Thursday, March 17, 2011

Another Great Night in Los Angeles

I've written before about the writer's word series that I indulge in every year. I buy one ticket -- it's my season ticket -- and I sit on the third row, right in the center and look right up into the eyes of some of my favorite writers and poets.

Tonight, after a frustrating day that I'll write about some other time, I was transformed by Maya Angelou. This ticket was originally for February, but the date was changed when Ms. Angelou was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom by Obama. When the curtain went up on the stage, she was revealed, dressed in a long black jersey dress and strands of gold chains. She stood for a moment as the sold-out crowd at Royce Hall at UCLA clapped and cheered wildly, and then as we quietened, she sat down and began to sing -- sing the words from one of her poems in a deep, rich, almost manly voice. She sang what I can only describe as the refrain of  Our Grandmothers: I shall not be moved. 

It was outrageous.

She lay, skin down in the moist dirt,
the canebrake rustling
with the whispers of leaves, and
loud longing of hounds and
the ransack of hunters crackling the near

She muttered, lifting her head a nod toward
I shall not, I shall not be moved.

She sat in a wing chair on the stage the entire time, next to a little table that held a vase of pink snapdragons and white calla lilies, a beautiful wooden box with a shiny, gold clasp, and a hard-backed copy of one of her collections of poetry. She told many stories in her deep rich voice and recited many poems, some her own and some of those she loves best (Paul Dunbar, Nikki Giovanni, Mary Evans, Edna St. Vincent Millay, William Shakespeare).  She spoke about her own history, weaving her birth, her parents abandonment of her and her brother, her ten years living with her beloved grandmother, her rape as a young child and all that followed. Always, she came back and sang the refrain: I shall not, I shall not be moved.

It made me shiver.

She gathered her babies,
their tears slick as oil on black faces,
their young eyes canvassing mornings of madness.
Momma, is Master going to sell you
from us tomorrow?

Unless you keep walking more
and talking less.
Unless the keeper of our lives
releases me from all commandments.
And your lives,
never mine to live,
will be executed upon the killing floor of
Unless you match my heart and words,
saying with me,

I shall not be moved.

She spoke of how she had been "paid for," how we have all been "paid for," by our ancestors, by those who came before us, by those who have helped us. She advised us to acknowledge that payment and to know that since we'd been paid for, we must be worth it. She advised us, too, to pay for others.

It was extraordinary.

In Virginia tobacco fields,
leaning into the curve
of Steinway
pianos, along Arkansas roads,
in the red hills of Georgia,
into the palms of her chained hands, she
cried against calamity,
You have tried to destroy me
and though I perish daily,

I shall not be moved.

She connected all peoples, of all races and cultures. She claimed to be black and white and gay and straight and male and female and beautiful and plain and fat and thin, and she laughed while she told us these things and we all laughed back and then stopped to hear her sing I shall not be moved.

Her universe, often
summarized into one black body
falling finally from the tree to her feet,
made her cry each time into a new voice.
All my past hastens to defeat,
and strangers claim the glory of my love,
Iniquity has bound me to his bed.
yet, I must not be moved.

She spoke of the necessity of poetry, in particular -- to go to, for laughter and for tears, for sustenance. She told many stories about poetry pulling people from despair.  She pulled her presidential medal of freedom out of the pretty little box and showed it to us, not bragging but exclaiming. I shall not be moved.

She heard the names,
swirling ribbons in the wind of history:
nigger, nigger bitch, heifer,
mammy, property, creature, ape, baboon,
whore, hot tail, thing, it.
She said, But my description cannot
fit your tongue, for
I have a certain way of being in this world,
and I shall not, I shall not be moved.

She cracked a number of hilarious jokes that I can't recall right now. I do remember, though, that while reciting a list of immigrants and their respective countries, those who had come to the shores of America over the years from all over the world, she said something about the Buddhas and the Pests. That was funny. She linked us all.

No angel stretched protecting wings
above the heads of her children,
fluttering and urging the winds of reason
into the confusions of their lives.
They sprouted like young weeds,
but she could not shield their growth
from the grinding blades of ignorance, nor
shape them into symbolic topiaries.
She sent them away,
underground, overland, in coaches and
When you learn, teach.
When you get, give.
As for me,
I shall not be moved.

I laughed a lot and cried a little. I was moved, powerfully. I never felt like a "white woman" listening to a "black poet." I felt connected to those around me by our collective held breath.

