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Archive for October, 2014

poem is on the fence, next to my sister

poem is on the fence, next to my sister

 

Come. And Be My Baby

by Maya Angelou

 

The highway is full of big cars

going nowhere fast

And folks is smoking anything that’ll burn

Some people wrap their lies around a cocktail glass

And you sit wondering

where you’re going to turn

I got it.

Come. And be my baby.

 

Some prophets say the world is gonna end tomorrow

But others say we’ve got a week or two

The paper is full of every kind of blooming horror

And you sit wondering

What you’re gonna do.

I got it.

Come. And be my baby.

 

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To understand why I left Maya Angelou’s “Come. And Be My Baby” over a highway in suburban Maryland last week, you have to understand the atmosphere of persistent unease in the area and, more relevant, the nearly physical presence of the Cold War in my childhood home.

 

I was born three weeks after the Cuban Missile crisis in the suburbs of Washington, D.C. I don’t want to overstate the level of anxiety I grew up with, but my father’s periodic warnings that the Russians would be taking over soon were probably not conducive to childhood serenity. His paranoia was well-earned. He worked in the defense contracting industry, and as an ex-Naval officer, he had once been used as a guinea pig for nuclear bomb testing in Nevada. Everyone who lives in the D.C. area knows that the city has always been and always will be a target for enemies of our nation, but my dad actually planned for the day the target would be hit. When the bomb came, canned goods in the basement would keep us for a few days, and then we would move, all 13 of us, from wherever we found ourselves, to safer territory. He drew a circle around Washington with a radius of 200 miles to calculate how far we needed to go to avoid radiation poisoning. He decided that in the ensuing chaos of a nuclear bomb, our family meeting place was Morgantown, West Virginia. From my youngest days Morgantown, West Virginia was such an otherworldly place that when I first heard the Joni Mitchell song of the same name, I couldn’t believe Morgantown really existed. My sister remembers worrying, as a little girl, just how she was supposed to get to Morgantown by herself.

 

Let’s just say we didn’t take the stability of the world for granted.

 

End-of-the-world fears have been growing steadily everywhere in the last few months, but in Washington those fears seem a little more real. In this city of governance, policy and ideologues of every stripe, folks discuss ISIS, Gaza, Putin, and Assad like other people talk about the neighbor’s lawn upkeep. The memory of the Beltway Sniper is still fresh, and kids who grew up locked in for recess so they wouldn’t get picked off in the schoolyard now worry about taking the subway to work because of recent terrorist threats. At the time I left the poem, an ebola patient had just been transferred to NIH in Bethesda (now released, praise be), dangerous people were hopping the White House fence, and the headlines were full of the usual reports of international disintegration.

 

So I consider this poem-elfing a public service. I taped “Come. And Be My Baby” to the fencing on a pedestrian bridge along the Trolley Trail, a peaceful path that runs over and alongside some of the major arteries for big cars/going nowhere fast. (Notice that the bridge is fenced to prevent people from jumping off. There’ also this encouraging graffiti,

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which reads, “We all have a heart/we all breathe/the rest is up to you.”)

 

Of course, Maya Angelou’s poem is written in response to the struggles of African-Americans, but it transcends the particular as it lands, forty years later, as solace for anyone overwhelmed by all the blooming horror we live in.

 

Her call to love in the face of doom is a time-honored ploy of seduction. Think of “To the Virgins, to Make Much Use of Time” and these lines from “Dover Beach”:

 

Ah, love, let us be true

To one another! for the world, which seems

To lie before us like a land of dreams,

So various, so beautiful, so new,

Hath really neither joy, nor love, nor light,

Nor certitude, nor peace, nor help for pain;

And we are here as on a darkling plain

Swept with confused alarms of struggle and flight,

Where ignorant armies clash by night.

 

What’s different here, for me anyway, is that a woman is the seducer. Her tone is more mild than urgent, but no less effective. The punctuation lends her siren call its gentleness. She motions her lover over to her with the simple Come. Then she issues her invitation, as if she’s giving her lover time to consider it.

 

One line of the poem puzzles me: I got it. Is it I got it, as in, I got what you need, or is it I got it, as in, I understand all your worries? It depends on how the phrase is inflected. By chance I just found out I’ll have the answer soon. On November 4, an album of poems accompanied by hip-hop beats and gospel music that Angelou was working on when she died will be released. One of the tracks is “Come. And Be My Baby.”

