Poem of the Week: ‘Awaking in New York’ by Maya Angelou
Steve Whitaker, Literary Correspondent
Life, as Samuel Beckett found, proceeds in spite of itself. Which may, in the end, signal the point of writer, singer, actor and black activist, Maya Angelou’s, deeply ambiguous poem.
Perhaps the act of endurance itself justifies the endless struggle: the narrator’s strap-hanging amorphous public – perfectly drawn here in metaphors of rousing, of coming round as if from the narcosis of sleep – are obliged to ‘drag’ themselves into a twilit subterranean underworld.
The process of awakening is as ironic as it is salutary, as the city becomes a metonym for the teeming millions of its people.
Awaking in New York
Curtains forcing their will
against the wind,
exchanging dreams with
seraphim. The city
drags itself awake on
subway straps; and
I, an alarm, awake as a
rumor of war
lie stretching into dawn
unasked and unheeded.
The emphatic verbs - ‘forcing’, ‘stretching’ , ‘dragging’ - are baleful, enervating, as though an effort of will was required to flick the switch of inertia. The poem says everything about the iron in the metropolitan soul as much as it says nothing.
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And defiance. Is the narrator’s final, almost declamatory line, an act of alarum, a Cassandra-prophesy whose fate is to remain ‘unasked and unheeded’? Or is she in the vanguard of a new and invigorated human landscape ?
Angelou’s resolutely prolix, but wonderful, poem asks more questions than it will ever be prepared to answer. Readers who expect to find those answers in the context of the writer’s long and engaged life may be disappointed.
Poem of the Week: ‘Awaking in New York’ by Maya Angelou, 2nd August 2018, 8:58 AM