged for days, some utensil probably fell down there. And the Drano won't work but smells dangerous, and the crusty dishes have piled up waiting for the plumber I still haven't called. This is the everyday we spoke of.
(Reading) It's winter again. The sky's a deep headstrong blue, and the sunlight pours through the open living room windows because the heat's on too high in here, and I can't turn it off. For weeks now, driving, or dropping a bag of groceries in the street, the bag breaking, I've been thinking: This is what the living do.
(Readgin) And yesterday, hurrying along those wobbly bricks in the Cambridge sidewalk, spilling my coffee down my wrist and sleeve, I thought it again, and again later, when buying a hairbrush: This is it. Parking. Slamming the car door shut in the cold. What you called that yearning. What you finally gave up.
(Reading) We want the spring to come and the winter to pass. We want whoever to call or not call, a letter, a kiss - we want more and more and then more of it. But there are moments, walking, when I catch a glimpse of myself in the window glass, say the window of the corner video store, and I'm gripped by a cherishing so deep for my own blowing hair, chapped face and unbuttoned coat that I'm speechless. I am living, I remember you.
GROSS: That's Marie Howe, reading her poem "What the Living Do." That's such a beautiful poem. So I get the sense from this poem that your brother's death gave you just like a new comprehension of what it means to be alive.
HOWE: Well, yes, eventually.
GROSS: Right, yeah
HOWE: As we all know, first, you know, you just think, you know, John - I come from a very large family, Terry. There were nine children in my family, and I love all my brothers and sisters, and we were close growing up. But John and I were very close, and he was, I don't know, a kind of - he was my editor and spiritual teacher.
And John, I talked to John, I don't know, five times a week on the phone. We wrote letters back and forth. We were in a constant conversation. You know, we were 11 years apart, but - he was much younger than me, but when he died, it was a terrible loss to all of us.
So first it's that. You know, as you know, as everybody knows, you think my life has changed, so really I don't know how to live it anymore. And then, you know, you find a way.
GROSS: You called him your spiritual advisor, and you said that he used to say pain - I think it was in one of your poems, pain is inevitable, but suffering is a choice. That sounds so wise and yet so impossible. For me, suffering always feels, like, completely out of my control.
GROSS: You know, I can't make it stop.
HOWE: Well, it's an AA thing, too. You know, John was in AA. He got sober at 23. But when someone's lying there, and they're 90 pounds, and they're blind in one eye, and they have neuropathy, and they can't walk, and they say pain is inevitable, and suffering is a choice, then it's quite a different matter.
Johnny said this right until the last day he died. He looked up at me and said: This is not a tragedy, Marie. I am a happy man. You know, actually after that, he said when I'm asked if I could love, I can answer yes.
GROSS: Do you think he really believed that, or was he saying that for your sake, that he was a happy man?
HOWE: He wouldn't - I think he really believed it. He shone. He was luminous. You know, I think that he wouldn't say something like that for my sake. We were too honest with each other.
GROSS: There's another poem I want you to read, and this is a poem about you're your childhood. It's called "The Boy." And why don't you, before you read it, introduce it for us.
HOWE: Well, when I got writing - when I started to write about my brother John, I began thinking about gender. John was a gay man, living and dying at a time when this was still a fraught issue in our culture.
GROSS: And probably in your family, which is Catholic.
HOWE: Not so much in my family by that time, no. I mean, there was a few bumps but not much, actually. My mother - my father had died, and my mother - and all of us just adored John. We just wanted him to be healthy, you know. So it wasn't that big of a deal, oddly. We were Catholic lefties, Terry. That's an important distinction.
HOWE: We were the left Catholics. We had the guitar masses at home and went into the ghettos and painted people's houses whether they liked it or not, you know.
HOWE: And we, you know, we marched on Washington. We were the Dan Berrigan Catholics. But this boy, I want to make clear at this moment in time, is not my brother John. It's another brother. I have four brothers and four sisters. And this was an older brother, the only person older than me in our family. Shall I read it?
GROSS: Yes, please.