 

I’ve listened to another one of the tracks (“Still I Rise,” link here–it’s great), and hearing Angelou’s deep and resonant voice makes me appreciate her poetry more than I used to. As Poetry Foundation writes:

 

Angelou’s poetry often benefits from her performance of it: Angelou usually recites her poems before spellbound crowds. Indeed, Angelou’s poetry can also be traced to African-American oral traditions like slave and work songs, especially in her use of personal narrative and emphasis on individual responses to hardship, oppression and loss.

 

And reading about her life makes me appreciate Angelou in a whole new way. I say this as someone who’s had a resistance to her. I loved I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings as much as anyone, but the reverence afforded her poems and her person (and worse, her collaboration with Hallmark Cards on the Mosaic line), left me cold. The slightest scent of hagiography will send me running off in the opposite direction.

 

But what she lived through and what she accomplished! My goodness, I’ve come late to the party. Any one of the events of her life is enough for a movie, but her life is so jammed-pack with significant moments that The Maya Angelou Story would not be a believable script.

 

Screen Shot 2014-10-27 at 2.56.13 PMShe was born in 1928 in St. Louis, but after her parents’ divorce when she was 3 or 4, was sent to live in Arkansas with her grandmother. Over the years she was shuffled back and forth between her mother and grandmother, eventually landing in San Francisco. During one of the visits with her mother, when she was 8, she was raped by her mother’s boyfriend. She confided in her brother, who told the family. The rapist was sent to jail, released after a day, and then murdered, reportedly by Angelou’s uncles. After his murder, Angelou stopped speaking. She blamed her speaking out for his death.

 

With the help of a teacher, the appropriately named Mrs. Bertha Flowers, Angelou started speaking four or five years later. And then her life took off. She became San Francisco’s first African American female streetcar driver while still in high school. She gave birth at 17 to a boy, and worked as a waitress and cook to support herself and her child. She married a white man, a Greek sailor and musician, despite the difficulties of interracial marriage at the time. She studied dance under Martha Graham, and formed a dance partnership with Alvin Ailey before he became famous.

 

She sang and danced at a nightclub. She recorded a Calypso album in 1957 and wrote and performed in an off-Broadway review called Calypso Heat Wave and later a film based on that show. She toured Europe in Porgy and Bess. As she traveled, she taught herself the language of every country she visited. She was fluent in French, Spanish, Italian, Arabic and a West African language called Fanti.

 

In 1959 she moved to New York and joined the Harlem Writers Guild, befriending James Baldwin who became her mentor. Upon hearing Dr. Martin Luther King speak, she became an organizer for the Southern Christian Leadership Conference.

 

Screen Shot 2014-10-27 at 2.51.49 PMIn 1961 she performed in a Jean Genet play, The Blacks, along with legendary actors Cicely Tyson, Lou Gossett, James Earl Jones. She moved to Cairo with her son, where she worked as an editor at an English language newspaper, and on to Ghana where she served as an administrator at a university.

 

Angelou was devastated by the assassinations of her close friends Malcolm X and Martin Luther King. Shortly after she produced a 10-part documentary on the blues.

 

She wrote the first of her seven autobiographies in 1969 (the last one published when she was 83), I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings. She wrote a screenplay, she wrote soundtracks, she acted in the television mini-series Roots and several other shows, she wrote music for singer Roberta Flack (listen here) and B.B. King (and here). She gave the inaugural poem for President Clinton, the first poet to do so since Robert Frost spoke at Kennedy’s inauguration. In 1996 she directed a feature film with Wesley Snipes. Along the way she published cookbooks, earned over 50 honorary degrees and awards–a Tony, an Emmy and the National Medal of Freedom among them–and in her last few months worked on the posthumous album I mentioned earlier.

 

She is exhausting. A lifetime of nonstop creativity.

 

In the poem I left on the bridge, Angelou lists three antidotes to struggle and stress: drinking, drugs and love. But her amazing life suggests a fourth one.

 

Creative work, in case you skimmed over that long biography.

