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“Middle Passage”–Robert Hayden

By Kwame Dawes

Robert Hayden wrote “Middle Passage” in the nineteen forties, when, he said, no one was really writing about these subjects. To hear him read this poem is to experience the strange way that poems echo sounds I have already heard. I am making my way back to Hayden. And it occurs to me that the echoes I hear in Hayden betray what cannot be denied, which is that so many of the great poems of the New World, poems of the Caribbean must have come out of some experience of reading Hayden’s “Middle Passage”.

Some years ago, Tom Feelings completed the art for his book, Middle Passage. The book moved me in powerful ways. I wrote poems in response. It is impossible now to read Hayden’s poem and not imagine Feelings art as an echo of Hayden’s ambition of telling this story as an epic—the story of slave rebellions, the story of America’s complicity in the business of slavery, the horror of the passage.

In Hayden’s poem you see the way his work, in its commitment to the modernist impulse of using fragments of history, of song, of memory and of existing literature to create a work with epic ambition. Hayden takes Eliot’s allusion to Shakespeare’s the Tempest and plops it perfectly into this story of slavery and the Middle Passage. “Full fathom five thy father lies” is the lament of the white slaver in Hayden’s poem—the political implications are rich. Those eyes, those eyes:

Deep in the festering hold thy father lies, of his bones
New England pews are made, those are altar lights that were his eyes.

Jesus Saviour Pilot Me
Over Life’s Tempestuous Sea

The thing is I cannot read Hayden without hearing Derek Walcott’s Another Live and Omeros. I cannot read Hayden with hearing the monumental ambition of Kamau Brathwaite’s own Middle Passage in his sequence The Arrivants. I cannot read Hayden without hearing Amime Cesaire’s Notebook of a Return to My Native Land or his Le Tempete. I cannot read Hayden without hearing the verse of Edouard Glissant. It goes on and on. Hayden may have felt alone when he embarked on this poem—a beautiful work of intellectual cool and ideological forcefulness—but his work feels like a part of some larger chorus of voices now so many years later. He certainly is not alone.

I am reading Kevin Young’s Ardency: A Chronicle of the Amistad Rebels, and by its structure, by its intent on filling the air with the many voices of those involved in the Middle Passage, it owes its presence and impact to Robert Hayden. I will look back at Elizabeth Alexander’s twenty-four Amistad poems that she said owed their existence to her archival research into the story of that important historical moment. Kevin Young speaks of his own research, the details he manages to dig up from original documents, and the way they give substance to the poems he has written. What Hayden did with the Cinque[z] story in his poem, represents an unearthing of significant proportions because of the time when he wrote the poem.

Hayden apparently did not want to be known as a Negro or Black Poet, but as an American poet. In this, he was in good company. Many people misunderstood this, clearly, and I have been privy to so many arguments on conference panels and in articles about the way Hayden fared during the Black Arts Movement. The problem Hayden faced, of course, was that he did as much as he could possibly do to undermine his wish. Instead of avoiding subject matter that would easily betray him he wrote homage poems to Frederick Douglas and other black figures in history. What he did was dig deep into the rich store of narratives of African American experience to produce poems. In fairness to Hayden, his aversion to being so easily labeled was a sophisticated one. For him, the poem “Middle Passage” is not a black poem, but an American poem. His Douglas poem is not a black poem, but an American poem. Anything that allows America off the hook on recognizing the Americanness of what Langston Hughes called “the darker brother” is fundamentally tragic and to be resisted.

Yet it is this desire to make of the narrative of the Middle Passage, not a black preoccupation that affects so fully the shape of the poem itself. Indeed, while often the poem is described as a pastiche of many voices of the key figures in the slave trade, the truth is that the poem is made up of a pastiche of the many white voices engaged in the slave trade. The passage detailing the complicity of the “nigger kings” in the trade is packed with what may in fact be truths, but in this telling, Hayden offers something that can sometimes seem an apology for the European role in the middle passage. “It was not us alone, those Africans were also complicit.” The passage smells of Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness:

I

Aye, lad, and I have seen those factories,
Gambia, Rio Pongo, Calabar;
have watched the artful mongos baiting traps
of war wherein the victor and the vanquished

Were caught as prizes for our barracoons.
Have seen the nigger kings whose vanity
and greed turned wild black hides of Fellatah,
Mandingo, Ibo, Kru to gold for us.

And there was one–King Anthracite we named him–
fetish face beneath French parasols
of brass and orange velvet, impudent mouth
whose cups were carven skulls of enemies:

He’d honor us with drum and feast and conjo
and palm-oil-glistening wenches deft in love,
and for tin crowns that shone with paste,
red calico and German-silver trinkets

Would have the drums talk war and send
his warriors to burn the sleeping villages
and kill the sick and old and lead the young
in coffles to our factories.

Twenty years a trader, twenty years,
for there was wealth aplenty to be harvested
from those black fields, and I’d be trading still
but for the fevers melting down my bones.

There is the conscience of regret, or perhaps something more, the curse of guilt on the slave trader at the end of this movement. In the next, Hayden produces a beautiful lyric that is brutal in its explicit description of the horrors of the enterprise:

Shuttles in the rocking loom of history,
the dark ships move, the dark ships move,
their bright ironical names
like jests of kindness on a murderer’s mouth;
plough through thrashing glister toward
fata morgana’s lucent melting shore,
weave toward New World littorals that are
mirage and myth and actual shore.

The poem does take us to the shores of America, to the story of the Amistad and to the very place where Tom Feelings’ book ends. It is as if neither of these two artists could bear to treat the next epic of history in the same poem. But where the echoing poets—the ones, one imagines, find themselves responding to Hayden directly or indirectly—try to find in their verse the voice of the enslaved, Hayden is interested in the voice of the enslaver. It is a fit and rewarding fascination.

But I would propose that Hayden’s race is an important part of this poem, and the way we will read the poem. Why should we not know that he is a black man? Why should that fact be less important than the metaphors he chooses to use or the allusions he decides to make? I am convinced that the emotional core of the poem, the very credibility of the poem lies in his blackness.

This, no doubt, might seem a radical and unsettling statement but it should not be confused with the suggestion that without his blackness as part of the poem, that the poem would not have power. Of course it would, but it would also not offer us certain possibilities of interpretation. The thing is, if we did not read the poem as one written by a black man, wouldn’t we read the poem as one written by a white man (or woman)? And if so, wouldn’t that offer some dimension and shape to the poem? Of course it would.

Hayden may not have wanted much of this to be a part of the reception to his poem but Hayden would have known that he could do nothing about that. Nothing whatsoever. He leaves us, though, with a powerful and troubling poem. It is an American poem, yes, but it is decidedly a Black poem.


Posted in Uncategorized on Friday, April 15th, 2011 by Kwame Dawes.