A Review of “The Complete Collected Poems of Maya Angelou”

Maya angelouWhat I like about poetry is that it is never completely “read”. Like the Akshaya Patra (“Inexhaustible Vessel”) in the Indian Epic Mahabharata, which keeps on delivering food no matter how many times one approaches it, a poetry book will keep on supplying food for the intellect. In every new reading of a favourite poem, you will find something fresh to appreciate.

I read this book by Maya Angelou after I finished the first part of her biography, I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings, because I was impressed by her boldness and candour. Maya does not try to gloss over the fact that she’s black: she embraces it, along with all the distressing historical baggage that comes with it.

 

Africa

Thus she had lain
sugarcane sweet
deserts her hair
golden her feet
mountains her breasts
two Niles her tears.
Thus she has lain
Black through the years.

Over the white seas
rime white and cold
brigands ungentled
icicle bold
took her young daughters
sold her strong sons
churched her with Jesus
bled her with guns.
Thus she has lain.

Now she is rising
remember her pain
remember the losses
her screams loud and vain
remember her riches
her history slain
now she is striding
although she had lain.

This is remembrance with a vengeance.

The past, with it tales of violence, rapes, lynchings and mutilations is not forgotten, neither is it used as force of blind hatred and revenge. It is absorbed and sublimated in the psyche. What is celebrated here is the endurance of a race forced to live for untold years without even the basic dignity afforded to any human being – their humanity.

Song for the Old Ones

My Fathers sit on benches
their flesh counts every plank
the slats leave dents of darkness
deep in their withered flanks.

They nod like broken candles
all waxed and burnt profound
they say “It’s understanding
that makes the world go round.”

There in those pleated faces
I see the auction block
the chains and slavery’s coffles
the whip and lash and stock.

My Fathers speak in voices
that shred my fact and sound
they say “It’s our submission
that makes the world go round.”

They used the finest cunning
their naked wits and wiles
the lowly Uncle Tomming
and Aunt Jemimas’ smiles.

They’ve laughed to shield their crying
then shuffled through their dreams and
stepped ‘n’ fetched a country
to write the blues with screams.

I understand their meaning
it could and did derive
from living on the edge of death
They kept my race alive.

The race is kept alive by the resilience of a people who refuse to break. As the woman in the poem “Our Grandmothers” says:

Centered on the world’s stage,
she sings to her loves and beloveds,
to her foes and detractors:
However I am perceived and deceived,
however my ignorance and conceits,
lay aside your fears that I will be undone,
for I shall not be moved.

slavery1

This is the power of silent resistance, of suffering converted to strength. This is what empowered Mahatma Gandhi and Nelson Mandela. And when it’s combined with an unapologetic and fiercely sexual femininity, it becomes almost too hot to handle.

Phenomenal Woman

Pretty women wonder where my secret lies.
I’m not cute or built to suit a fashion model’s size
But when I start to tell them,
They think I’m telling lies.
I say,
It’s in the reach of my arms,
The span of my hips,
The stride of my step,
The curl of my lips.
I’m a woman
Phenomenally.
Phenomenal woman,
That’s me.

I walk into a room
Just as cool as you please,
And to a man,
The fellows stand or
Fall down on their knees.
Then they swarm around me,
A hive of honey bees.
I say,
It’s the fire in my eyes,
And the flash of my teeth,
The swing in my waist,
And the joy in my feet.
I’m a woman
Phenomenally. Phenomenal woman,
That’s me.

Men themselves have wondered
What they see in me.
They try so much
But they can’t touch
My inner mystery.
When I try to show them,
They say they still can’t see.
I say,
It’s in the arch of my back,
The sun of my smile,
The ride of my breasts,
The grace of my style.
I’m a woman
Phenomenally.
Phenomenal woman,
That’s me.

Now you understand
Just why my head’s not bowed.
I don’t shout or jump about
Or have to talk real loud.
When you see me passing,
It ought to make you proud.
I say,
It’s in the click of my heels,
The bend of my hair,
the palm of my hand,
The need for my care.
‘Cause I’m a woman
Phenomenally.
Phenomenal woman,
That’s me.

This phenomenal woman who represents all of Africa also has a bone to pick with her white sister: of traumas passed down through the generations from myth to the present age, which must be exorcised like dust slowly filling ruts on the road of history.

slavery2

Family Affairs

You let down, from arched
Windows,
Over hand-cut stones of your
Cathedrals, seas of golden hair.

While I, pulled by dusty braids,
Left furrows in the
Sands of African beaches.

Princes and commoners
Climbed over waves to reach
Your vaulted boudoirs,

As the sun, capriciously,
Struck silver fire from waiting
Chains, where I was bound.

My screams never reached
The rare tower where you
Lay, birthing masters for
My sons, and for my
Daughters, a swarm of
Unclean badgers, to consume
Their history.

Tired now of pedestal existence
For fear of flying
And vertigo, you descend
And step lightly over My centuries of horror
And take my hand,
Smiling, call me
Sister.

Sister, accept
That I must wait a
While. Allow an age
Of dust to fill
Ruts left on my
Beach in Africa.

Ultimately, among all the poems contained here, it was old man Willie who really captivated me.

Willie

Willie was a man without fame,
Hardly anybody knew his name.
Crippled and limping, always walking lame,
He said, “I keep on movin’
Movin’ just the same.”

Solitude was the climate in his head,
Emptiness was the partner in his bed,
Pain echoed in the steps of his tread,
He said, “I keep on followin’
Where the leaders led.

“I may cry and I will die,
But my spirit is the soul of every spring,
Watch for me and you will see
That I’m present in the songs that children sing.”

People called him “Uncle,” “Boy” and “Hey,”
Said, “You can’t live through this another day.”
Then, they waited to hear what he would say.
He said, “I’m living
In the games that children play.

“You may enter my sleep, people my dreams,
Threaten my early morning’s ease,
But I keep comin’ followin’ laughin’ cryin’,
Sure as a summer breeze.

“Wait for me, watch for me.
My spirit is the surge of open seas.
Look for me, ask for me,
I’m the rustle in the autumn leaves.

“When the sun rises
I am the time.
When the children sing
I am the Rhyme.”

He stands there with his toothless smile, not only in America, but all over the world, wherever the misery of one class feeds the luxury of another. His smile seems idiotic to shallow minds. Only the perceptive can understand that it actually carries a timeless wisdom.

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