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poem is on trashcan

poem is on trashcan

 

Equinox

 

by Elizabeth Alexander

 

Now is the time of year when bees are wild

and eccentric. They fly fast and in cramped

loop-de-loops, dive-bomb clusters of conversants

in the bright, late-September out-of-doors.

I have found their dried husks in my clothes.

 

They are dervishes because they are dying,

one last sting, a warm place to squeeze

a drop of venom or of honey.

After the stroke we thought would be her last

my grandmother came back, reared back and slapped

 

a nurse across the face. Then she stood up,

walked outside, and lay down in the snow.

Two years later there is no other way

to say, we are waiting. She is silent, light

as an empty hive, and she is breathing.

 

 

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Years ago I visited a dear friend a few days before she died from cancer. She was sleeping when I came into her bedroom. She was so shrunken and still and dessicated that I thought for a moment she might already have passed. Her heavy eyes opened at the sound of my voice. It seemed to take her a moment to process who I was, and a moment longer to realize that I was there to visit the sick, and that this was a sickroom and she was the sick person. All the sudden she sprang up like a jack-in-the-box and got out of bed. “Let’s open the blinds, it’s so dark in here,” she said. She took a step or two with her old energy, but I got her back in bed before her bones collapsed under the little weight she had.

 

It was a shock to see her so suddenly up on her feet—as if she had risen from the dead before she was dead—but it was also, if it’s okay to say, a little comical. Like she didn’t get the memo that she was on her deathbed. Like she thought, Damn, this room is depressing.

 

So forgive me if I also find humor in Elizabeth Alexander’s beautiful poem “Equinox.” Grandma slapping the nurse, marching out into the snow while the family stands around the hospital bed in shock–I love that kind of crazy, that refusal to stop living, that last burst of energy, which as Alexander says, could be a drop of venom or of honey. Either way shows a defiance I admire. She’s Dylan Thomas’ dictum come to life:

 

Do not go gentle into that good night,

Old age should burn and rave at the close of day;

Rage, rage against the dying of the light

 

What’s marvelous about this poem is that the comedy of the grandmother’s behavior sits side by side with the painful vigil of the family, and neither side is denigrated. There is no other way to say, the speaker says, slightly ashamed to admit that the family is ready for her to permanently rest in peace. Waiting two years for someone to die must be tedious and unnerving. The poem’s title, “Equinox,” becomes an unanswered wish. The equinox is a temporary suspension of reality, a single day of near perfect balance between day and night. The grandmother’s state—neither dead nor fully alive—begs for a resolution that does not come. The last line of the poem is chilling, like the last line of a ghost story: and she is still breathing.

 

The unsettledness of this perpetual equinox is steadied by the poem’s tight structure. Like a sturdy tripod, the three stanzas balance the loop-de-loops and the loopiness. The bees and the grandmother, mirroring each other as they do, each get their own stanza. They meet in the middle stanza, and the transition is so nimble I keep going back to it.

 

I left the poem a week before the autumn equinox (September 23 this year) on a trashcan near a picnic area. Any other year that might have been counterproductive. Swarms of bees would prevent people from lingering to read the poem. But this year I haven’t seen bees in weeks. Maybe that’s because of CCD (Colony Collapse Disorder) or maybe because here in Michigan our season of mists and mellow fruitfulness came and left in a matter of hours. Sandals and nearly nude runners are long gone too, and woe is me and everyone else in the state as we look forward to a winter worse than last year’s.

 

Screenshot 2014-10-08 11.02.36Poet, essayist and playwright Elizabeth Alexander was born in 1962 in Harlem but was raised in Washington , D.C. There her father, Clifford Alexander, Jr., served as Chairman of the Equal Opportunity Commission under President Johnson and Secretary of the Army for the Carter administration. Her mother was a writer and professor of African-American women’s history at George Washington University.

 

Alexander graduated from Yale and then earned her Master’s at Boston University and her PhD at University of Pennsylvania.

She worked as a reporter for the Washington Post for a year, but left to teach at the University of Chicago. There she met Barack Obama who was a senior lecture at the law school. When he was elected president, he asked her to compose and deliver the inaugural poem. You can read “Praise Song for the Day” here.