HOWE: "The Boy." (Reading) My older brother is walking down the sidewalk into the suburban summer night, white T-shirt, blue jeans, to the field at the end of the street. Hangers Hideout, the boys called it, an undeveloped plot, a pit overgrown with weeds, some old furniture thrown down there and some metal hangers clinking in the trees like wind chimes.
(Reading) He's running away from home because our father wants to cut his hair. And in two more days our father will convince me to go to him - you know where he is - and talk to him: No reprisals. He promised. A small parade of kids in feet pajamas will accompany me, their voices like the first peepers in spring.
(Reading) And my brother will walk ahead of us home, and my father will shave his head bald, and my brother will not speak to anyone the next month, not a word, not pass the milk, nothing.
(Reading) What happened in our house taught my brothers how to leave, how to walk down a sidewalk without looking back. I was the girl. What happened taught me to follow him, whoever he was, calling and calling his name.
GROSS: So even though it was a lefty family as you describe it, you feel like the girls and the boys in your family were brought up differently?
HOWE: Oh sure. Oh my gosh, yes, in that way, yes. We served the boys dinner, we cleared their plates. You know, I think the boys had two jobs: empty the garbage and shovel the walks. It was a very gendered world back in the '50s when I was growing up.
GROSS: So there's another poem I want you to read calling "Practicing," and this is about, like, very early glimmers of sexuality and what that's like.
HOWE: Yeah, this poem took me 20 years to write.
GROSS: Really? Why'd it take so long?
HOWE: Well, I couldn't find the form. You know, I tried and tried and tried to write about this, and also it was, you know, a little - kind of embarrassing, a little scary. And finally one day I realized, oh, it's a poem of praise. It's a praise song, you know. And then it found its shape. "Practicing."
(Reading) I want to write a love poem for the girls I kissed in seventh grade, a song for what we did on the floor in the basement of somebody's parents' house, a hymn for what we didn't say but thought: That feels good or I like that, when we learned how to open each other's mouths, how to move our tongues to make somebody moan.
(Reading) We called it practicing, and one was the boy, and we paired off - maybe six or eight girls - and turned out the lights and kissed and kissed until we were stoned on kisses and lifted our nightgowns or let the straps drop, and now you be the boy.
(Reading) Concrete floor, sleeping bag or couch, playroom, game room, train room, laundry. Linda's basement was like a boat with booths and portholes instead of windows. Gloria's father had a bar downstairs with stools that spun, plush carpeting.
(Reading) We kissed each other's throats, and we left marks, and never spoke of it upstairs, outdoors, in daylight, not once. We did it, and it was practicing, and we grew up and hardly mentioned who the first kiss really was - a girl like us, still sticky with moisturizer we had shared in the bathroom.
(Reading) I want to write a song for that thick silence in the dark, and the first pure thrill of unreluctant desire, just before we made ourselves stop.
GROSS: I think that's such a beautiful poem, and reading it I kept thinking: Is this a poem about a girl who is gay and, you know, practicing, in quotes, is a way of being intimate with other girls? Or is this about a girl who's really practicing for the kind of heterosexual desire that she can't really - you know, heterosexual relationship that she can't really have yet because she's in seventh grade.
HOWE: Yeah, well, I think every single one of those girls, all of us grew up to marry.
GROSS: Was that - I just realized that's such an intimate question to ask.
HOWE: No, it's okay. I mean, I think it's - there's a lot of fluidity in sexuality that we don't acknowledge, and especially in those ages. You know, perhaps, perhaps always, there's a kind of fluidity that this book is also aware of. My brother John had girlfriends all through high school and college, you know. I don't know that one has to always decide.
But certainly this practicing was practicing, but it also becomes something, you know, in itself, which was kind of thrilling and freaky, you know. I have to tell you one thing: This came out in a magazine, and I went home to my hometown for Christmas, and I went over to see one of my dear old friends, a grown woman with grown sons, and the magazine was on her coffee table, and we never mentioned the poem.
GROSS: Do you think she was uncomfortable about it?
