Maya Angelou (1928-2014) was at various times in her life the first African American female cable car conductor in San Francisco, a dancer, a singer, an actress, a television producer, a civil rights activist, and a writer whose autobiography, I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings, became a best-selling classic (Maya Angelou, 2014). But perhaps more than any other talent she possessed, she was a poet. She wrote more than 160 poems, including one commissioned by President Bill Clinton for his inauguration in 1993 (Maya Angelou, 2014).
Many of Ms. Angelou’s poems are about equality and struggle. Others are love poems. “In and Out of Time” is both a love poem and a poem that speaks about struggling. It is free verse; the stanzas are different lengths, and while the poem rhymes, it’s not the formal rhyming pattern of a sonnet or an ode. With different numbers of lines and lines both short and long, the poem has a very relaxed rhythm, not rigid at all.
The poem begins by informing the reader that “the sun has come. The mist has gone.” This can be seen both as a literal statement (perhaps it is dawn, and the mist is lifting as the sun burns the dew off the grass) and as a metaphor. In literature, the arrival of some kind of light, such as the sun, often means that the “night” is over and whatever problems there were—fear, loneliness, danger—are gone as well. So the opening lines of this poem give a feeling of having reached a safe place or a place where one can rest. This is reinforced by the next lines, where the speaker and object of her affection can “see…our long way home.” In the Bible, the phrase “to go to one’s long home” means to die and go to your final rest (Ecclesiastics 12:5, King James Version). So even though there’s light, there’s also a hint of death as well. Perhaps that’s why the speaker and the person being spoken to have “loved each other in and out of time (Angelou, 2013).” Perhaps one of them has died.
The next stanza is probably the most sensual part of the poem. The speaker, whether male or female, is infatuated with the lover’s hair, which “”you gave to the breeze” and it “hummed like a hive of bees.” There’s a feeling of freedom, of letting down one’s hair, in these lines. The speaker reaches into the loved one’s hair “for the sweet honey comb there (Angelou, 2013).” Obviously, no one actually wears a honeycomb; these lines are about the sweetness of love, and there’s a definite feeling that this is a love of the flesh. The reader gets the impression of two people lying in a sunny meadow, perhaps, the bees buzzing in the flowers as the two lie together.
However, in the next stanza, Angelou changes the tone completely. This part of the poem speaks of struggle, “Bludgeoned by circumstance, Lost, injured, hurt by chance (Angelou, 2013).” Maya Angelou knew all about that kind of pain, being raised as she was in the South during the Jim Crow era (Fox, 2014). In the poem, the speaker “screamed to heaven…loudly screamed…trying to change our nightmares into dreams.” This is exactly what Maya Angelou did all her life as both a writer and civil rights activist (Fox, 2014).
As the poem ends, once again “the sun has come, the mist has gone” and that “long way home” is visible in the distance again. Yet the speaker seems to reassure the loved one that whatever happens “I was always yours to have. You were always mine.” They have loved each other “in and out and in and out of time (Angelou, 2013).” That seems to say that whether they meet again in Heaven or perhaps are reincarnated, they will always find one another; they will never be parted. It’s a truly beautiful sentiment, and with Maya Angelou’s passing in May of this year (Fox, 2014), I have to wonder if she hoped to find someone she had loved “in and out of time” waiting for her.
- AOA (2104). Maya Angelou Biography. Academy of Achievement. http://www.achievement.org/autodoc/page/ang0bio-1
- Angelou, M. (2103). In and Out of Time. The Complete Collected Poems of Maya Angelou. New York: Random House.
- Fox, M. (2014, May 28). Maya Angelou, Lyrical Witness of the Jim Crow South, Dies at 86. New York Times. http://www.nytimes.com/2014/05/29/arts/maya-angelou-lyrical-witness-of-the-jim-crow-south-dies-at-86.html?_r=0