Archive for April, 2014

I love Maya Angelou’s work. I also love her voice, which is all gravelly and full of wisdom. Many poets can fashion a poem, as they should if they’re good at the craft and art of the work, but Maya Angelou speaks poetry. It’s like God speaks through her. She has an innate amount of wisdom. I know some may only know of her through Oprah Winfrey, but I’ve been a fan for a couple of decades now. One of my favourite poems is “Phenomenal Woman,” which a talented student of mine used to perform for one of my Grade 12 English classes. Jessy used to embody the work, use her body to sway through the music of Angelou’s words, and she became — in her seventeen year old self — a phenomenal woman. (She still is today, by the way…a talented young woman who is a local singer-songwriter.)

Anyway, “Phenomenal Woman” spoke to me years ago because it speaks to the diversity that women embody. Curves, hips, and breasts are all right, Angelou says. There is power in what makes a woman a woman, in being happy with who you are deep in your soul, which is something that today’s young girls and women often struggle with in terms of anxiety, depression, eating disorders, self-harm, and general body dysmorphia. If every mother could read this poem to her daughter, well, I think the world would be a better place. You decide. Take a listen to Maya read her poem:

I’m not here to talk about that groundbreaking poem tonight, though. I’m thinking of a few people who have lost their loved ones recently. Two friends have lost fathers, and an old high school friend lost her husband suddenly, and without warning. In all three cases, I’ve thought back to my own losses and dear ones. It doesn’t matter who you’ve lost, or how you’ve lost them, the deaths always cut to the quick of the soul and heart. The grieving, which so many have written books about, is like a series of ocean waves, always crashing up against you when you least expect it….as if your eyes were turned towards shoreline rather than sea….so you were taken unaware. Because that is what death does, really. We all know it’s coming for us all, at some point, but we usually don’t know when or why or how.

When my uncle Terry died, my aunt Roz asked me to read Dylan Thomas’s “Do Not Go Gentle Into That Good Night.” I still remember that day. It’s etched on my heart. Then, when my uncle Jeno died, my aunt Cathy asked me to read a poem. I chose to read parts of Maya Angelou’s “When Great Trees Fall.” Here it is:

When Great Trees Fall

When great trees fall,
rocks on distant hills shudder,
lions hunker down
in tall grasses,
and even elephants
lumber after safety.

When great trees fall
in forests,
small things recoil into silence,
their senses
eroded beyond fear.

When great souls die,
the air around us becomes
light, rare, sterile.
We breathe, briefly,
Our eyes, briefly,
see with
a hurtful clarity.
Our memory, suddenly sharpened,
gnaws on kind words
promised walks never taken.

Great souls die and
our reality, bound to
them, takes leave of us.
Our souls,
dependent upon their
now shrink, wizened.
Our minds, formed
and informed by their
fall away.
We are not so much maddened
as reduced to the unutterable ignorance
of dark, cold

And when great souls die,
after a period peace blooms,
slowly and always
irregularly. Spaces fill
with a kind of
soothing electric vibration.
Our senses, restored, never
to be the same, whisper to us.
They existed. They existed.
We can be. Be and be
better. For they existed.

(from Maya Angelou’s Celebrations: Rituals of Peace And Prayer.)

Here’s the thing about this poem: it is simply brilliant in structure and meaning, and it echoes in your mind and heart as a comfort when you have lost someone, and are still grieving. The third stanza speaks to us about what it feels like to lose someone suddenly, to gnaw at the unsaid conversations that still rattle on in your mind years after the physical departure, or to wish you had said something different than what you’d last said to them. My last words to my father, for instance, were: “I love you….see you at 6…Be good, buddy.” His words to me were something like: “Love you, too….” So, we knew we were soon to part from one another, but the words were spoken with little thought. There was much love there, but no idea that an afternoon of a few hours would mark his going. How could he leave without me there, after many weeks of vigil and advocacy, I wondered? A friend said, “His soul chose…he waited until you were gone. He didn’t want you to remember the going in the way you remembered your mother’s death.” Hers was harsh, all deep, racking breaths and staggered, staccato heartbeats through a hospital gown. I can see, looking back, how he might’ve decided, on a soul level, that I had had enough of bad deaths. Still, whether the death was ‘good’ or ‘bad’ (and none are Hollywood, let me tell you….), there are always questions unanswered or things left unsaid. This is what Angelou gets at in that third stanza. It’s the core of regret, and of wondering in a tormented fashion.

If the third stanza speaks to the intensity of a memory of loss, a sharpened cluster of images and sounds and smells, then the fourth stanza speaks to how minds “formed/and informed by their/radiance/fall away.” Anyone who has lost someone knows what that feels like. You lose your mind, logically speaking. You walk around in a daze for days and weeks, picking up the phone to call someone who doesn’t exist in physical form anymore. It’s a falling away of what you once knew, and a gathering of a new construction of self and surrounding world.

The final stanza, though, always breaks and then lifts my heart, as all good poems should. Angelou speaks of there being a period of peace that “blooms,/slowly and always/irregularly.” The peace may come in waves, with some days being more peaceful and kind than others. The spaces left by the departed, the poet says, “fill/with a kind of/soothing electric vibration.” How wonderful is that image?? The idea of energy, of soul, of something that transcends the physical world, always gets me. The final few lines gather us in, reassuring us: “They existed. They existed./We can be. Be and be/better. For they existed.” Yes. This is the crux of it all, the exhalation of great pain and loss.

So, what does this do for me, this poem, when I have a day filled with missing my dear ones? It makes me think that there is an energy that still connects us, whether it be of soul, spirit, or memory, it links me to all of them. From grandmothers to uncles and great-aunts, to ancient ancestors, they gather round me. I have to believe in that continuity of spirit. It helps me feel less alone.

I always stick this poem into sympathy cards when I think it might help someone through a period of grieving. I turn to it often for solace, in terms of my own grief. If poetry can be used to celebrate or mark the passages of life, why not turn to it? I warned my friend who lost his dad not to read it at work, but he read it after a second period class. Coming to the staff room for lunch, he said “Wow, man….that poem….” and shook his head in wonder, “it got me….just like you said it would.” I told him he should have saved it for home, but found relief in having offered him words that would resound with his grief. (Sometimes, you need a person who’s encountered and walked with death and grief to guide you….I wish I’d had that when I lost my parents.)

This week, this month, I’m thinking of Megan, and Chris, and Kim, and now Susie. Each one has lost a dear one, and each one has lost them in different ways. Still, the love those great souls shared lives on in the people who love them still.

Blessings to anyone who grieves, misses, or wonders what lies beyond the veil….


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