HOWE: Apparently we both were. I didn't mention it either.
GROSS: Was she one of the girls in the poem?
GROSS: Oh, I see.
HOWE: Now we were, you know, we were 45, you know.
GROSS: Right. Well, you know, you're in such a swoon in the poem, and you say you tried to write it for 20 years, and you were able to write it when you realized it was a song of praise. What shape was the poem taking before you realized it was a song of praise?
HOWE: I think I was trying to tell a narrative or trying to tell a story or trying to explain something. I don't know. I couldn't, you know, every poem holds the unspeakable inside it, the unsayable, you know, not unspeakable as in taboo but the unsayable, the thing that you can't really say because it's too complicated, it's too complex for us.
BIANCULLI: Poet Marie Howe, speaking to Terry Gross in 2011. More after a break; this is FRESH AIR.
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BIANCULLI: This is FRESH AIR. Let's get back to Terry's 2011 interview with Marie Howe, the poet laureate of New York state.
GROSS: We started with a poem about your brother's death and carrying on with life after that. There's a poem about your mother dying that I'd like you to read, and it's called "My Mother's Body."
GROSS: Introduce it for us before you read it.
HOWE: My mother gave birth to nine of us, and she had two miscarriages, so she was pregnant 11 times. And as we've said earlier, many of us daughters have trouble separating from our mothers, especially if our mothers merge with us, and the oldest girl of a big family often has that syndrome going on. So for me, when my mother was dying, after she died I was thinking a lot about her actual body and her and me, her and I, she and I, her and me, the two of us, so...
GROSS: And the poem kind of alternates between her and you, between her body and yours.
HOWE: Yeah. Or that it's actually her - a lot of her body, but it's thinking about her body when I was in it.
GROSS: Right. When she was carrying you.
HOWE: Yeah, when she was carrying me, when she was carrying me and then also when she - my mother was very sick the last few years of her life - going to dialysis three times a week, very, very uncomfortable. And to think of her as a young woman of 24 carrying me and then as an older woman, really her body was just wrecked and it's part of what was happening here as well.
GROSS: "My Mother's Body." (Reading) Bless my mother's body, the first song of her beating heart and her breathing; her voice, which I could dimly hear, grew louder. From inside her body I heard almost every word she said. Within that girl I drove to the store and back, her feet pressing pedals of the blue car, her voice, first gate to the cold sunny mornings, rain, moonlight, snowfall, dogs.
HOWE: (Reading) Her kidneys failed, the womb where I once lived is gone. Her young astonished body pushed me down that long corridor, and my body hurt her, I know that - 24 years old. I'm old enough to be that girl's mother, to smooth her hair, to look into her exultant frightened eyes, her bed sheets stained with chocolate, her heart in constant failure.
(Reading) It's a girl, someone must have said. She must have kissed me with her mouth, first grief, first air, and soon I was drinking her, first food, I was eating my mother slumped in her wheelchair, one of my brothers pushing it, across the snowy lawn, her eyes fixed, her face averted. Bless this body she made, my long legs, her long arms and fingers, our voice in my throat speaking to you know.
GROSS: Had you always thought about, like, you know, the pain of childbirth that your mother probably had delivering you, or about your just like physical connection to her - the fact that she carried you. I mean did you think about that a lot until she was dying?
HOWE: No, I never thought of it until she was dying. I never thought of it. She was pregnant all the time. She was always pregnant with some other baby.
HOWE: And never - I never imagined myself as her baby. She was always pregnant. She was always standing in our backyard by that swimming pool with a cigarette in one hand, a drink in the other, in a bathing suit pregnant, talking to her other sisters, all pregnant, all with lipstick on, all with bathing suits on, and then she would turn to the pool and yell, you know, one more time and you're out to one of the kids and then turn back to her sisters.
HOWE: She was just sort of, you know, a glamorous pregnant woman.
HOWE: There were so many mothers. You know, Terry, I'm sure you have many, many mothers, and your mother too, so many mothers. But no, I hadn't thought about it really until later. And then, you know, the fullness of time. I mean time and eternity are a constant - so many poems occur at the intersection of time and eternity and the fullness of time.
