In times of hostilities and natural disasters each human being becomes an evacuee. What we need now most, more than food and water, is peace. I wrote this poem.Maya Angelou
On the stroke of midnight the sky erupts. I used to delight in that moment of glittering spectacle, perfectly timed to mark the turning of the year. In the raw start to this new decade such pyrotechnics seem sorely out of place, and of another time.
When Maya Angelou was invited to attend the Christmas Tree lighting at the White House in 2005 she spoke her poem of peace to an audience perhaps still shaken by recent natural disasters. In the US, Hurricane Katrina claimed more than a thousand lives in August that year. In the Indian Ocean, the 2004 Boxing Day tsunami had killed an estimated 227,898 people in 14 countries.
We question ourselves.Maya Angelou: Amazing Peace
What have we done to so affront nature?
Fifteen years later we reel with news of more catastrophes. Unnatural disasters exacerbated by human action and inaction. Flooding in Jakarta. Fires raging across Australia. Families fleeing danger. Homes destroyed, death tolls growing. Trump adding his own incendiary touch of Hellfire to the Middle East.
Sending the wrong message?
Against this explosion, the Sydney fireworks can hardly compete as bushfires turn the heavens red. To cancel, says Prime Minister Scott Morrison, would send the wrong message to the world. Here in Scotland, Edinburgh’s Hogmanay ends with an extravagant bang, the sky synthetically alight with a sparkly cocktail of gunpowder and heavy metals above a rumbling city that has proudly declared a climate emergency.
What message do the fireworks give now?
The Chinese invention – emerging in the Tang and Song dynasties during the seventh and tenth centuries – was thought to ward off evil spirits and bring good luck. (This year, ironically, Shanghai chose non-polluting drones to simulate a dazzling firework display – and not actually on New Year’s Eve). Seen from a distance, it seems, there’s not much to distinguish shock and awe acts of war from civic celebrations. Those pretty particles, “scarlets and electric blues and golden rays too fragile to be touched,” were described with devastating, eloquent irony by the young Times war correspondent George Steer in his 1937 despatches from Spain.
“No killing and maiming, thirst, hunger and pain to be picked out through curious field-glasses,” he wrote after watching a night bombing beyond San Sebastian. “Only the prettiness of war, under the moon…The Legion lost many bold men that night.”
In this jaggedly uncertain new year, I’m struggling to find hope and comfort. Then, clearing up after the family Christmas gathering, we discover a surprise, a thank you gift of a book from our daughter-in-law. It is Amazing Peace, the published poem by Maya Angelou – the poet who had earlier responded to President Bill Clinton’s inauguration with On the Pulse of Morning, a challenge for him and all Americans. “Here, on the pulse of this new day, / You may have the grace to look up and out / And into your sister’s eyes, and into / Your brother’s face, your country /And say simply / Very simply / With hope—Good morning.”
Now, the later poem comes just in time. The words spoken by Maya Angelou by the White House Christmas Tree in 2005 are something to hold on to as we dismantle ours on Twelfth Night 2020, switching off the fairy lights, packing them away for another year. Our thoughts with the many people, new evacuees, whose lives have changed forever.
Hope is born again in the faces of childrenMaya Angelou: Amazing Peace
It rides on the shoulders of our aged as they walk into their sunsets.
Hope spreads around the earth. Brightening all things,
Even hate which crouches breeding in dark corridors.
Maya Angelou died in 2014 aged 86. Here she reads Amazing Peace. As the Poetry Foundation profile says, her poetry always benefited from her performance of it, holding audiences in her spell.
On this platform of peace, we can create a language
To translate ourselves to ourselves and to each other.
Feature image: New Year Fireworks by Patrick Down, CC By-NC 2.0