“The caged bird sings with a fearful trill / of things unknown but longed for still / and his tune is heard on the distant hill / for the caged bird sings of freedom”
I was woken up this morning by an alert on my phone informing me that the poet Maya Angelou had passed away at the age of 86. I had no idea who she was until the mid-90’s when I heard her voice declaiming the words to the poem “I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings” in the Buckshot LeFonque song of the same name. I wasn’t a fan of poetry, though I loved words, having decided that prose was more my speed, but that song, those words, they held me. I felt a lump in my throat and a tightness in my chest, and for the first time a poem made me feel. That seed germinated in me and a year later, I watched Il Postino, the Italian film about a lovelorn postman on a remote island who befriended the exiled poet, Pablo Neruda. The film had Neruda’s poetry scattered throughout it, and upon leaving the theater I resolved to go to the library and check out a book of poetry.
After 5 or 6 years I found myself miserable as an employee of a chain bookstore that shall remain nameless. Stuck at the help desk on the late evening shift, I started writing poems, mostly trifling stuff, some terrible love poetry and such. But I felt my spirit rising. Around the same time, I heard Dr Angelou’s “I Rise” and once again I felt something. It’s the rare poem that describes your life as you are living it right now, regardless of where or how you are living that life. It spoke to me, standing with armfuls of books and explaining to customers that I couldn’t help them to find that “book with the yellow cover that was on your front table about four months ago”. So I did, I rose, I quit that job, I wrote more poetry, I looked at the world around me, searching for beauty and meaning (as we all do, I suppose) and trying to put that beauty and meaning down on paper. On scraps of paper, in battered spiral bound notebooks, I put down thoughts unfinished, poems completed, ideas and observations. Until one day, I just stopped. I have never been as prolific as I was in that period, words have never come as easily as they did then. I lived a different life, was born as a different man for a short time, and my mother was Maya Angelou, and my father was Pablo Neruda.
It’s been awhile since I read a poem that made me feel. But I did feel something when I read the news this morning. In the same way that I realized that my parents were real people as I grew older, I learned that Maya Angelou was a real woman with a real past, and not just the emblem she had become in the popular imagination (of dignified black womanhood? Of exotic black wisdom? Take your pick, she was many things to many people). I didn’t know about her past, in the same way I don’t know everything about my parents, but it doesn’t lessen the effect she had on my relationship with words. Good bye, Maya Angelou, I hope these poorly crafted words don’t offend, but you accept them as you go to your just reward.