Caged Bird (Maya Angelou)

caged bird

Caged Bird

A free bird leaps 
on the back of the wind   
and floats downstream   
till the current ends 
and dips his wing 
in the orange sun rays 
and dares to claim the sky. 
But a bird that stalks 
down his narrow cage 
can seldom see through 
his bars of rage 
his wings are clipped and   
his feet are tied 
so he opens his throat to sing. 
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. 
The free bird thinks of another breeze 
and the trade winds soft through the sighing trees 
and the fat worms waiting on a dawn bright lawn 
and he names the sky his own 
But a caged bird stands on the grave of dreams   
his shadow shouts on a nightmare scream   
his wings are clipped and his feet are tied   
so he opens his throat to sing. 
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.
Maya Angelou, “Caged Bird” from Shaker, Why Don’t You Sing?
Illustration by Corrie Haffly

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David Whyte describes poetry as ‘language against which we have no defenses.’

So much has been written on race and privilege, and so much anger and defensiveness has been lobbed in opposition, and so the power of this poem hits me afresh, and makes me wonder:

Free birds, are you listening to the singing?

If (Rudyard Kipling)

If

 

If

If you can keep your head when all about you   
    Are losing theirs and blaming it on you,   
If you can trust yourself when all men doubt you, 
    But make allowance for their doubting too;   
If you can wait and not be tired by waiting, 
    Or being lied about, don’t deal in lies, 
Or being hated, don’t give way to hating, 
    And yet don’t look too good, nor talk too wise: 
If you can dream—and not make dreams your master;   
    If you can think—and not make thoughts your aim;   
If you can meet with Triumph and Disaster 
    And treat those two impostors just the same;   
If you can bear to hear the truth you’ve spoken 
    Twisted by knaves to make a trap for fools, 
Or watch the things you gave your life to, broken, 
    And stoop and build ’em up with worn-out tools: 
If you can make one heap of all your winnings 
    And risk it on one turn of pitch-and-toss, 
And lose, and start again at your beginnings 
    And never breathe a word about your loss; 
If you can force your heart and nerve and sinew 
    To serve your turn long after they are gone,   
And so hold on when there is nothing in you 
    Except the Will which says to them: ‘Hold on!’ 
If you can talk with crowds and keep your virtue,   
    Or walk with Kings—nor lose the common touch, 
If neither foes nor loving friends can hurt you, 
    If all men count with you, but none too much; 
If you can fill the unforgiving minute 
    With sixty seconds’ worth of distance run,   
Yours is the Earth and everything that’s in it,   
    And—which is more—you’ll be a Man, my son!
by Rudyard Kipling,  A Choice of Kipling’s Verse (1943)
illustration by Corrie Haffly

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Confession: I had never read this poem before this week. (Did I mention I was scared of poetry and, unless it was in my English curriculum in High School or shared with me by a poetry loving friend, I have not read it?)

But in a way I’m glad: because this poem means so much to me now and I think I would have thought it trite as a teenager. But now, in the stark daylight of adulthood when we have felt the temptation to be mastered by our dreams, where we’ve faced some triumph and disaster and seen how it shines light on our souls, where we have had our words twisted (or twisted those of others), where we have rued the waste of that unforgiving minute more times than we can remember, where we have seen those around us lose their head in times of stress…

          …. now I see. And I so want this maturity–this Christlikeness—both for me and my children.

