In death, a powerful voice
“I’ve learned that people will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel.” – Maya Angelou
With the May death of Maya Angelou, we lost a wise and compassionate poet. When President Bill Clinton asked that she write a poem for his inauguration, she delivered one of her most famous “On the Pulse of Morning.” (Space does not allow for the entire poem, but it is available on the internet.)
The poem begins sharply with accusative metaphors, but in the second stanza turns to a positive challenge: the people’s assault against the planet, cries for peace among the peoples of the earth, cries for the earth as a living, guiding body and spirit.
In the poem she identifies with the earth, with the symbols particularly of the rock, the river, and the tree, and so addresses us all, from the individual to the nations of the world:
Each of you, a bordered country,
Delicate and strangely proud,
Yet thrusting perpetually under siege.
Your armed struggles for profit
Have left collars of waste upon
My shore, currents of debris upon my breast.
And in a continued emphasis on the planetary totality of life, in which there is no division between the animate and the inanimate, all existence, all matter is alive, as taught by many of the world’s religions, including religions American Indian tribes, she asserts the need to listen to the earth:
There is a yearning to respond to
The singing River. . .
So say the Asian, the Hispanic, the Jew
The African, the Native American, the Sioux
And particularizes the African experience of slavery and implies that the American dream is also rooted in the African dream, and therefore universal:
. . .The Ashanti, the Yoruba, the Kru, bought,
Sold, stolen, arriving on a nightmare
Praying for a dream.
And then appeals to the healing of the past:
History, despite its wrenching pain,
Cannot be unlived, but if faced
With courage, need not be lived again.
And then moves toward the end of the poem with images of rebirth and awakening not just for the African and the American, but for all the peoples of the world unified in one dream:
Lift up your eyes upon
This day breaking for you
Give birth again to the dream.
In this poem Maya Angelou takes on the voice of the planet itself, in the rock, the river, and the tree, and speaks to all people of the earth. Thus, in the language of American poetry, her voice locates the common ground, the common dream of humankind.
“Be present in all things and thankful for all things.” – Maya Angelou
George Sebouhian is a Fredonia resident.