GROSS: Marie Howe, I want to thank you so much for talking with us and for reading some of your poems.
HOWE: Terry, it's been a great pleasure to talk with you.
BIANCULLI: Marie Howe, speaking to Terry Gross in 2011. Marie Howe is the poet laureate of New York state. The title poem from Howe's collection, "What the Living Do," is in the Penguin Anthology of 20th Century American Poetry. Marie Howe teaches poetry at Sarah Lawrence, NYU and Columbia University. She'll be appearing at the MTA Poetry In Motion Spring Fest, held tomorrow at Grand Central Station in New York. I'm David Bianculli, and this is FRESH AIR.
DAVID BIANCULLI, HOST: Richard Blanco, who was 44 when he unveiled his poem in Washington, D.C., is the youngest of the five inaugural poets in American history. He was also the first Latino and first openly gay person in that role. Many of his poems are about identity. His parents emigrated from Cuba in 1968. He grew up in Miami, aware of the mix of nostalgia and anger adults in his community felt towards Cuba. He now lives in Maine with his partner, Mark.
Terry spoke with Richard Blanco in 2013, about a month after he read his poem "One Today," at Obama's re-election inauguration.
TERRY GROSS, HOST: I'm going to ask you to read a poem from "Looking for the Gulf Motel" that's about your father. It's called "The Port Pilot." And some of the lines in this poem refer to various jobs your father had. He was a meat butcher in a butcher shop. Did he work in a bank for a while? Is that the reference to counting money?
RICHARD BLANCO: He was, yeah, a bookkeeper - by trade.
GROSS: A bookkeeper. OK. So those are the two things I wanted to mention before you read the poem. Is there anything else you'd like to say before you read it?
BLANCO: Well, the genesis of this poem had to do with finding out one day, many years after, that my father was a port pilot, and of course in Miami there's these big cruise ship terminals, and one day my mom tells me that's what your dad studied or was going to do in Cuba, he was a port pilot.
And so he - I just found that so interesting, that little factoid about my dad's life that I had never known before. And this is what happens when you grow up sort of in an exile family or immigrant family. You just get little pieces of information, like throughout the years, and you've got to piece all this stuff together. And so this is sort of piecing together some of my father.
(Reading) "The Port Pilot." Before I knew him as a butcher, coming home with blood stains on his cuffs that Mama could never wash out in the kitchen sink, before I learned he'd spent all day in the sky in loafers and a necktie counting other people's money in a tower with a view he couldn't afford, years before he started gambling with me on cockfights at Tio Budede's(ph) farm every Saturday night, teaching me how to bet on death, long before he was diagnosed and staying alive became his fulltime job, his agenda filled with appointments to kill whatever was killing him, a lifetime before I had to cradle him in and out of bed, he carried me on his shoulders over the jetty at the port.
Minutes after I'm called to the hospital, I remember that day, sitting together on a rock, watching the ships glide past us, when he told me that years before he was my father he was a port pilot in Havana, steering ships safely into harbor, then guiding them out to sea again, never to see them again, seconds before I hear his last breath, told to leave the room.
GROSS: And that's Richard Blanco, reading his poem "The Port Pilot" from his latest collection of poems, "Looking for the Gulf Motel." What did it mean to you when your father told you he'd been a port pilot in Havana? Why did that have such a big effect on you? Because of the responsibility that he had or because of the fact that he was guiding these ships to safety and they'd never know who he was?
BLANCO: Well, I mean I think that's an afterthought as an adult. At the time, I was much younger, and I just thought it was just neat as all hell.
BLANCO: I mean you've got to understand the landscape of growing up in Miami, these huge, like, ships that we used to watch, you know, going off into the Caribbean on sunset. And so I just thought it was so neat. But it was also sort of the story of my father, of how being such a sort of emotionally absent person that, you know, finding out these little bits and pieces about him, were so interesting to me.
