Sunday, July 10, 2016



 By Tom Hibbard

“The other is essential to my existence.”

In this time of global transformation—signaled with troubling events, the earthquakes, storms, wars conflicts—the individual feels discouraged and disoriented.  There are many regrets and reasons for apologies.  As superficial structures are crashed everywhere, the errors of one’s thinking are exposed, and investigation of trusted ideas one believed well-considered needs to be done, with radical rethinking of positions and attitudes as the result.  Some ideas are held onto but nonetheless are strengthened in clarification.  Living in its dialectic process, the world begins in “status quo,” then great and alarming cataclysms and troubles, then returning once again as new world, new and improved status quo—less based on power and more so on knowledge.  As Maurice Merleau-Ponty writes in Sense and No Sense

If the Hegelian hero sacrificed his personal happiness and introduced chaos into his life, it was to save history from chaos; if he questioned the established order, it was to bring another order into the world.

Quite a bit of the trouble seen in U.S. society during the past half decade has revolved around guns and shootings, especially the shootings of young unarmed black people—not gang members or hardened criminals—by predominantly white law enforcement agencies that appear mere hired hands of an entrenched notion of order.  This has brought large parts of our political and social structure into question. There is a homogeneity and cliquishness that needs to be dispersed.  A diversity that needs to be instituted. These problems may in truth be global, widespread general  problems, but they require specific solutions in any case.    We look to some of the people in the past whose chaos in their lives might save our society and our history.  We look for some of those whose questioning of the established order might give us some answers that show the way for a new and higher order.

One person that, dark and Jacob Marley-like, memory brings forward at this time is poet, playwright, autobiographer, script writer, civil rights activist Maya Angelou, WHO departed from our midst in North Carolina in the spring of 2014, about a month after Dontre Hamilton was shot and killed by a lone white police officer in a park in downtown Milwaukee and at the beginning of the troubling summer of violence that ended with Michael Brown being killed in Ferguson, Missouri.  It was in that previous December that Nelson Mandela also departed from the scene.  Angelou, in fact, was born in Saint Louis, presumably in the same county where the Michael Brown incident took place.  For me, Angelou’s fabulously successful and varied writing career had always put her somewhat at a distance from my own thoughts and concerns, particularly at that time—namely lowly “visual writing.”  But the sense of worsening racial tensions, gnawing feelings of injustice, a need for knowing more, need for reexamination, a fruitless non-existent economy, further shootings conjures her up again, like a genii or the ghost that Angelou in many instances made of herself, in the smoky, weird nights of protest in Ferguson and elsewhere on our shadowy planet. The protesters in Ferguson were often described as “young people.” They didn’t seem greatly rebellious but rather only standing firm and focused on a particular problem, on doing right. They were trying to lift up their predominantly black neighborhoods, free them, rather than tear them in pieces. Who was Maya Angelou with her fantastical name, her fantastical fame? Was she forgotten? Or were these young people her children?  In what way would she direct us?  What advice would she give?    

Maya Angelou was born Marguerite Johnson in 1928 in Saint Louis, very much a child of the Great Depression and the beginning of the end of U.S. slavery but also formed from World War II and the 1950s, in the U.S., that age of idealism and exuberance.  I think the complexity of what Angelou was, what she made herself into—in a very existential sense—and what she became—the friend of famous people, the friend of history, an “unquestioned success,” with greatness and distinction—is only rightly understood in reading her initial autobiography, I Know Why The Caged Bird Sings, in particular the first hundred pages of it.  The title of the book is taken from a poem, “Sympathy,” written by late 19th century black poet Paul Laurence Dunbar.  Like many things having to do with Angelou, the title is somewhat misleading.  Despite the connotations of racial protest in its title, this narrative of her life is in truth about problems of growing up and living in the world—as far away from political protest or politicization of a life’s narrative as one might be able to find oneself.  It is a scrupulously honest rendition of the journey of childhood—its happiness and sadness.  The book begins in the tiny town of Stamps, Arkansas, where Angelou and her brother Bailey have been sent by their mother to be raised by their grandmother—“Momma,” “Mrs. Henderson”—and their disabled “Uncle Willie.”  Life under the extremely devout Christian Momma was a radical mixture of brilliant faith, admirable perseverance and inhuman strictness.  Negroes in that part of the world at that time must have been as alien as extra-terrestrials. The simplest tasks were daunting and harrowing and always required perfection.  White people for Angelou represented death.

In Stamps segregation was so complete that most Black children didn’t really absolutely know what whites looked like.  Other than that they were different, to be dreaded, and in that dread was included the hostility of the powerless against the powerful, the poor against the rich, the worker against the worked for and the ragged against the well dressed.

I remember never believing that whites were really real.      

The excellent writing itself is sometimes similar in intensity to the work of James Agee and Walker Evans in Let Us Now Praise Famous Men about Southern sharecroppers.  And the shocking and humorous instances of the Johnson/ Henderson household crossing paths with the nearby “powhitetrash” neighbor children invoke Jack Conroy’s Depression-era novels The Disinherited and A World to Win.  Especially, the quality of the writing in I Know Why The Caged Bird Sings is striking, like the introduction of sharp focus photography, and innovative, reminiscent of Richard Wright’s Native Son and Black Boy published decades earlier.  Remember that it was gay, black novelist James Baldwin that got Angelou started on being published.  And one of her early encounters with “literature” was her appearance in French writer Jean Genet’s play The Blacks.  Sometimes merely the circumstances of Angelou’s tale are as improbable as a miracle.  In terms of being marginalized and misunderstood, there’s no question Southern Negroes were pretty much at the top of the list.  It seems to have been Angelou’s natural milieu.

