|Not gone, never gone|
Maya Angelou died last 28th May. I say “died”. What I really meant was that her body stopped moving, human functions such as breathing, laughing, crying, talking and smelling stopped happening. Maya, however, has not died. How can she? When even non-native English-speaking blokes like me have adopted Phenomenal Woman as one of their favourite incantations? A magical way to scare away the evil spirits of pessimism, machismo and bigotry.
If I were to freeze the moment when I discovered Maya I would have to take you back seventeen years. You and I would have to get on a DeLoran-like time machine and go back to the summer of 1997. Then you would see a twenty-five, almost twenty-six year-old man making his way to a flat in the leafy neighbourhood of Playa. That’s where one of his friends lives. Follow him now leaving his friend’s house with a letter in his hand. Watch him ripping the letter open (it’s from his then-girlfriend, now wife) whilst keeping an eye on the uneven pavement. Look at how he cuts across back streets, jumping over puddles of dirty water streaming its way downhill. And now, see his face. Freeze this frame for it will become a long-lasting memory in his life. His girlfriend is pregnant with their first child, she is in London and he is in Havana. She has included a poem by a poet of whom he has never heard before. Yet, from the word go he feels as if this poet has just dispossessed him of his armour, removed his mask, bared his soul. The opening lines go like this: You may write me down in history/With your bitter, twisted lies,/You may trod me in the very dirt/But still, like dust, I'll rise. Who is she? How dare she? How does she know...? Questions, questions, questions. But all is in vain. In the presence of greatness we all become momentarily pious. This one altar, we don’t mind worshipping to. This is the altar steeped in antiquity and like a universal language that has been passed down from generation to generation, a language that respects no linguistic barriers (all foreigners welcome!), this altar summons those who give rationality the heave-ho and adopt feeling as their travelling companion in the ocean of Poetry.
If I were to freeze that moment you would see red ice-cold eyes, rock-solid tears caught mid-journey down my visage. That moment would be a snapshot of a discovery. The discovery of a new (at least to me) voice, one who sings out verses that sound as if they have been made of the same material as the leather of a drum or the bow of a fiddle. Still I Rise ends in what I can only describe as a rapturous, symphonic crescendo. Each preceding stanza is a steady increase in the rhythm, a gradual build-up towards the end: oil wells pumping, hopes springing high, diamonds at the meeting of my thighs.
Maya Angelou did not die last 28th May. She is still asking people to rise. And I, for one, Maya, will never stop doing that.
Next Post: “Sunday Mornings: Coffee, Reflections and Music”, to be published on Sunday 9th June (GMT)