And since he died when I was relatively young, before I really was a mature adult, I never got to sort of meet him, in a way. And so through the poetry I've gone back to these little tidbits and sort of tried to re-create him on the page and see what he meant to me and what our relationship was about.
GROSS: Your grandmother was a very important figure in your life and you write about her in a few poems. I'm going to ask you to read an excerpt of one of those poems and it's called "Queer Theory According to My Grandmother." Do you want to introduce it for us?
BLANCO: Oh, sure. So my grandmother was as xenophobic as she was homophobic, so I remember growing up so that anything that would seem culturally odd or weird or strange was also sort of tagged as queer - and I'm talking like things like Legos and Froot Loops - so anything that she perceived as strange she also questioned in terms of my sexuality. And so I think that's where this poem sort of gets its - a lot of its sort of energy from. But it was also, my grandmother was a very central figure in my life for - as one of those relatives that end up doing a lot of good for you in terms of all the harm that they did to you. And so this poem, which I thought at first was this very poignant, angry, bitter poem, first time I read it, people just were like laughing in their seats. And then I got the humor behind this and I realized how I was treating the subject. And this is in the voice of my grandmother.
GROSS: And this is your Cuban grandmother who was your father's mother?
BLANCO: Yes, my father's mother.
BLANCO: (Reading) "Queer Theory According to My Grandmother." Never drink soda with a straw. Milkshakes? Hmm. Maybe. Stop eyeing your mother's Avon catalog and the men's underwear in those Sears flyers. I've seen you. Stay out of her Tupperware parties and perfume bottles. Don't let her kiss you. She kisses you much too much. Avoid hugging men, but if you must, pat them real hard on the back - even if it's your father. Must you keep that cat? Don't pet him so much. Why don't you like dogs? Never play house - even if you're the husband.
So the poem goes on to catalog all these sort of atrocities, my grandmother used to say. And then towards the end - I'll pick it up about two thirds into the poem, towards the end.
(Reading) Don't watch "Bewitched" or "I Dream of Jeannie." Don't stare at "The Six Million Dollar Man." I've seen you. Never dance alone in your room. Donna Summer, Barry Manilow, the Captain and Tennille, Bette Midler, and all musicals, forbidden. Posters of kittens, "Star Wars" or the Eiffel Tower, forbidden. Those fancy books on architecture and art, I threw them in the trash. You can't wear cologne or puka shells. And I better not catch you in clogs. If I see you in a ponytail, I'll cut it off. What? No, you can't pierce your ear, left or right side. I don't care. You will not look like a goddamn queer. I've seen you, even if you are one.
GROSS: Did you try to win your grandmother's approval by trying to fix yourself in her eyes, and you know, not listen to musicals or Bette Midler or look at your mother's Avon catalogs or any of the things - you know, have a cat, the things she urged her not to do because it was too feminine?
BLANCO: Yeah. Certainly. I mean every, you know, of course I wanted my grandmother's love and approval. So yeah, at every turn I would try to please her and try to do things that I - well, in everything I did there was always the before thought of will my grandmother like this? And literally almost everything I did. So you never knew what you were going to get.
BLANCO: You know, sometimes I'd do something or say something or ask for something that would be met with OK. And then sometimes there were these other responses that you couldn't stand, but nonetheless, yeah. I remember my grandmother, I always wanted to be in the Cub Scouts and to her that was queer.
GROSS: The Cubs? Really?
BLANCO: So you would think the Cub Scouts, you know, boys camping.
GROSS: Yeah. Yeah.
BLANCO: Oh no, because it was this - also this culture component. It's like what is that? You know, that's queer, you know.
GROSS: OK. So the first career that you had, the one where you thought you wouldn't be called queer was being a civil engineer. But your grandmother threw out your architecture and art books when you were young, which is exactly the kind of thing you'd want as preparation to later be a civil engineer.
BLANCO: Yeah. No, no. Architecture was queer....
BLANCO: ...because it involved painting and drawing and things like that...