 

She also taught at Smith College and currently at Yale University, where she chairs the African American Studies department. She’s a founding member of Cave Canem, a recipient of an NEA grant, a Guggenheim fellowship, and two Pushcart Prizes, among many other awards.

 

A widow, she lives with her two sons in New Haven, Connecticut.

 

Fun fact: the PBS miniseries “Faces of America” revealed that Alexander is distantly related to comedian Stephen Colbert. Coincidentally she had appeared on the Colbert Report a year before that connection came out. It’s a really funny interview in which she answers the question, “What is the difference between a metaphor and . . . A LIE?”  Watch here.

 

 

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Today is National Poetry Day, and I feel like I’ve been caught without my school project completed. I’m stalling in the hallway, scribbling out enough verbiage to meet the word count, hoping I don’t get asked to read it out loud.

 

I got nothing prepared, folks.

 

But as it happens, I visited Artprize in Grand Rapids yesterday and had an experience that I can connect to National Poetry Day, so here goes.

 

Artprize is an international competition, now in its sixth year, that brings art out into the community in a spirit I also try to embrace in this blog. The competition is open to anyone, and anyone can help with the judging. (The grand prize is $200,000, and visitors can vote as often as they like, but only once for each entry.) Entries are exhibited in coffee shops, abandoned buildings, banks, boutiques, public museums, and even in the river.

Alex Podesta's "Self Portrait as Bunnies (The Bathers)"

Alex Podesta’s “Self Portrait as Bunnies (The Bathers)”

 

One of the entries was WeavePeace.

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WeavePeace, an installation on the grounds of the Grand Rapids Public Museum, is a cooperative project between visitors and the artist, Michele Miller-Hansen. WeavePeace began as a bare structure, but in a week’s time has sprouted hundreds of strips of colorful messages. IMG_2160Artprize visitors write intentions and wishes for peace, and tie them to the dome.

 

 

 

Michele Miller-Hansen, on the left

Michele Miller-Hansen, on the left

I spoke with the artist, who hangs around inside the dome for a few hours every day. She said she’s pleased that WeavePeace seems to make those who visit feel happy. “Our world is so busy,” she said, “and people come in here and they get to slow down.” People read strips other visitors have written, spend time thinking of what they’d like to write themselves, and enjoy the beauty of the strips fluttering in the wind.

 

That sure sounds like the work of poetry to me. Poetry forces readers to slow down, reflect, connect, and appreciate beauty, if only the beauty of language and concision.

 

As I stood inside the dome with my friends waiting on the corner, ready to move on, I had trouble coming up with a poem related to peace. Finally I came up with the last lines of Mary Oliver’s “Wild Geese.” (Yes, these lines are overly-familiar, popping up everywhere these days, but I guess that’s why I remembered them.)

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Here’s the full (and more legible) text:

WILD GEESE

You do not have to be good.
You do not have to walk on your knees
For a hundred miles through the desert, repenting.
You only have to let the soft animal of your body
love what it loves.
Tell me about despair, yours, and I will tell you mine.
Meanwhile the world goes on.
Meanwhile the sun and the clear pebbles of the rain
are moving across the landscapes,
over the prairies and the deep trees,
the mountains and the rivers.
Meanwhile the wild geese, high in the clean blue air,
are heading home again.
Whoever you are, no matter how lonely,
the world offers itself to your imagination,
calls to you like the wild geese, harsh and exciting —
over and over announcing your place
in the family of things.

(Italics mine.)

Good luck to artist Michele Miller-Hansen!

 

I took a few photos of other entries.

 

This one you have to experience. I can’t tell you how beautiful it is when you find yourself covered in lacy shadows.

"Intersections" by Anila Quayyum Agha at the Grand Rapids Art Museum. So beautiful!

“Intersections” by Anila Quayyum Agha at the Grand Rapids Art Museum.

 

My favorite, “Maternal Fortitude” by Lindsay Moynihan, is at the Amway Grand Plaza Hotel.

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I took a picture of the artist’s statement for my daughter, who wants to be a midwife:

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Finally, a mural in front of the Gerald Ford Museum, which artist Tom Panei is completing as visitors watch:

"I Hear the Train a Comin'"

“I Hear the Train a Comin'”

 

Artprize runs through October 12. Visit if you can.

 

 

 

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