Phenomenal Woman

by Maya Angelou

paintings by Paul Gauguin

Published by Random House

32 pages, 2000

Buy it online




Phenomenal Woman

Reviewed by Monica Stark


Over the years, several women have asked me to identify or help them remember this particular piece of writing. "You know the one," they'll say. "'It's in the arch of my back' and so on." And I have to reply -- because the words tempt to be spoken:

It's in the reach of my arms,
The span of my hips,
The stride of my step,
The curl of my lips.

I'm a woman
Phenomenal woman,
That's me.

First published by Maya Angelou in 1978, Phenomenal Woman is a poem and not an especially long one. Phenomenal Woman is an anthem of women's strength in their own womanhood. The almost childish rhyming cadence is haunting in its simplicity.

It's in the click of my heels,
The bend of my hair,
The palm of my hand,
The need for my care.

Moreover, it is a poem that has struck a chord with women everywhere. "Look at me!" it says quite plainly. "I am beautiful in my strength, in whatever shape that is mine. In my womanhood." A celebration that, it seems, all women understand. Maya Angelou has been quoted as saying that she writes for, "the Black voice and for any ear which can hear it." In Phenomenal Woman, as with much of her writing, this is certainly true.

In this slender volume, Angelou's memorable words are teamed with paintings by the French postimpressionist Paul Gauguin. This seems like a somewhat natural pairing, Gauguin's affection for and celebration of the female form is legendary. It was Gauguin who ended his days painting young girls in Tahiti and many of the paintings represented in Phenomenal Woman are obviously from this period: many are nudes and semi-nudes reclining or cavorting in a tropical environment. Of course, the pairing works best when you don't actually know a great deal about Gauguin. What the casual viewer sees is women of color lovingly painted by a master. The fact that he abandoned his family for his art in 1888 and went off to live (unhappily) and work with Vincent Van Gogh is not for consideration here. Artistic temperaments -- or maybe just plain insanity -- cut this partnership short, however. In fact, the night Van Gogh cut off his own ear, he was actually trying to attack Gauguin.

To be honest, however, none of this knowing will likely affect your enjoyment of this very special production of Phenomenal Woman. A lovely book worthy of its exceptional author: and you'll never again have to struggle to remember the words. | June 2000


Monica Stark is a freelance writer and editor.