BLANCO: ...so, so that was out the door. Civil engineer was manly. And I also - part of that influence was also my father, and I think he also always wanted to be an engineer and I don't think he had the opportunity to.
GROSS: Was your mother any more supportive than your grandmother??
BLANCO: My mother was - I wouldn't say exactly supportive, but certainly not my grandmother at all. When I came out - in fact, when I came out to my mom, one of the things I told her was, like, grandma was right.
BIANCULLI: Poet Richard Blanco, speaking to Terry Gross in 2013. More after a break. This is FRESH AIR.
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BIANCULLI: This is FRESH AIR. Let's get back to Terry's 2013 interview with poet Richard Blanco, part of our salute to National Poetry Month. When Terry spoke with him, Blanco had recently served as the official poet for President Barack Obama's second inauguration - only the fifth inaugural poet in our nation's history.
GROSS: So you live in Maine where it's now legal to be married. And my understanding is that you and your partner, Mark, might at some point in the future get married. You have a poem about him I want you to read. And just to preface this, you know, you grew up in Florida but now you live in Maine because it's where he has lived, and I guess where his work is too. So that must be quite an adjustment, living in the Maine climate, especially after big snowstorms like the one you recently had.
But anyways, the poem I want you to read is called "Killing Mark."
GROSS: It's not what it seems. So you're welcome to introduce us or to just jump in and read it.
GROSS: And this is going to be an excerpt of the poem. We're just trying to squeeze in a lot of poems, so I've been asking you to excerpt them.
BLANCO: What's always sort of surprised me about this poem a little bit is that it is obviously - "Killing Mark" is the title. It's about my partner. It's about being in a gay relationship. And yet in the small town where I live in, in Bethel, this is one of the favorite poems...
BLANCO: ...which is greeted with such enthusiasm because I think what it speaks about is something that really transcends a gay relationship. I mean it's just something fundamental and one understands a gay relationship is a relationship. So "Killing Mark."
(Reading) His plane went down over Los Angeles last week, again. Or was it Long Island? Boxer shorts, hair gel, his toothbrush washed up on the shore of New Haven, but his body never recovered, I feared. Monday he cut off his leg chain-sawing. Bleed to death slowly while I was shopping for a new lamp. Never heard my messages on his cell phone. Where are you? Call me. I told him to be careful. He never listens. Tonight, 15 minutes late. I'm sure he's hit a moose on Route 26. But maybe he survived. Someone from the hospital will call me, give me his room number. I'll bring his pajamas and some magazines. 5:25, still no phone call. Voice mail full. I turn on the news, wait for the report. Flashes of moose blood, his car mangled, as I buzz around the bedroom dusting the furniture, sorting the sock drawer.
By 7:30, I'm taking mental notes for his eulogy, suddenly adoring all I've hated, 10 years worth of nose hairs in the sink, of lost car keys, of chewing too loud and hogging the bed sheets, when joy yowls. Ears to the sound of footsteps up the drive and darts to the doorway, I follow with a scowl: Where the hell were you? Couldn't you call? Translation. I die each time I kill you.
GROSS: I really liked that poem. Who hasn't done that? Who hasn't had those horrible imaginings when the person they love is late?
BLANCO: Yeah. I had a friend of mine who told me you can divide the world into two kinds of people, those that panic when you don't call in five minutes and those that have no idea and they're the ones who are not calling.
GROSS: Oh. So what does Mark think of that poem?
BLANCO: He likes it. It makes him chuckle as well. I think he totally gets it and understands. And it hasn't changed his behavior whatsoever, so. So he knows it's a love poem at the end of the day and I think it helped him to understand sometimes why I do get so out of control and neurotic.
It's not out of - it's just out of - I have that sense of that something's going to slip away at any minute, something I've tried to get better at in my day-to-day life and with other things of impending doom and panic. It sort of, I guess, follows maybe poets around. I'm not sure.
GROSS: So are you a catastrophist about other things?
BLANCO: Yeah. And I think it's as an engineer, which is something that sort of reinforced that. As an engineer in your designs and whatnot, you're trained to figure out what's going to go wrong. That's how you design a lot of things. You're like, OK, that's a decently designed curve there on the road but what could go wrong? What's wrong with this design?
