Maya Angelou’s “Martial Choreograph”

Maya Angelou has long been the type of artist whose work gets consumed by reputation. It’s been hard to have a conversation about her that doesn’t get bogged down in parody or the inevitable self-emulation that comes to prominent poets. A lot of people, I think, suspect that her image as a kind of New Agey black mother figure has been more responsible for her prominence than her actual work. There are also, I’m sure, those who are guilty of that kind of admiration– being “inspired” by her character and her symbolic power and her gorgeous voice rather than by her work. That’s a shame, because at her best, she was capable of remarkably memorable work, and with a brutal efficiency that cuts against her reputation. Like many great poets, her work was easy to mock and easy to ape, but not to achieve. Here she is from early on in her career, a poem written when we were at war in Vietnam [this is actually unclear, I’ve learned], and her at the height of her powers.

Martial Choreograph
by Maya Angelou

Hello young sailor
You are betrayed and
do not know the dance of death.
Dandy warrior, swaying to
Rick James on your
stereo, you do not hear the
bleat of triumphant war, its
roar is not in
your ears, filled with Stevie Wonder.

“Show me how to do like you.
Show me how to do it.”

You will be surprised that
trees grunt when torn from
their root sockets to fandango into dust,
and exploding bombs force a lively Lindy
on grasses and frail bodies.

Go galloping on, bopping,
in the airport, young sailor.
Your body, virgin
still, has not swung the bloody buck and wing.

Manhood is a newly delivered
message. Your eyes,
rampant as an open city,
have not yet seen life steal from
limbs outstretched and trembling
like the arms of dancers
and dying swans.