She stood in midocean, seeking dry land.
She searched God's face.
she placed her fire of service
on the altar, and though
clothed in the finery of faith,
when she appeared at the temple door,
no sign welcomed
Black Grandmother, Enter here.
Into the crashing sound,
into wickedness, she cried,
No one, no, nor no one million
ones dare deny me God, I go forth
along, and stand as ten thousand.
The Divine upon my right
impels me to pull forever
at the latch on Freedom's gate.
The Holy Spirit upon my left leads my
feet without ceasing into the camp of the
righteous and into the tents of the free.
These momma faces, lemon-yellow, plum-
honey-brown, have grimaced and twisted
down a pyramid for years.
She is Sheba the Sojourner,
Harriet and Zora,
Mary Bethune and Angela,
Annie to Zenobia.
She stands
before the abortion clinic,
confounded by the lack of choices.
In the Welfare line,
reduced to the pity of handouts.
Ordained in the pulpit, shielded
by the mysteries.
In the operating room,
husbanding life.
In the choir loft,
holding God in her throat.
On lonely street corners,
hawking her body.
In the classroom, loving the
children to understanding.
Centered on the world's stage,
she sings to her loves and beloveds,
to her foes and detractors:
However I am perceived and deceived,
however my ignorance and conceits,
lay aside your fears that I will be undone,
for I shall not be moved.

When it was over she stood up and we stood up and we all sang together

for I shall not be moved. For I shall not be moved.

Like a tree.

For I shall not be moved.

**The poem quoted is Our Grandmothers. When I stood up after this brilliant performance, I was alone (the trouble with single tickets) and felt a bit lonely that I had no one to share that moment with. Thank you, because now I think I have shared it -- with you!


  1. you have taken me right out of this moment and given me a taste of your night. i love always this poets voice, and all voices whose life work is to tie all hearts together.

    thank you for this gift...

  2. Thank YOU. What a blessing.
    One of my neighbors went to see/hear her up here, and I'm going to send her a link to your posting.
    I'm so thankful that you have that ticket each year.

  3. It's hard to read this. My tears are blurring it all and my nose is running and oh, thank-you, Elizabeth for bringing Maya to me this morning.

  4. Thank you for sharing. I am moved by your experience of it all.

    Lovely indeed.

  5. Thank you for sharing the transformation! How wonderful that you were right up front so close.

  6. Thank you Elizabeth for taking me in right there, where you sat at the third row.

  7. oh elizabeth, indeed you have shared it. i feel as if i was there with you, and with the universe of hearts she connects us to, and thank you so much for taking me to this place. it is transcendent, what a soul.

  8. Thank you for letting us be there with you. I saw Maya Angelou many years ago and will never forget it. I love this concept that we have been "paid for" by our ancestors. What a beautiful responsibility... to pay it forward.

  9. Thank you THANK YOU for sharing it.

  10. What a special evening. I can only imagine how magical it must have been three rows back from Maya. I would love to hear her read her beautiful poetry.


  11. I've felt like property, to my husband, my vagina, bought and paid for, for his use only. Strange how some things resonate with people.

    I want to go to events by myself, but I always someone else to share it with, to relive it, to remember it. Perhaps your way could work for me. Sounds like an amazing evening.

  12. I'm incredibly envious! Angelou is such a force. Sometimes I wonder if she's really human.

  13. Shared it, you have. This was just beautiful. Thank you.

  14. Thank you. Again, the power of words; the depth of emotion is boundless.

  15. Extraordinary Elizabeth, I wish I could have heard her.

  16. Thank you so much for sharing.
    It felt a bit like sitting right next to you.
    What an amazing experience.

  17. Thanks Elizabeth. This marvelous post confirms my thoughts about Maya Angelou whose several memoirs I read in one hit a number of years ago. She is a marvelous writer and clearly an amazing woman.

  18. Oh, Elizabeth Dear! You have brought us the rhythm and poetry of Maya Angelou's voice with your post. You were not there alone because, now, we have all been there with you through this pleating together of the fabric of time. Maya gifted you with some of her force! x0 N2

  19. I wish I had the opportunity to see this performance. She truly is an enlightened being. I love how you wove your review of the evening with her poem.

  20. Wow, I got shivers just reading this. She's amazing and I hope to see her some day. So glad you did!!

  21. "I have a certain way of being in this world."
    A certain way and a certain way. That is profound to me. Individuality and the certainty of it. I wish I could have heard her speak and sing too.

  22. and I feel like I was there! Thank you.

  23. Thanks so much for writing this, for sharing what you saw, and heard and felt. What a night, what an unforgettable experience. Her voice will be missed so much.

  24. My day and I are better for the fact you shared this. I do not feel quite so powerless and small in this rocky moment. Thank you. xo



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