I realized I had been holding my breath this morning when I read the news; I had to gasp, in. There’s a suffocating that happens when I’m scrolling through articles on Elliot Rodger, Twitter feeds, #yesallwomen. On top of that, Maya Angelou has passed today and her memory is worth so many held breaths. It’s hard to receive so much pain because the news and the reflection on the news come now at the same time, the speed of light. My mind works more at the speed of a river, a current – pulling and sifting, a thought submerged and bobbing to the surface; its imminent saturation. I can scroll through the infinite lists of repeating quotes from Angelou and retweet or maybe choose my own and hashtag, but when will I spend some time revisiting her work in print, whole books? In addition to being infinite, the internet is a microscope. I have this feeling of obligation, that if something happens I ought to comment on it quickly, with the appropriate tone. Even though in the physical world I probably would not speak my thoughts on the subject, or be the type of person to quote a poem out loud.
I remember having borrowed All God’s Children Need Travelling Shoes from the communal bookshelf during an internship at a nonprofit in Kenya. I read it in bed one evening and finished it early the next morning; in my memory the sky through the window was constantly orange. It was one of the books I have experienced so fully that I can recall exactly when and where it happened, and how I was a different person afterwards. Language at its deepest is transformation. Angelou had that generosity to transform others; she allowed everyone else to receive her own experiences.
A week ago I had the pleasure of attending a poetry reading where Sasha Steensen read from her book House of Deer, alongside Julie Carr, Graeme Bezanson, and Maureen Alsop. A few days before that, I had enjoyed several stories and a short film at The Disagreement series. It’s such a relief to go to a place where people will read to you and ask only that you listen. “Storytelling” has become some kind of buzzword to go with buzzphrases like “original content creation”, often applied, suspiciously, to marketing position descriptions. We’re surrounded by stories on TV channels and podcasts and newsfeeds, and we celebrate our storytellers, particularly the ones in television and film. But still it is something special to go to a room where someone will perform a practiced reading of original poetry: a genre from which people are often divorced, but from which we derive such understanding when we meet with it once again. It’s the act of receiving that I forget, in an age where even watching a television series has a certain element of fulfilling an obligation, forging my way through a list of doing. To simply observe, without the thought of future commentary or discussion: what a gift.
I don’t believe either of the readings were recorded. There were words I didn’t catch and phrases I won’t remember. I believe that my breathing was normal, and that my knowledge of a foreseeable ending to the event made the evening comfortable. It might be the infinite recordable nature of the news that causes me to hold my breath, and the bluntness of the pain, its roughness of shape. It seems to me that more often I need to go to the deepest part of language, to stay there—make an ending and a shape to allow the time for transformation to occur.