Maya Angelou’s “Still I Rise”

I was actually thinking about this very poem a few days ago, while writing a note to my friend Tony, who was the narrator of Darrell Grant’s Ruby Bridges Suite when my church performed it this past June. I don’t think there’s a public recording available of that movement (yet, anyway), but it is stirring stuff. I was thinking of Tony’s voice bringing the congregation to its feet as he read Grant’s adaptation of Angelou’s words (Angelou’s poem quoted here):

I’m a black ocean, leaping and wide,
Welling and swelling I bear in the tide.

… Bringing the gifts that my ancestors gave,
I am the dream and the hope of the slave.
I rise
I rise
I rise.

In the meantime, what is online is Connye Florance, singing as Ruby’s grandmother — “Hold My Hand“:

For the world, child, is not fair
Danger follows everywhere
Lift your eyes, child
You will see
God is watching

[I quote from more of the suite in this entry from that week. Tennis to poetry to church — it is all related.]

“the thing steady and clear”

During church this morning, in the Story for All Ages, the minister retold the parable of the prodigal son, and I found myself sympathizing wholeheartedly with the brother who refuses to participate in the celebration, pointing out to his father [paraphrasing], I have done everything you asked of me, every day, and even tried to anticipate what was needed before you asked for it. Where is the feast for me? And Jack Gilbert’s The Abnormal Is Not Courage — a poem that knocked me off my feet when I was a teenager, to the extent that I copied it out by hand and sent it to friends, came to mind: “I say courage is not the abnormal. / Not the marvelous act. Not Macbeth with fine speeches…”

The older I get, the more I end up arguing with Gilbert’s postulates and conclusions throughout his oeuvre, to the extent that five years ago I drafted a poem about dumping a drink over his head. But on less irritable days I am capable of being captivated by texts I don’t fundamentally agree with (readers of my other journals may recognize this in my repeat visits to Francis Thompson’s “The Hound of Heaven” and C. H. Sisson’s “A Letter to John Donne”). I disagree with “The Abnormal Is Not Courage” because it casts a false mutual exclusivity between the burst of bravery and domestic drudgery. As much as I identify with Martha rather than Mary, the cook instead of the countess, yadda yadda etcetera, the either/or angle doesn’t work for me: whether it’s a one-time stand or a stoic stretch of endurance, call it courage if it propeled the person into harm’s way or out of their comfort zone. I’ll allow that there may be better words than “courage” for assessing and elaborating on such acts, but that is also a reflection of where I seem to be headed both artistically and theologically: a general preference for discussing and examining things in terms of what they are rather than what they are not.

In that vein, “The Abnormal Is Not Courage” remains a touchstone poem for me because I’ve known it for almost thirty years, because it does steer the reader/listener toward those things of many days and long accomplishment. and because thinking about it in tandem with this morning’s services may be the kick in the pants I needed to rework the Pittsburgh poem and the Martha poem and draft some new ones on related themes. This morning’s sermon presented a bounty of springboards. Rev. Gail mentioned that she had planned the service with a worship associate, Rachel Rogers, who had read the parable from Luke (15:11-32) as a story about three kinds of courage: the courage of the prodigal, first in claiming his inheritance for adventure and later in admitting that he had screwed up; the courage of the older brother, in showing vulnerability by voicing his anger and hurt; and the courage of the father, both in welcoming the prodigal back into the family and in going out to the unhappy sibling — the courage of trying to keep connections alive. (The title of the sermon was “Loving without Limitation.”) Rev. Gail also spent some time describing her experience of reading Henri Nouwen’s Return of the Prodigal Son — about identifying with all the bystanders Rembrandt depicted in his painting. (She placed a copy of the book next to the pulpit, and there was a QR code linking to the painting in the order of service.)

Plenty to think about. Plenty to write about. As ever.

 

I believe I would come out and wash my face

Today’s subject line is from James Wright’s “Yes, But,” which is mentioned in Molly Wizenberg’s A Homemade Life as the one she read at her father’s memorial service. She writes that her father “would have loved the fact that this poem allowed me to say ‘making love’ — while wearing fishnets, I should add, an edgy touch he would have also applauded — before a priest, a bishop, a rabbi, and an overflow crowd of 550 people in an Episcopal church in Bible-belted Oklahoma City.”

The poem, and more about her father, are in this 2004 post at her blog, Orangette.

I picked up the book on remainder earlier this year, on impulse. I took it to bed with me last night (having slipped on a step fourteen hours earlier and landed on it hard, I was feeling too achy to think and too sore to sleep) and it was just right — it includes a fair bit about Paris, and a powerful chapter about her father’s last days, and a cast of opinionated food-lovers that include a vegetarian composer and a Seattle menage-à-trois: “Jimmy is the baker, John is the cook, and Rebecca is the force of nature.” MW continues:

“Moll, you need two husbands,” Rebecca announced, stirring a snowdrift of sugar into her iced tea. “You can’t expect one person to be everything for you. You need at least two. At least.” I nodded. She had a point. I have thought about it many times since, and I don’t know that I entirely agree — so far, one husband is almost more than enough for me — but she did have a very good point. But that morning, the scent of melted butter was rising from the stove, and talk of husbands, singular or plural, had nothing on it.

The book also devotes pages 216-17 to “radishes and butter with fleur de sel,” MW having reminisced two pages earlier about visiting her boyfriend on West 123rd Street in NYC and how “sometimes we would wake up late and walk to get a jug of orange juice, a bunch of radishes, a baguette, and some butter. Back at home, we ate lazily at the wobbly table with the window open, the box fan blowing, and my bare feet on his lap.”

Reading this took me back to the last time I’d eaten radishes — which was indeed with toast and butter and salt, over at Holland House, with three dear friends — and it made me wish there were radishes in the house. And I went shopping earlier today, so now there are. What marvelous times these are.

*glee*

From Luc Reid’s “What Goes Around, Stays Around” (flashfic):

“Mechaieh … the poet?”

“Of course the poet.”

“But I heard that all of her poems turned into flocks of birds when you read them.”

“That’s only her recent ones. This is one of the old ones.”

“So you’ve read it?”

“Of course not. You think I want it to turn into a flock of birds?”


Not much going on with me poetry-wise at the moment, although I’ve got a couple ideas I might try to turn into flocks of birds later tonight, after the roasting of a chicken and napping à la cat. (One of these years I will swing a full night’s sleep before Easter services. This year’s was nice — the readings included two poems by Rilke and one by e.e. cummings — but I confess there were also stretches where I simply let my mind wander, focusing less on the sermon and more on the gorgeous cerulean blue of the thangka (traditional Buddhist painting) behind the pulpit.)