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Equality as Listening: Maya Angelou and Dave Holland

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When I heard about Maya Angelou’s passing last week, I also realized it had been a while since I had listened to Dave Holland’s setting of her 1990 poem “Equality,” two versions of which he recorded with his quartet (one with vocals by Cassandra Wilson) on his 1996 album Dream of the Elders. This group – with Steve Nelson on vibes and marimba, Eric Person on alto and soprano saxophone and Gene Jackson on drums – was a transitional band for Dave Holland, articulating between his two great quintets – the second of which would retain Nelson at its core. I’m not sure if “Equality” remained in the later quintet’s book, but I do remember hearing an instrumental version of the song when this quartet played Vancouver (at the Van East Cultural Centre) in June 1997. I remember how Dave Holland stressed that the tune was composed around a Maya Angelou poem, that her text made a difference as to how he felt his music could be heard and understood. The booklet for the ECM disc offers a “special thanks to Dr. Maya Angelou for permission to use her poem Equality, and for the inspiration and clarity of thought that her work gives to this world.”  

Maya Angelou’s work has a specific relationship to American cultural memory. It strives for clarity, for declarative resonance and public audibility. “You declare you see me dimly,” her poem “Equality” begins, ironically presenting intersubjectivity (in this instance, what will soon emerge in the poem as a gendered imbalance of power) as a longing for claritas. Her poem wants bright mutuality and distinctive, distinguished exchange.  Poetry, as self-attentive speech, meant for Angelou overcoming dimness or obscurity with demonstrative surety. Her writing enacts and invites, maybe even demands, a certain practice of shared listening that is at once responsive and responsible. Its verbal music can be simultaneously plain and arch, colloquial and poetical, convolute and direct; listen to the counterposed diction in a line from “Equality” like “You do own to hear me faintly . . .” As a form of public speech, her poetry satisfies conventional, base-line expectations (around rhyme and rhythm, for example, or around occasionally abstract diction) about what a poem ought to look and to sound like. Her poems seem to be woven from her own personal moral fibre, from her principled example: the poet, in this conception, preaches what she practices, and writes what she lives. “I go forth / alone,” she declares in the composite voice of “Our Grandmothers,” “and stand as ten thousand.”
Still, for all its emphasis on aspirational greatness and empowerment, her poetry also repeatedly recognizes its own shortfall. The uncompromising capital-P full-stop artistic power to which she lays claim in her poems – she isolates the term as a single-word sentence in the last line of “Love Letter”: “Power.” – relies on a potentially problematic assertion of self-mastery that risks replicating the oppressive social and cultural discursive machineries it seeks to overturn. That’s not to say that we shouldn’t recognize and respect the historical and societal circumstances out of which Angelou’s fierce voice emerges, her proud and defiant assertion of African-American women’s heritage and language against racial and sexual oppression. Speaking truth to power, particularly on behalf of the disenfranchised, ought not to be constantly compelled to interrogate its own essentialism, and such self-directed skepticism genuinely risks undermining and diffusing the political efficacy of its challenge, and of falling into unwelcome compromise: “You have tried to destroy me / and though I perish daily, / I shall not be moved.” But the firmness of Maya Angelou’s poetics, of her declarative mode, also entails acknowledging and confronting the ethical risk around a speaking subject who might declaim without listening, who offers up a language of refusal without reciprocity – even given the obvious imbalance of power and the self-evidently just demands for expressive space, to make herself heard. What she risks in writing is very real in two senses, then, as she balances the demands of self-actualizing pride and of ethical deference. And Maya Angelou says so, too. “When you learn,” her composite grandmother intones to her cultural children, “teach. / When you get, give.” Against the sculptural stridency of her lines, Angelou also repeated counsels herself and her readers to engage in an open-armed and reciprocal humility. “Enter here,” she intones, inviting her ancestors, but also her readers, to converse with her, to listen but also to be listened to.
She frames her elegy for “Ailey, Baldwin, Floyd, Killens, and Mayfield” with a gesture at the contradictions that inhere in representative greatness, in the work of exemplary self-expression and racial or community solidarity:
          When great souls die,
          the air around us becomes
          light, rare, sterile.
We breathe, briefly.
Our eyes, briefly,
see with
a hurtful clarity.
In this set of foreshortened lines, she traces the emergence of a stricken hiatus, manifest “briefly” at a moment of subjective crisis within that collective “we” when those artists and figures (in this instance, of creative black masculinity) in whose names and images we have invested, as a community, are suddenly absent. In coming days, with the unfolding of shared grief, Angelou promises that those absences will soon “fill / with a kind of / soothing electric vibration,” but this instability is enacted, in the present tense of her poem, as a claritas – a declaration – that simultaneously wounds and salves, a “hurtful clarity.” The nascent refrain in these lines, “briefly,” affirms through repetition its own sure-footedness while bespeaking a fleeting contingency, a briefness.
