Wednesday, May 28, 2014

Remembering Maya Angelou, an earth angel

What can you say? The St. Louis native, 86, wrote her own life, in autobiography, essay, and poetry; you must admit, she took the opportunity of being alive to speak for herself. When you look across the pop culture landscape, I think you see we need her now as much as ever.

I'd speculate she is the most read poet of the late Twentieth Century. She had the stature to rightly criticize a Martin Luther King, Jr. memorial for its poor quote ("that made him sound like an arrogant twit." “If you want to say that I was a drum major, say that I was a drum major for justice," he said. Well, count her as the flag corp leader for wisdom, at the very least. Her words shared many with many of her poetic sisters and brothers, but what she means as an individual can't be replaced, only honored.

I was 17, coming from a house where my parents didn't read around me, when I discovered instructors at the Governor's Honors Program speaking of Maya Angelou in hushed, respectful tones. I had yet to discover how important a dignified Black female voice would be across the mental landscape, among those who think and feel deeply. It is not only her words, but their context, her background, her identity in this world as well as the being within, in which we are all alike, that infuses our conversation about her words with rich textures, further questions, additional meaning. When I first encountered her---for to meet one's word is to be the person herself--- I had barely been initiated to the world of poetry. Our words of song seem to have so little force amid the crushing realities of politics and business, yet without their essence, even among those who do not read them but think and feel in their would life be worthwhile? Meaning is worthwhile. There's no greater agony than to bear a story untold, she said. As I assess her words as a body, I become proud to share her insights and sentiments, proud to write, proud to love. Proud to have shared this Earth with beings invested in her nurturing.

Maya---that name often means "earth," and what is her last name, but that of an angel?--- became a well-spring of the sort of aphorisms that have enlightened us across recorded time. To speak wisdom is to be timeless. To be quoted is to never remain silent.

We, unaccostomed to courage,
exiles from delight
live coiled in shell of loneliness
until love leaves its high holy temple
and comes into our sight
to liberate us into life.

Love arrives
and in its train comes ecstasies
old memories of pleasure
ancient histories of pain.
Yet if we are bold, love strikes away
the chains of fears from our souls.

We are weaned from our timidity
in the flush of love's light
We dare be brave
and suddenly we see
that love costs all that we are
and will ever be.
Yet it is only love
that sets us free.

-Maya Angelou.
And glad I am that I had to type each word, the better to remember.
Her first name was the earth. Her last name now will be the angel. The work created by those who read her---in deed and in feeling and imagination---is another, which is somehow greater even than the poet's body. It goes on unfinished, breathing, vivid, to this day, and all the days these words are read, and more to come. Rest in Peace. Live in us forever.

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