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Poetry Friday: A Great Tree Has Fallen

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It’s been one week since Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg died of cancer at the age of 87. She spent much of her legal career advocating for gender equality and women’s rights, and became a cultural and feminist icon throughout the course of her life. In this week’s Poetry Friday segment, Monica Brown, a writer and English professor at Northern Arizona University, pays tribute to Ginsburg with a reading of When Great Trees Fall, by Maya Angelou – another powerful and transformative woman in the world. 

Monica Brown: I was thinking about her as a tree because though she was small in physical stature, she was a great woman and she had powerful roots. And if she was a great tree, she left lots of seedlings and saplings.

I have 2 powerful young trees, my daughters, doing amazing things, and I think we need to think of ourselves as strong trees. We can aspire to reach the heights she did. And the sheltering branches she gave so many women, protecting and sheltering from gender discrimination and showing us the power of words. So, if we’re going to extend the great Maya Angelou’s metaphor, to think about that – we’re trees, too. 

I hope we vote in her memory, and I hope we participate fully in our democracy in her memory, and I hope the great tree that she was inspires us younger trees, and future generations – little seedlings – to grow strong.

I’m going to read When Great Trees Fall, by Maya Angelou:

              When great trees fall,
rocks on distant hills shudder,
lions hunker down
in tall grasses,
and even elephants
lumber after safety.

When great trees fall
in forests,
small things recoil into silence,
their senses
eroded beyond fear.

When great souls die,
the air around us becomes
light, rare, sterile.
We breathe, briefly.
Our eyes, briefly,
see with
a hurtful clarity.
Our memory, suddenly sharpened,
gnaws on kind words
promised walks
never taken.

Great souls die and
our reality, bound to
them, takes leave of us.
Our souls,
dependent upon their
now shrink, wizened.
Our minds, formed
and informed by their
fall away.
We are not so much maddened
as reduced to the unutterable ignorance
of dark, cold

And when great souls die,
after a period peace blooms,
slowly and always
irregularly. Spaces fill
with a kind of
soothing electric vibration.
Our senses, restored, never
to be the same, whisper to us.
They existed. They existed.
We can be. Be and be
better. For they existed.