Elsewhere, she describes this attentive and unsettling reciprocity as a collision in the voice of the private and public, of lyric and polemic, of self and other, as a form of mutual listening:
                  Listening winds
                  overhear my privacies
        spoken aloud (in your
        absence, but for your sake).
I think that this dynamic and shifting balance of humility and power, of surety and openness, in her lines (notice the gently fractured line-breaks in what I’ve just cited, for example) is one way of understanding what she calls “Equality.” The poem employs an 8787 syllabic stanza pattern derived from hymnals:
                  Yóu annóunce my wáys are wánton,
                  thát I flý from mán to mán,
                  but íf I’m júst a shádow tó you,
                  cóuld you éver únderstánd?
(The “but” in the third line is an anacrusis.) This fixed rhythmic form – “the rhythms never change” she states twice in the poem – has been associated with the public traditionalism of Angelou’s poetry. Christopher Benfey, in a succinct entry on Maya Angelou in the Oxford Companion to Modern Poetry, notes how “[t]he strength of her lyrics, with their unashamed and passionate use of iambic rhythm and full rhyme, lies in the combination of blues and gospel traditions with strong emotional and political insight.” The performative rhythm of her verse, however, both here and elsewhere, tends to be trochaic rather than iambic, a rhythm that’s at once instantly assertive and recurrently elegiac, as each two-syllable unit begins on a strong stress and then briefly falls away. “Equality” takes as its subject the oppression of women by unresponsive and callous men, and the indices of race – unless we take her stanza form as inherently African American, which it isn’t – are much less in evidence than Benfey’s reading (which seems to rely on cultural stereotypes) suggests they might be in a Maya Angelou poem. The poem’s refrain – “Equality, and I shall be free.” – certainly echoes the public discourse of the civil rights movement, but the “equality” she seeks is presented as a balance of erotic power. It’s worth noting, too, that despite the nominal, declarative pressure that the chorus asserts, pronouncing the word ”equality” on its own as a gesture at enacting it verbally, that balance is also pulled slightly askew by the tacked-on modifier, a phrase that looks to the future rather than affirming an achieved present. Within a shifting braid of pronouns – you, I , we – the voice calls for equality, rather than attaining it.
But it’s also worth remarking that equality, repeated within a choric sentence fragment, becomes dynamic rather than discrete; it’s contingently, “briefly” attained in the process of speaking or singing the poem. Dave Holland’s recording has the syllables of “equality” attenuated and stretched in the lower registers of the singing voice, either Cassandra Wilson’s warm alto or Eric Person’s alto saxophone. The setting is built on a looped, largely unchanging slow-tempo phrase in Holland’s bass – a “line” that picks up on the trochaic lament of Angelou’s own line. Holland’s firm touch, his technically assured and rhythmically forward style on the double bass, also seems to me to correspond to what I have been calling the declarative surety of Maya Angelou’s verbal style. (Choosing to set this particular poem, Holland also arguably enacts an interracial dialogue and a masculine response to Angelou’s female cry.) Steve Nelson’s vibes provide an Afrological sound texture to the performance, echoed by Gene Jackson’s mallets on his tomtoms, which for me also recall some of Max Roach’s playing (behind Abbey Lincoln’s vocals) on “Prayer/Protest/Peace,” from his Freedom Now Suite. The collective performance of the quartet, with or without vocalist, enacts in the give-and-take between extemporaneous freedom and ensemble cohesion a formal, polymorphic analogue to what Angelou calls “equality”: a motile balancing act among disparate voices.
That the music inhabits a kind of resonant hiatus is not to suggest that it is diffident or tentative, but rather that it opens itself up to contrapuntal subject positions, a version of what Jean-Luc Nancy has described as the “listening” of (not to, but of) music itself: “alteration and variation, the modulation of the present that changes it in expectation of its own eternity, always imminent and always deferred . . .” (Listening67). I hear a version of the futurity of Angelou’s claim that “I shall be free” in Nancy’s withdrawing eternity here. Nancy insists on the selflessness of this kinesis, but between Holland and Angelou we have more like a partiality, and inclination of open-eared selves, a conversation. Although Angelou declares she will not be moved, in fact to move – in both its affective and kinetic senses – is precisely the interchange toward which “Equality” strives, toward which its imperatives incline us:
         Take the blinders from your vision,
         take the padding from your ears,
         and confess you’ve heard me crying,
         and admit you’ve seen my tears.
         Hear the tempo so compelling,
         hear the blood throb in my veins.
         Yes, my drums are beating nightly,
                   and the rhythms never change.
The eternal return of those figural drums marks a demand to be heard: that the private interiority of the voice’s pulse, a somatic beat audible we’d imagine only to herself in her own ears, might become liminally audible in the grain, in the wide long held notes, of the singing voice, in her open vowels. When Cassandra Wilson sings these words, they turn into an invitation to reflect on how we engage in attending or listening to music, on how we actively and deliberately open our eyes and ears to attend to a shared humanity. And they also, tonally, allow us briefly and approximately to access, across the tympanums of our own open ears, the palpable textures of her breath and pulse. Equality is Maya Angelou’s name for that temporary intimacy, that contact, that touch.

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