Where does Death sit in the room when a poet dies?

How do ‘we’ process the loss, when the poet is gone but her poetry remains?


‘I’ve learned that people will forget what you said,

people will forget what you did,

but people will never forget how you made them feel.’


I, Joel, do now know how to understand the loss of Dr. Angelou, because her poetry, her heart, her simmering boldness are still with me. She is still present in the room with me, her pulse no weaker than before, because I remember how I felt watching her read at Clinton’s inauguration. I remember how I felt as I read I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings.

I remember how I feel when I read “And Still, I Rise.” I feel blessed that a woman of her controlled fire gave words to herself and a people.  I feel humbled by the beautiful burden of writing as an African American woman for the sake of herself and as a Voice.

As a teacher, I took the above quote to heart – I wanted, more than anything, for my students to feel Loved, valued, heard.  If they remembered the thematic relevance of hedonism in Gatsby, fantastic, if they grasped the nuances of rhetorical analysis, wonderful, but I wanted them most to remember how Mr. Orr stood for them, left them feeling better about themselves, more in control of their own voices, feeling able, always.


Where does Death sit in the room when I will miss Dr. Angelou’s presence, and yet she is still present?

The last time I was lucky enough to hear Dr. Angelou speak in person (at the dedication of the North Carolina History museum in Raleigh), she wore soft gold shoes – how perfect, I thought, the paradox of gentle audacity. I never forgot those gold shoes; up until then, I had seen ‘bright’ as ‘flimsy.’ I had never felt the ability to be flamboyant – to be fabulous on purpose – and the ability to be real. That was twenty years ago, and still, her presence, the resonance of her voice and her posture remains with me.

I stood beneath the stage and to the left – I watched her speak from the perspective of a profile. It was windy, teetering between too hot and too cold, and I was 13. For the first time, I heard a voice that shook me. I felt it resonate within me, even as a child.


I am saddened, deeply, by the death of Dr. Maya Angelou.

I am sad for her family and for her friends.

I am sad for her colleagues.

I am sad for the world at large, having lost such a powerful Voice.

And, yet, I celebrate the miracle of the life of a Poet,

And as I slide shiny flats over the pudgy feet of my baby girl,

I am glad to have known Dr. Angelou,

And I am glad to know her, still,

Because it doesn’t matter where Death sits in the room of a Poet.

image via Burns Library

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