BLANCO: And you're constantly putting things up to the test and up to the test and over-designing and implementing things and safety factors. And if I wasn't like that already, you know, 25 years of engineering have pretty much reinforced that.
GROSS: It's been a pleasure to talk with you.
BLANCO: Thank you, Terry. It has been wonderful.
BIANCULLI: Poet Richard Blanco, speaking to Terry Gross in 2013. The story of the poem he wrote for President Obama's second inaugural and the poem itself are included in Blanco's recent book " For All of Us, One Today - An Inaugural Poet's Journey."
DAVID BIANCULLI, HOST: The next poem we're going to hear got a big response the first time we played it last month, but good poems get even better when you hear them a second time. This was written by our classical music critic Lloyd Schwartz, who has also published several volumes of poetry. The poem was initially published on the Poem-A-Day of poets.org, which is run by the Academy of American Poets. Lloyd's poem is called "To My Oldest Friend, Whose Silence is Like a Death."
LLOYD SCHWARTZ: This is a poem I wish I hadn't needed to write. Unfortunately, it's all true. I know I'm not the only person in the world who's had a close friend go missing without any explanation. But I'm still heartbroken and totally mystified.
(Reading) "To My Oldest Friend, Whose Silence Is Like A Death." In today's paper, a story about our high school drama teacher evicted from his Carnegie Hall rooftop apartment made me ache to call you, the only person I know who'd still remember his talent, his good looks, his self-absorption. We'd laugh, at what haven't we laughed, then not laugh, wondering what became of him.
(Reading) But I can't call because I don't know what became of you. After 60 years, with no explanation, you're suddenly not there. Gone. Phone disconnected. I was afraid you might be dead. But you're not dead. You've left, your landlord says. He has your new unlisted number but insists on respecting your privacy.
(Reading) I located your oldest son, who refuses to tell me anything except that you're alive and not ill. Your ex-wife ignores my letters. What's happened? Are you in trouble? Something you've done? Something I've done? We used to tell each other everything: our automatic reference points to childhood pranks, secret codes and sexual experiments.
(Reading) How many decades since we started singing each other "Happy Birthday" every birthday? Your last uninhibited rendition is still on my voice mail. How often have we exchanged our mutual gratitude, the easy unthinking kindnesses of long friendship?
(Reading) This mysterious silence isn't kind. It keeps me up at night, bewildered, at some stage of grief. Would your actual death be easier to bear? I crave your laugh, your quirky takes, your latest comedy of errors. When one's friends hate each other, Pound wrote near the end of his life, how can there be peace in the world? We loved each other. Why, why, why am I dead to you?
(Reading) Our birthdays are looming. The older I get, the less and less I understand this world and the people in it.
BIANCULLI: That's Lloyd Schwartz, our classical music critic, reading his poem "To My Oldest Friend, Whose Silence Is Like A Death." Coming up, our film critic David Edelstein but not with a poem. He has a review entirely in prose of the new British movie called "Lock." This is FRESH AIR.
DAVID BIANCULLI, HOST: This is FRESH AIR. The actor Tom Hardy plays the title character in the British film "Locke," in which a man's life unravels in the course of a solo drive from Birmingham to London. "Locke" was written and directed by Steven Knight, who also penned the scripts for "Eastern Promises" and "Dirty Pretty Things." Film critic David Edelstein has this review.
DAVID EDELSTEIN, BYLINE: "Locke" is a most unusual film. It might not seem so odd as a radio play or even a stage play. The protagonist, his situation, they're fairly conventional. But to do what "Locke" does as a movie, that takes daring. The film is set in one space at one time. The arc of action is continuous.
There is only one character onscreen and just the top third of him: a man in a car, southbound on a motorway toward London. His name is Ivan Locke, he's played by Tom Hardy, and he's upending his life in front of your eyes, or rather your ears. Locke has a hands-free phone, and he's making and taking calls from first moment to last.