Staying Power (Jeanne Murray Walker)

phone

Staying Power

In appreciation of Maxim Gorky at the International Convention of Atheists, 1929

Like Gorky, I sometimes follow my doubts   
outside to the yard and question the sky,   
longing to have the fight settled, thinking   
I can’t go on like this, and finally I say   
all right, it is improbable, all right, there   
is no God. And then as if I’m focusing   
a magnifying glass on dry leaves, God blazes up.   
It’s the attention, maybe, to what isn’t there   
that makes the emptiness flare like a forest fire   
until I have to spend the afternoon dragging   
the hose to put the smoldering thing out.   
Even on an ordinary day when a friend calls,   
tells me they’ve found melanoma,   
complains that the hospital is cold, I say God.   
God, I say as my heart turns inside out.   
Pick up any language by the scruff of its neck,   
wipe its face, set it down on the lawn,   
and I bet it will toddle right into the godfire   
again, which—though they say it doesn’t   
exist—can send you straight to the burn unit.   
Oh, we have only so many words to think with.   
Say God’s not fire, say anything, say God’s   
a phone, maybe. You know you didn’t order a phone,   
but there it is. It rings. You don’t know who it could be.   
You don’t want to talk, so you pull out   
the plug. It rings. You smash it with a hammer   
till it bleeds springs and coils and clobbery   
metal bits. It rings again. You pick it up   
and a voice you love whispers hello.
by Jeanne Murray Walker, Source: Poetry (May 2004)
illustration by Corrie Haffly

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My friend Aleah sent me this poem. It took her breath away when she first heard it, and it it did mine when I read it.

Adventures of Isabel (Ogden Nash)

isabel-1

Adventures of Isabel

Isabel met an enormous bear,
Isabel, Isabel, didn’t care;
The bear was hungry, the bear was ravenous,
The bear’s big mouth was cruel and cavernous.
The bear said, Isabel, glad to meet you,
How do, Isabel, now I’ll eat you!
Isabel, Isabel, didn’t worry.
Isabel didn’t scream or scurry.
She washed her hands and she straightened her hair up,
Then Isabel quietly ate the bear up.
Once in a night as black as pitch
Isabel met a wicked old witch.
the witch’s face was cross and wrinkled,
The witch’s gums with teeth were sprinkled.
Ho, ho, Isabel! the old witch crowed,
I’ll turn you into an ugly toad!
Isabel, Isabel, didn’t worry,
Isabel didn’t scream or scurry,
She showed no rage and she showed no rancor,
But she turned the witch into milk and drank her.
Isabel met a hideous giant,
Isabel continued self reliant.
The giant was hairy, the giant was horrid,
He had one eye in the middle of his forhead.
Good morning, Isabel, the giant said,
I’ll grind your bones to make my bread.
Isabel, Isabel, didn’t worry,
Isabel didn’t scream or scurry.
She nibled the zwieback that she always fed off,
And when it was gone, she cut the giant’s head off.
Isabel met a troublesome doctor,
He punched and he poked till he really shocked her.
The doctor’s talk was of coughs and chills
And the doctor’s satchel bulged with pills.
The doctor said unto Isabel,
Swallow this, it will make you well.
Isabel, Isabel, didn’t worry,
Isabel didn’t scream or scurry.
She took those pills from the pill concocter,
And Isabel calmly cured the doctor. 

Poem by Ogden Nash
Illustration by Corrie Haffly

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Remember my childhood memorized poem, I Had a Hippopotamus? Today’s choice was the poem our artist, Corrie, memorized as a child. And her illustration is extra delightful (with the Oliver Jeffers-esque lettering)…

… but just one question: how do you quietly eat a bear???

Pied Beauty (Gerald Manley Hopkins)

Dappled Things

Pied Beauty

Glory be to God for dappled things – 
   For skies of couple-colour as a brinded cow; 
      For rose-moles all in stipple upon trout that swim; 
Fresh-firecoal chestnut-falls; finches’ wings; 
   Landscape plotted and pieced – fold, fallow, and plough; 
      And áll trádes, their gear and tackle and trim. 
All things counter, original, spare, strange; 
   Whatever is fickle, freckled (who knows how?) 
      With swift, slow; sweet, sour; adazzle, dim; 
He fathers-forth whose beauty is past change: 
                                Praise him.
Source: Gerard Manley Hopkins: Poems and Prose (Penguin Classics, 1985)
Illustrated by Corrie Haffly.
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I remember learning this poem in school, and as a girl with a distinctively pied complexion (dappled all over with moles and freckles), seeing in this poem the possibility of my stippled skin being beautiful, rather than blemished.
I don’t worry about my freckles these days, but this poem is still special to me: I can’t drive past a field of cows without looking for the “brindled ones”, and seeing His handiwork there, too.

