my, my . . . maya

On 3 November 2011, I sat in rapt awe listening to 83-year-old Maya Angelou, celebrated poet, novelist, educator, dramatist, historian, filmmaker, and civil rights activist recite some of her marvellous poems and other writings while seated alone on the stage of Alumni Hall at Western University. She held the room like no other person I’d witnessed before or since – save perhaps Nana Mouskouri singing Ave Maria unaccompanied at a Toronto theatre some years before hearing Maya. At the time, Ms Angelou had been recently awarded the Medal of Freedom, the United States highest honour, by the then President Barack Obama. Stately and absolutely unassuming, she seemed frail or tranquil and yet passionate in her words, her inflections and pauses perfectly punctuated. I was drawn to her, magnetized by her presence, her gap-toothed, wide smile, her deep, melodic voice, her kindness radiating from her being, her words, delivered elegantly to the privileged microphone perched in front of her, reverberated somewhere in our bones. Maya was regal, royal-regal in her carriage, deportment, and soul.

She never rose from that chair and if she wore sunglasses (as she is in the photo above), I never noticed. Maya only spoke for an hour; I could have listened all night. We rose as one when she finished, choked up, almost teary from the presence she exuded. And we rendered her a kind of solemnized ovation respecting the ceremonial soliloquy – well beyond mere monologue – of being.

I honestly don’t remember if she recited her A Brave and Startling Truth poem that night. But I know she read it first in 1995 to mark the 50th anniversary commemoration of the United Nations. I do recall seeing it in print about 20 years ago and I know that in 2014 – the year Maya died – it was sent, along with other works of art, to space on the first test flight of the Orion spacecraft. The poem and my memories of Maya came back to me recently through one of Maria Popova’s brilliant Sunday newsletters entitled The Marginalian (the link to that particular one is here). Unashamedly and reverentially, I reprint the poem here. And I do so because it seems to me to be so poignant in our very, very fragile and troubled times of the now-entering 5th year ravages of the ongoing Covid-19 global pandemic and the travesties and tragedies of terrible wars waging in our world:

by Maya Angelou

We, this people, on a small and lonely planet
Traveling through casual space
Past aloof stars, across the way of indifferent suns
To a destination where all signs tell us
It is possible and imperative that we learn
A brave and startling truth

And when we come to it
To the day of peacemaking
When we release our fingers
From fists of hostility
And allow the pure air to cool our palms

When we come to it
When the curtain falls on the minstrel show of hate
And faces sooted with scorn are scrubbed clean
When battlefields and coliseum
No longer rake our unique and particular sons and daughters
Up with the bruised and bloody grass
To lie in identical plots in foreign soil

When the rapacious storming of the churches
The screaming racket in the temples have ceased
When the pennants are waving gaily
When the banners of the world tremble
Stoutly in the good, clean breeze

When we come to it
When we let the rifles fall from our shoulders
And children dress their dolls in flags of truce
When land mines of death have been removed
And the aged can walk into evenings of peace
When religious ritual is not perfumed
By the incense of burning flesh
And childhood dreams are not kicked awake
By nightmares of abuse

When we come to it
Then we will confess that not the Pyramids
With their stones set in mysterious perfection
Nor the Gardens of Babylon
Hanging as eternal beauty
In our collective memory
Not the Grand Canyon
Kindled into delicious color
By Western sunsets

Nor the Danube, flowing its blue soul into Europe
Not the sacred peak of Mount Fuji
Stretching to the Rising Sun
Neither Father Amazon nor Mother Mississippi who, without favor,
Nurture all creatures in the depths and on the shores
These are not the only wonders of the world

When we come to it
We, this people, on this minuscule and kithless globe
Who reach daily for the bomb, the blade and the dagger
Yet who petition in the dark for tokens of peace
We, this people on this mote of matter
In whose mouths abide cankerous words
Which challenge our very existence
Yet out of those same mouths
Come songs of such exquisite sweetness
That the heart falters in its labor
And the body is quieted into awe

We, this people, on this small and drifting planet
Whose hands can strike with such abandon
That in a twinkling, life is sapped from the living
Yet those same hands can touch with such healing, irresistible tenderness
That the haughty neck is happy to bow
And the proud back is glad to bend
Out of such chaos, of such contradiction
We learn that we are neither devils nor divines

When we come to it
We, this people, on this wayward, floating body
Created on this earth, of this earth
Have the power to fashion for this earth
A climate where every man and every woman
Can live freely without sanctimonious piety
Without crippling fear

When we come to it
We must confess that we are the possible
We are the miraculous, the true wonder of this world
That is when, and only when
We come to it.

And in her own words, A Brave and Startling Truth – perhaps even the version read at the United Nations. A Brave and Startling Truth is a poem beyond parsing; it just is. Maya wrote it, as she said unabashedly in her reading above, “I wrote this piece for every living being on earth.” The poem radiates the limitless beauty of the human soul.
I have read many of Maya’s panoply of poems; her 1978 Phenomenal Woman remains a treasure of resplendent insight. And at some point during my graduate work training in the 70s, I read her autobiographical I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings, a – for me – gut-wrenching account of her traumatic childhood and early teen years. I still tingle at the memory of being in Maya’s presence on stage at Alumni Hall that day in 2011. And yet for all of her exquisite writing, it is A Brave and Startling Truth that stands atop the pyramid of her works as a luminescent beacon to the world. It inspires, it puts our breath back. We have not “come to it,” far from it, sadly, and yet the miraculous potential is there. I tumble home to that possibility and marvel at the mirror Maya held up to humanity’s magnificence.