The conversations are urgent because Locke has just left his home and job without warning. In the first 15 minutes, we learn that there's a woman in London who's about to give birth to a baby he fathered, and she's not his wife. He barely, truth to tell, knows her. We also learn something momentous will occur at his job very early in the morning, and he won't be there. It's one of Europe's all-time biggest pours.
It takes a while to adjust to the thick regional English accents, so I'll spell that: P-O-U-R-S, pours, as in concrete. There's an immense building going up, and Locke is in charge of the foundation. Tens of millions of dollars ride on that pour, and good old steady, solid, responsible Locke is the most reliably superb of pourers.
This is because of his reverence for the concrete. He speaks of it poetically, as something that lives and breathes, and of the buildings of it supports that will, quote, displace the sky. So as he drives, Locke has heated conversations with his outraged boss, a drunken underling who must now take charge of the pour, the policemen who must close the roads, and councilmen who must to approve those closings, not to mention his sons waiting for him to come home to watch a big soccer match, his wife, who suspects nothing, and the woman in the London hospital whose labor is increasingly dire.
The conversations with one of the sons are the most heartbreaking. You get an inkling of the emotion, even in his first call home.
(SOUNDBITE OF MOVIE, "LOCKE")
TOM HOLLAND: (As Eddie) Hello?
TOM HARDY: (As Ivan Locke) Eddie, it's your dad. Is your mother there?
HOLLAND: (As Eddie) No, she's not back from the shop yet. She's getting that German beer that you like for the match.
HARDY: (As Locke) OK, listen, I won't be back for that.
HOLLAND: (As Eddie) What?
HARDY: Something's come up. I can't get out of it.
HOLLAND: (As Eddie) I'm wearing the shirt. Mum's getting sausages. Oh yeah, and guess what? She's wearing the shirt as well. Dad, it's so embarrassing. Yeah, what did you say about coming home?
HARDY: (As Locke) I won't be back for the match. I'll have to listen to it on the radio.
HOLLAND: (As Eddie) Dad, you said you'd be back. It's rubbish on the radio. Mum's doing sausages and all.
HARDY: (As Locke) Is your brother there?
HOLLAND: (As Eddie) Yes, do you want a word?
HARDY: (As Locke) No, just tell - will you just tell your mother to call me when she gets back? Thank you. Thank you.
HOLLAND: (As Eddie) Yeah, sure.
HARDY: (As Locke) I love you.
HOLLAND: (As Eddie) What?
HARDY: (As Locke) That's OK. You know what? Just get her to call me when she gets back. Thank you.
HOLLAND: (As Eddie) Yeah, so all right. Bye, dad.
EDELSTEIN: Tom Hardy is one of those actors I'd be afraid to approach on the street. He's not big, but the fact that he played the psychotic strongman Bane in "The Dark Knight Rises" tells you he can look and act huge. He has what Richard Burton had, at least before Burton turned sodden from booze: a quicksilver temperament. A low boil is Hardy's natural state.
He's bearded here, which softens his thick lips, and the accent he adopts reminds me of Burton's. The effect is like a bully boy smoothing his edges to play a king. But nothing can soften Hardy's innate volatility.
Writer-director Steven Knight has, as I've said, done an ordinary thing in an extraordinary way. Ivan Locke, who has left his former life to reverse his destiny, who speaks with awe about displacing sky, who reminds us his world now consists of himself and his car, is a textbook existential hero. Why has he taken this dramatic step? Without revealing too much, I'll say it all goes back to his childhood.
He's asserting that he's not a slave to fate. Knight gives us something else onscreen in "Locke": a near-abstract lightscape. The headlights that pass blur into ovals. Towards the end, in a steady rain, they vaguely resemble angels, though perhaps I'm projecting. Reflections, double exposures, patches of melancholy blue and searing yellow, it all matches the hero's inner state.
But Tom Hardy is the movie's heart and soul. Once you've spent an hour and a half in a car with him, you'll never forget his face.
BIANCULLI: David Edelstein is film critic for New York magazine.
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