I was wholly unprepared for this Maya who wrote the Blues. I suddenly felt the down home Delta Blues everywhere in her work—the syncopation embedded in her lyrical style and in the movement of her phrases from line to line. Now I was absolutely hooked. I know everyone doesn’t like the Blues. But what man on earth cannot understand a Blues lyric. The power of the Blues is in its simplicity; it latches onto the utterly human lust for something—anything—better when faced with an unrequited ambition.
The courage of Maya’s confession played the front man in her Blues band. The more I read the more I was forced to re-imagine her as she walked up to the microphone all regal and southern like a black church lady. Then she got to telling her testimony and I could feel the honky tonk in the fresh sweat glistening on her brow. Like here in an excerpt from the signature poem from her Shaker, Why Don’t You Sing? collection:
Evicted from sleep’s mute palace,/ I wait in silence/
for the bridal croon;/ your legs rubbing insistent/
rhythm against my thighs,/ your breast moaning/
a canticle in my hair./ But the solemn moments,/
unuttering, pass in/ unaccompanied procession./
You whose chanteys hummed/ my life alive, have withdrawn/
your music and lean inaudibly/ on the quiet slope of memory.
I’m not entirely sure I was ready to see the venerable Dr. Maya Angelou this way. But this Maya was a poetic genius. Her steady unrelenting persistence that only the cleanest and most unadorned words follow behind and make up the ground her defiant truth-telling had so desperately prepared made me into a wanton fan. Long before the advent of Oprah Winfrey and well before it was honorable for women of any stripe especially African-American women to speak publicly about the terror and shame induced by rape and incest and prostitution Maya told us her story. Maya’s story was complex. She was not only a victim of white racism but she was made to be a victim at the hands of her own Black uncle and the neglible parenting exhibited by both of her very African-American parents.
She didn’t hold anything back. Maya did not wait for a supermarket tabloid to tell us all her business. She brought us directly into her bedroom. We knew she like men but sometimes she liked women too. Plain as day she told us she had in her youth worked as a prostitute in hard times. This was the avowal Maya marched out into the brutal unfriendly frontline of America’s cultural wars—that bloody battlefield steeped in a scathing unjust racism and an entrenched disdain for women.
Somehow well in advance of her time Maya understood, for her, the gift that would become her words was inextricably tied to the occasion of her unholy trauma how she would survive it and the extent to which she could ever be healed. Her courage to speak out and to speak plain was emboldened by an enduring belief that her very own bona fide and undignified blues could simultaneously serve all of us. Survival by confession became a metaphor for the vast insufferable bruise slavery inflicted upon not only the black community but on the entirety of American society.
This is why I believe Ms. Angelou stripped language down to its most essential parts. Not because she could not formulate more complicated sentences and dress them up with fancier vocabulary. After all this is a woman that had memorized whole works of Shakespeare and Edgar Allen Poe by the time she was seven years of age.
For Maya her audience came first. Then she told the most perfect and disciplined story she could using the common words and metaphors of the people’s language. She dared not speak above those brought the lowest by society’s burden. She needed us to listen. We need to hear—whether we knew it or not.
She never abandoned this fundamental desire to touch every man. In an interview with TIME, in the early Spring of 2013 at the beginning of Dr. Maya Angelou’s 85th year on the planet she tells us:
“I still have not written as well as I would like to write.
I want to write so that the reader in Des Moine Iowa
Kowloon, China Capetown, Pretoria, South Africa,
Harlem an Boston… I want to write so that reader can say
that’s the truth. I wasn’t there I am not a 6 foot tall black girl
but that’s the truth. That’s the truth, that’s human.”
In the poem Martial Choreograph in Shaker, Why Don’t You Sing? she captures at once the shared and unique mind-state of every young American soldier off to war whether they were Black White or otherwise.
Manhood is a newly delivered/ message. Your eyes,/
rampant as an open city,/have not yet seen life steal from/
limbs outstretched and trembling/
like the arms of dancers/ and dying swans.
In the poem The Lie from the same collection I felt like I was inhaling scorned lover’s terror right when it mixed with rage and then bounced up against the bruised dignity one suffers in the wake of betrayal:
I keep, behind my lips,/ invectives capable of tearing/
the septum from your/ nostrils and the skin from your back.
Tears, copious as a spring rain,/ are checked in ducts/
and screams are crowded in a corner/of my throat/
You are leaving?
If I had to pick a favorite Maya Angelou poem it would be the one poem that she almost certainly is the most widely known for On the Pulse of Morning read at the Inauguration of President Bill Clinton in January of 1993. This poem for me so purely demonstrates the essence of Doctor Maya Angelou’s genius—the purpose and precision with which she chose word and metaphor. She implicitly understood that her audience on that day in that particular time and place was not only a diverse and divided nation but also an entire world in the throes of political upheaval and economic transition.
I imagine in her preparation Maya thought what words imagery can I invoke to help orient and anchor an audience this troubled and this vast?
Maya chose to begin this poem with A Rock A River A Tree and end it with the simple way most cultures across the planet greet each other—Good Morning!
Need I say more!
“The voice is where the magic begins. It is with this sound that the spell is spoken and sent across the universe.” ~ Brad Walrond
Poet, writer, performer and activist Brad Walrond was born in Brooklyn New York to first generation Caribbean parents from Barbados. Brad began writing and performing at the age of 24 when he was asked to participate in a theatrical production curated by the legendary entertainer and activist Harry Belafonte.
Shortly thereafter Brad discovered a thriving community of artists, writers and performers at the Sunday Tea Party at Frank’s Lounge in Brooklyn. The Tea Party was an instrumental incubator as Brad honed his craft soon becoming one of the foremost writers and performers of the Black Arts Movement of ‘90s. It was at the Tea Party and other venues like the Brooklyn Moon Café, the Nuyorican Poets Café and numerous venues in and around NYC that Brad had the pleasure of sharing the stage with renowned writers, poets and artists including Abiodun Oyewole of the Last Poets, legendary actress/writer Ruby Dee, Erykah Badu, Saul Williams, Jessica Care Moore, Mos Def, Liza Jesse Peterson, Universes (Then: Mildred Ruiz, Stephen Sapp, Flaco Navaja and Lemon Anderson) and Craig “muMs” Grant.
Brad’s creative voice is rooted in an activist tradition. While pursuing his creative path Brad also served as Assistant to the National Program Director of Pathways to Teaching Careers and as Director of Education at FACES—the historic non-profit in Harlem New York first to respond to the HIV pandemic targeting at-risk populations of color.
Brad received his BA at the City College of New York and received a full scholarship to pursue is doctoral studies in the Department of Political Science at Columbia University. Brad’s battle with major depression upended his studies and he chose to pursue an alternate career in the culinary arts. Brad has had the privilege to cook at some of the finest world-class kitchens in New York City.
For nearly a decade, due to a demanding work schedule, and a persistent depression Brad became disconnected from his creative voice. Fortunately with what he attributes to much prayer, perseverance and professional medical care Brad has found his way back to the rich echoes of his creative voice.
The voice is to a poet what point of view is to a visual artist. It is your signature footprint on the creative landscape. Brad has returned with fervor to his prodigious creative terrain and is claiming his rightful place in it. He has been missed. He is more then just a poet or a speaker of words; he is a weaver of spells and bringer of passion and light.