Hornbill (Arthur Attwell)

 hornbill

Hornbill

Tockus flavirostris
 
We know you at our campsites, your great moon-beak
swinging like a bludgeon from your small, grey head,
the crazy fruit of acacia trees, the bogey’s pod
swelled with the seed of the dirt you shuffle in.
There isn’t any mouthpiece in the world
more fitting to your cry of thorns and gravel,
a stutter in your anguish. And then silence,
as your ugliness settles over you like a shroud.
But in the air you are the wind’s trapeze, the stroke
of a brush on its canvas. Nothing flying compares
to your dip and ride, to the feather-tipped lunette
in your flight’s dome. When we saw it first we knew
the gag was over, dumbstruck at the proof
that grace – the slow parabola you carve
from the very air – can find its way from place
to place, alighting there, cast in the bone of your wing.
by Arthur Attwell, in Killing Time (UCT Writers, Snailpress, 2005)
art by Corrie Haffly
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Arthur Attwell is a South African publisher and poet, and also a friend of more than twenty years. He was the first poet I knew in person, and his publication of a little poem in a collection at our university was the first time I bought a work of poetry. I only read two of the poems in that collection: Arthur’s, and one which caught my eye as I thumbed through it and paused to read. It said this:
Untitled
You’re reading this
because it’s short.
Aren’t you?
I remember laughing out loud: at the ludicrousness that those three lines could be considered poetry, at the feeling of being busted, because the truth was I had, indeed, read it because it was short.
My mom bought me Arthur’s first published collection of poems, Killing Time, for my birthday ten years ago, and I was stunned to hold this volume written by someone I knew. You can read an excerpt from the collection here (and by the way, it’s well worth your time to scroll down to page 16 and read the poem for which the series is named)
I chose this one, however, because the African hornbill is a bird I’d often wondered about on trips to the South African game reserve: it really is ugly, and yet majestic in its own way. Like the warthog, it’s one of those creatures that makes me think anew about form and function, and how sometimes we see beauty in people when they’re at work, rather than stationary.

Thirsty (Karen Dabaghian)

thirsty

A few years ago, Karen Dabaghian took a class on the Psalms. The course involved reading the Psalms deeply, and then writing their own poems of response. The experience was life-changing for Karen. In her book Travelogue of the Interior (reviewed here), she recounts how she wrestled with Psalm 1, and its promise of blessing to “the one who does not walk in step with the wicked or stand in the way that sinners take or sit in the company of mockers, but whose delight in the law of the Lord, and who meditates on his law day and night.”

“That person,” writes the Psalmist, “is like a tree planted by streams of water, which yields its fruit in season and whose leaf does not wither—whatever they do prospers.”

Karen was stumped. She writes this in Travelogue:

“I ask too many questions and press too earnestly for answer; I worry constantly that my spiritual and intellectual appetites are off-putting to people around me, and I worry that they make me even more of a failure as a “good Christian woman” than I already fear I am. I have tried at times to be less thirsty and less hungry, someone who asks and offers less of herself and the world around her. At the ripe age of forty-two, I can confirm categrotically: it is pointless.

Yet in an instant, in the sacred space of my living room and my heart, a lifetime of shame melted away the moment God looked me in the eye and said, “There you are, My thirsty, blessed tree.”

THIRSTY

(Psalm 1)

A tree grows on the bank of the river

that flows from the City of God.

Its roots twine and twist

unashamed by its thirst.

It will be satisfied.

 

By Karen Dabaghian, Travelogue of the Interior (David C Cook, 2015)
Illustrated by Corrie Haffly