On the Death of a Great Woman: Farewell, Maya

Maya Angelou reciting her poem, “On the Pulse of Morning”, at President Bill Clinton’s inauguration, 1993. Office of the White House.

Maya Angelou is gone.

Another star has fallen, her fire blazing out across the night sky.

And to the woman who once taught us that, “I’ve learned that people will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel,” I can think of no greater tribute to her memory than to repeat the words she has left us with, in all their beauty and their power:

Still I Rise

By Maya Angelou

You may write me down in history
With your bitter, twisted lies,
You may tread me in the very dirt
But still, like dust, I’ll rise.

Does my sassiness upset you?
Why are you beset with gloom?
‘Cause I walk like I’ve got oil wells
Pumping in my living room.

Just like moons and like suns,
With the certainty of tides,
Just like hopes springing high,
Still I’ll rise.

Did you want to see me broken?
Bowed head and lowered eyes?
Shoulders falling down like teardrops.
Weakened by my soulful cries.

Does my haughtiness offend you?
Don’t you take it awful hard
‘Cause I laugh like I’ve got gold mines
Diggin’ in my own back yard.

You may shoot me with your words,
You may cut me with your eyes,
You may kill me with your hatefulness,
But still, like air, I’ll rise.

Does my sexiness upset you?
Does it come as a surprise
That I dance like I’ve got diamonds
At the meeting of my thighs?

Out of the huts of history’s shame
I rise
Up from a past that’s rooted in pain
I rise
I’m a black ocean, leaping and wide,
Welling and swelling I bear in the tide.
Leaving behind nights of terror and fear
I rise
Into a daybreak that’s wondrously clear
I rise
Bringing the gifts that my ancestors gave,
I am the dream and the hope of the slave.
I rise
I rise
I rise.

This is a tribute. My heart breaks to see her go, but it sings to have had the chance to learn and to know the work she left engrained upon this earth. Her books and poems have helped countless people to understand truths they themselves may never have experienced, and cast back some of the veil over this world. As we must always say when the greats fall: there is no one quite like her.

RIP Maya Angelou.

Poetic Spotlight: To L.H.B.

Alumna, Katherine Mansfield

Katherine Mansfield (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Some achieve lasting fame through epics that define a nation’s culture, its heritage, and cannot help but grind their way through bits and pieces into the hearts and minds of its people, as was the case with last week’s spotlight, but others do in few words what others struggle birth reams and reams of them. Such is the case with this week’s spotlight: short fiction writer and poet Kathleen Beauchamp, better known by her pen name: Katherine Mansfield.

This New Zealand writer was a woman blessed to write at the dawn of one century and the end of another. Born at the tail-end of the 1800s, Katherine was born to a socially prominent family, but did not suffer from the head-in-the-sand effect so many in her situation often did. Even as a young girl, she looked out at her home and saw beyond love and friends and nature–she saw alienation, saw repression of the natives around her, and wrote sympathetically for them in her literature. She was a modernist, drew inspiration from writers like Oscar Wilde, was a friend of people like Virginia Woolf, and traveled extensively where she could, becoming one of the era’s many bohemians.

She was also, from what historians now see, a rather unique individual of her time in that she pursued love not just to the accepted boundaries of the time–she was a bisexual, and wrote about it rather openly in her journals. However, one of the great trials of her young life came in the form of tuberculosis, which prevented her from returning to her homeland. It would also lead to her death at 34, though not before publishing volumes of short stories, many of which are still considered some of the best fiction of her time–pieces like The Fly and Prelude continue to be shared today.

Much of her writing reflects her childhood in New Zealand, focusing heavily on the notion of remembrance, but one piece of hers I’ve always found touching was a dedication to her brother, Leslie. Leslie died in 1915, as soldier fighting in WWI on the fields of France. They were close, these two, and his sudden death both traumatized and invigorated Beauchamp’s work, setting her to furious new paces in her scribbles, and sending her spiraling ever deeper into the sanctuary of nostalgia–memories of the land and the home they both had shared.

And thus, without further adieu, I offer unto you a most haunting poetic remembrance this week…

To L.H.B. (1894-1915)

Last night for the first time since you were dead
I walked with you, my brother, in a dream.
We were at home again beside the stream
Fringed with tall berry bushes, white and red.
“Don’t touch them: they are poisonous,” I said.
But your hand hovered, and I saw a beam
Of strange, bright laughter flying round your head
And as you stooped I saw the berries gleam.
“Don’t you remember? We called them Dead Man’s
Bread!”
I woke and heard the wind moan and the roar
Of the dark water tumbling on the shore.
Where–where is the path of my dream for my eager
feet?
By the remembered stream my brother stands
Waiting for me with berries in his hands…
“These are my body. Sister, take and eat.”

~Katherine Mansfield

From the Dreamscape

Eye death

Eye death. Non-commercial use. (Photo credit: @Doug88888)

Two figures lurch across an open field. These brothers come to stand mere feet apart, eyes locked as their hands steady above their belts. There are guns, somewhere, and knives eneath these, but the hands do not betray the moments–they know their duty to the instant, and so they wait. Morose reflections in a quaking mirror. One dark, one light–the clothes and the motions distinguish them, but no other differences pass between.

Pacing, pacing. Eyes close to the crunch of hard grass.

The twin illusions stop, fingers dancing along the surface of their weapons. Both draw, though only one fires before the instant has passed them by. The man in white lumbers and sways, clutching at his throat as thick rivulets of scarlet cascade down his pale flesh to dribble at his feet. Hope smothered in crimson denial–the reflections shimmer and fade as one image drops into the dust.

Darkness stretches as a shaking hand stretches out to him. He stares into the eyes of the fallen, but pays his hand no heed. Eventually, it slackens and falls, desperately scratching at the dirt. The shadows are cold. Though smiling beneath crazed eyes, the survivor’s dry hands fold hot and delicate over one knee. He’s stifling a laugh.

Poor fool. Certain things are set in stone. You cannot change what you aren’t destined to achieve. At any rate, you don’t have the will to do so. Checkmate. Endgame.

3…2…1…

Now departing…life.

A low, thundering note begins to stir as one cold, clammy hand reaches down to tangle in the soft locks of the broken reflection. Fingers coil and toy.

The image vanishes altogether.

Scene shift. Reel missing. Technical difficulties: don’t mind the wait. The beat is stirring, the tempo gathering as the bass begins to build.

A storm stirs.

(Part 1. To be continued.)