The published writings of Maya Angelou are extremely numerous.  The categories of her writings alone are extensive, including autobiographies, poetry collections, essay collections, cookbooks, plays, children’s books and scripts.  Though she is probably best known as a poet or poetess, her seven autobiographies, of which I Know Why The Caged Bird Sings was the first, are probably her most respected writings.  The autobiographies follow the chronology of her life, starting with childhood in Arkansas but only extending about up to age forty.  Her poetry collections are high quality, well written and well-titled with a Gospel-influenced sensibility such as Just Give Me a Cool Drink of Water ‘fore I Diiie and Oh Pray My Wings Are Gonna Fit Me Well.  However with their basic rhyme schemes and closeness with musical lyrics, they appear quite different from the poetic ideas of Beat or Modernist poetry.  The books of “essays,” despite the seeming relevance of their titles, could not be considered essays in an academic or philosophical sense but are more anecdotes and homilies fashioned for the tastes of Angelou’s friend, Oprah Winfrey’s reading lists or Book-of-the-Month clubs.  These highly popular books are published by Random House, the publishing house founded by punster extraordinaire and gag master,  Bennett Cerf.  The average length of the essays is about three pages .  Here’s one from Wouldn’t Give Nothing For My Journey Now:     

A jealous lover can be a little amusing.  In fact, jealousy made evident in a room filled with people can be an outright intoxicant to everyone, including the lovers.  It must be remembered, however, that jealousy in romance is like salt in food.  A little can enhance the savor, but too much can spoil the pleasure and under certain circumstances, can be life-threatening.

So much for “a jealous God.”

There is no question that Angelou intentionally and carelessly dumbed down herself, her writing, along with her travails, and took opportunities as they presented themselves.  Angelou was an unwed mother at the age of seventeen and probably had to fight for everything she had.  She knew what “great literature” was and what it wasn’t.  The morality of her success is the real morality of her life.  Her wisdom is hidden in her writings and their stubborn inaccessibility, as in her titling her essays “What’s So Funny” or “Voices of Respect” or in her dedicating Even The Stars Look Lonesome with these words:  “These thoughts are dedicated to the children who will come to maturity in the twenty-first century….And All The Children of the World.”

Undoubtedly one of Angelou’s finest pieces of writing is her poem for Bill Clinton’s inauguration for his first term as U.S. President.  On the Pulse of the Morning is a beautiful and impressive work that excellently fits the momentous occasion.  Written in unrhyming Modernist strophes, in a prophetic poetic language that touches on true political issues including ecological issues, it speaks in open visionary terms of the highest values and greatest needs of a free nation.  And it well represents the kind of diversity that Clinton’s liberalism sought to achieve.  Here is one of the strophes.

Each of you, a bordered country,
Delicate and strangely made proud,
Yet thrusting perpetually under siege.
Your armed struggles for profit
Have left collars of waste upon
My shore, currents of debris upon my breast.
Yet today I call you to my riverside,
If you will study war no more.

From her excellent collection And Still I Rise, an often quoted poem titled “Phenomenal Woman” begins with the lines:

Pretty women wonder where my secret lies.
I’m not cute or built to suit a fashion model’s size.
But when I start to tell them,
They think I’m telling lies.
I say,
It’s in the reach of my arms
The span of my hips,
The stride of my step
The curl of my lips
I’m a woman
Phenomenal woman,
That’s me.

In the style of Paul Dunbar rather than Shakespeare whose writing Angelou preferred, this poem  references the philosophical idea of phenomenology.  Angelou’s meaning is that, as a woman, she may not fit into the stereotypical formal model but she has put herself together in her way with all the essential attributes of womanhood.  This is the way she lived her life, and this is the way she offers her wisdom.  The result of her journey is that she became a person—rather than that she fit herself into an iconic outline (or didn’t fit herself into an iconic outline).  In a sense, what people always tried to take away from her were her experiences, her  adventurousness, her contradictions, her “self.”  And I think this is the advice that she would give the new generation of protesters of Ferguson, Missouri, and everywhere:   Michael Brown died, battling the tyranny, the traps, the silence, the “dialogues of the  deaf,” the limitations, the non-being of a decisive “us” versus “them” authority, the linearity of a community being prevented from gaining experience and living its life in freedom—from becoming a true community.  Independent of what Michael Brown was—or, in truth, what Darren Wilson was or is—Brown died because a system made without words, without blood, without faith and without diversity, a system “under siege,” fell to pieces at just the wrong time, as it was bound to do, and we know this is true because it has fallen to pieces in precisely the same way so many times since.  For the fine people of Ferguson, Missouri, life became, as it has become everywhere, a clear-cut invitation for use of “excessive force,” a maze of absurdity.  As Ohio Governor John Kasich said in a recent candidate debate:  What we need in Ferguson and elsewhere is “communication,” people that are able to communicate.  We need people, real people.  People communicate; they communicate from a sort of confidence in their weakness and existential awkwardness.  Again, in the words of Merleau-Ponty,                    

The contemporary hero is not Lucifer; he is not even Prometheus; he is man.


Among Tom Hibbard’s recent credits are poems in Cricket Online Review and contributions to an Egyptian international poetry anthology.  Also Hibbard has had reviews and essays published in recent issues of Big Bridge, Galatea Resurrects and Word/ For Word.  His writings cover such subjects as Jack Kerouac’s poetry, the collages of Luc Fierens, visual works of Nico Vassilakis and John Bennett and the paintings of Emil Nolde.  Hibbard has an introduction to French Surrealism along with a number of translations of Surrealist poems in the new issue 18 of Big Bridge and a review of Eileen Tabios’ collection of prose, Against Misanthropy:  A Life in Poetry, in the inaugural issue of the journal The Halo-Halo Review.  His poetry collection The Sacred River of Consciousness is available online at Moon Willow Press.  He’s working on finishing a new poetry collection titled The Global People.  


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