if you could rub your palms across the planks of this old kitchen table, if we could all hear the scccrrch of the legs of the chairs scuffing across the floor boards of this old kitchen, if i could pour you all whatever it is you sip, there in the heavy chipped mugs that fit flush against your palms, well surely this morning we’d all be pausing, paying attention to the great light of the poet, the one with the gravelly cadence that made us wish she was our grandmama, or the wise lady who lived down the lane, or the prophet who knew our name.
maya angelou died this week, on wednesday at 86, which you certainly know by now. so we are left to sift through her pages, her words, her rhythms, her heart as she’s sprinkled it across sentences, across years.
a poet’s ashes, holy ashes, are the words she or he leaves behind, words pressed to the page. and we hold the poet to the light by sifting, poring over those everlasting traces of who the poet was, and how she saw the world, how the world filtered through her irreplaceable lens and settled on her soul.
and what you do when someone passes into the heavens is you stop what you were doing, you draw in the deepest breath you possibly can, and, sometimes, you don’t want to let that breath go, afraid to let go of the air that once co-mingled with the air of the someone who’s gone. i remember that breath when my papa died, and for a flash of an instant i wondered if i could hold it forever, not wanting the breath of a world in which he’d dwelled to escape — ever — from the depths of my chest.
but this is about maya, maya angelou, a poet and heart song who made me feel safe, safe in this bone-rattling, rockabye world.
now i can’t say i’m any sort of scholar of maya. only that she’s among the ones — women, many of them — whose words i often read in triplicate, because the words are so breathtaking on the first whirl, my eyes and my heart simply go back to the start of the sentence to read it again. to breathe it again. to catch the updraft and make me go soaring. to delve into the construction, the word choice, to figure it out, to see how she does it. like watching, i suppose, a brilliant hand surgeon reweave the tendons of a woodworker’s thumb. or sitting off to the side of a painter as she daubs her brush in the palette of oily whites and yellows and blues and greens, and puts them just so on the canvas, and suddenly sunlight is dappled where before there was only a montage of paint dabs.
so this dappled morning at the table, we sift through what maya has left us….
here, a few sentences worth reading in triplicate (these from angelou’s 1969 memoir, “i know why the caged bird sings,” which many know as the poem. this, though, is from the less familiar prose):
“Late one day, as we were attending to the pigs, I heard a horse in the front yard (it really should have been called a driveway, except that there was nothing to drive into it), and ran to find out who had come riding up on a Thursday evening…
The used-to-be sheriff sat rakishly astraddle his horse. His nonchalance was meant to convey his authority and power over even dumb animals. How much more capable he would be with Negroes. It went without saying.
His twang jogged in the brittle air. From the side of the store, Bailey and I heard him say to Momma, ‘Annie, tell Willie he better lay low tonight. A crazy nigger messed with a white lady today. Some of the boys’ll be coming over here later.’ Even after the slow drag of years, I remember the sense of fear which filled my mouth with hot, dry air and made my body light.”
and here, because my mama ran to the library to get it, is the start of maya’s 2008 “letter to my daughter”:
This letter has taken an extraordinary time getting itself together. I have all along known that I wanted to tell you directly of some lessons I have learned and under what conditions I have learned them.
My life has been long, and believing that life loves the liver of it, I have dared to try many things, sometimes trembling, but daring, still.
There have been people in my life who meant me well, taught me valuable lessons, and others who have meant me ill, and have given me ample notification that my world is not meant to be all peaches and cream.
I have made many mistakes and no doubt will make more before I die. When I have seen pain, when I have found that my ineptness has caused displeasure, I have learned to accept my re- sponsibility and to forgive myself first, then to apologize to anyone injured by my misreckoning. Since I cannot un-live history, and repentance is all I can offer God, I have hopes that my sincere apologies were accepted.
You may not control all the events that happen to you, but you can decide not to be reduced by them. Try to be a rainbow in someone’s cloud. Do not complain. Make every effort to change things you do not like. If you cannot make a change, change the way you have been thinking. You might find a new solution.
Never whine. Whining lets a brute know that a victim is in the neighborhood.
Be certain that you do not die without having done something wonderful for humanity.
I gave birth to one child, a son, but I have thousands of daughters. You are Black and White, Jewish and Muslim, Asian, Spanish-speaking, Native American and Aleut. You are fat and thin and pretty and plain, gay and straight, educated and unlettered, and I am speaking to you all.
and finally, we close with this, from 1995’s “a brave and startling truth,” the poem maya wrote for the 50th anniversary of the united nations (it’s more than worth reading every last word of the entire poem, but here’s the last stanza):
When we come to it
We must confess that we are the possible
We are the miraculous, the true wonder of this world
That is when, and only when
We come to it.
should you choose to read a bit more about maya, the poetry foundation puts it poetically here.
and, now for the best part of our pause, what lines from maya do you bring to the table?
p.s. i hope she wouldn’t mind my calling her maya instead of the more stately ms. angelou. either one would do, and i beg her pardon — or yours — if the familiarity of using her first name suggests anything other than the deepest of dignified respect.