I remember the moment she came into my life. It was early spring during my freshman year. We were in a poetry unit in English class where students find poems that speak to them and leave a few lines from these poems on sticky notes or small pieces of paper in random places all over the school. I found her in my search of female poets. She was listed alongside Emily Dickinson, Sylvia Plath, and Edna St. Vincent Millay.
Dr. Angelou is widely known for her 1969 book, I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings, but it was her poem “Phenomenal Woman” that first introduced me to her work.
I was completely hooked by the first two lines.
“Pretty women wonder where my secret lies.
I’m not cute or built to suit a fashion model’s size.”
And just what is the key to her appeal?
“It’s the fire in my eyes,
And the flash of my teeth,
The swing in my waist,
And the joy in my feet.”
I immediately searched and found images of her, videos of her reciting her poems, and interviews where she recounted her incredible struggles and joyful triumphs. I spent hours completely captivated by her resonant voice and her carefully chosen words. But when I saw her standing, I was truly transformed. Her spine straight as a pin, her head held high, she owned every inch of her 6-foot body. She taught me how to accept and stand tall in my own 6-foot frame, and she made me want to read poetry.
Her life story chronicles a history of struggle, abuse, racism, sexism, and resilience. She was everything from a fry cook to a dancer and a civil rights activist. At different times in her life, she wore the hat of author, playwright, professor, film director, and producer. She read her poem “On the Pulse of Morning” at the inauguration of President Bill Clinton in 1993.
By the time I discovered her writing, she was well into her 80s. Reading her poems and autobiographies filled my days and nights until last spring when I heard of her death. That was perhaps the first time I felt a hole in my heart for the loss of a person I never really knew personally. Yet, somehow I knew Dr. Maya Angelou, the part of her that nourished my love of poetry and helped me understand the complex art of becoming an American woman.
Fittingly, it was one of her own poems that helped me feel positive in the face of her passing. The lines come from “When Great Trees Fall.”
“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.”
48 Incredible women to go!
Grace Miner is a junior at East Greenwich High School.