11 March 2018

Sketchbooks and Caged Birds

“...The caged bird sings
with a fearful trill
of things unknown
but longed for still
and his tune is heard
on the distant hill
for the caged bird
sings of freedom.”
—from Maya Angelou's “Caged Bird”

When I moved to Oklahoma City, I used to frequent the Barnes and Noble on May, north of Northwest Expressway.

I don't remember buying poetry, except for the texts in Mary Kinzie's “A Poet's Guide to Poetry” and Burton Raffel's “How to Read a Poem.”

I had to drive past the Full Circle Bookstore to get to Barnes and Noble. Later at Full Circle I bought T.S. Eliot's “On Poetry and Poets” but not “Old Possum's Book of Practical Cats.” That book I found used at the now-closed Hastings in Wenatchee, Wash.

But this year in Seattle
we walked into Open Books and made our introverted way around the perimeter of poets, starting on the left with “A.”

That's where I found Kelli Russell Agodon's “Hourglass Museum.” 

Opening with the “Dear Serious Museum Patrons” and sorted into collections and a current exhibition, “Hourglass Musuem” taught me to keep reading...the whole collection in one weekend...and then pause or come back to meditate on what stood out.

“Surrealist Angel” was the first I lingered on, then “In Praise of Staying Married” a few pages away—its waxwings and blackberry vines—and
“Sketchbook with an Undercurrent of Grief”:

“I escape disaster by writing a poem with a joke in it:
The past, present, and future walk into a bar—it was tense.
There's everything to kill with laughter. I browsed
the magazines in his hospital room. At my father's
last breath, I saw an ad for sky....” 

Last weekend I read our library's copy of “The Complete Poems of Maya Angelou,” from “They Went Home” at the beginning and “On the Pulse of Morning” at the end...until I met myself near “Caged Bird,” not quite in the middle.

One hears the caged bird's longing in lines like these from Angelou's “After”:

“...The market leers
its empty shelves
Streets bare bosoms
to scanty cars
        This bed yawns
        beneath the weight
        of our absent selves.”

One feels the rage in “Family Affairs”:

“...My screams never reached
the rare tower where you
Lay, birthing masters for
My sons, and for my
Daughters, a swarm of
Unclean badgers, to consume
Their history....”

Yet for the caged bird—if I'm understanding—freedom is an extension of what humans are at best, as Angelou ends “On the Pulse of Morning” in the voices of the Rock, the River, and the Tree:

“...Here on the pulse of this new day,
You may have the grace to look up and out
And into your sister's eyes,
And into your brother's face,
Your country,
And say simply
Very simply
With hope—
Good morning.”

If for no other reason than that I read them both this year, these two...from their different places...inform each other in my mind.

It's hard to imagine poetry without Angelou's intuition...

“of things unknown
but longed for still.”

And it's hard to imagine
poets if it were not, as Agodon says in “Sketchbook of Nudes”...

“...the poet continues questioning after the bottle
is empty

after the audience has gone home....”

In that there is hope.

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