Nightmare Begins Responsibility

By Michael S. Harper b. 1938
I place these numbed wrists to the pane   
watching white uniforms whisk over
him in the tube-kept
fear what they will do in experiment
watch my gloved stickshifting gasolined hands   
breathe boxcar-information-please infirmary tubes   
distrusting white-pink mending paperthin   
silkened end hairs, distrusting tubes
shrunk in his trunk-skincapped
shaven head, in thighs   
on his son who will not make his second night   
of this wardstrewn intensive airpocket   
where his father's asthmatic
hymns of night-train, train done gone
his mother can only know that he has flown   
up into essential calm unseen corridor
going boxscarred home, mamaborn, sweetsonchild
gonedowntown into researchtestingwarehousebatteryacid
mama-son-done-gone/me telling her 'nother   
train tonight, no music, no breathstroked   
heartbeat in my infinite distrust of them:

and of my distrusting self   
say it for two sons gone,
say nightmare, say it loud
panebreaking heartmadness:
nightmare begins responsibility.

Michael S. Harper, “Nightmare Begins Responsibility” from Songlines in Michaeltree: New and Collected Poems. Copyright © 2000 by Michael S. Harper. Reprinted with the permission of University of Illinois Press,

Source: Songlines in Michaeltree: New and Collected Poems (University of Illinois Press, 2000)

Discover this poem’s context and related poetry, articles, and media.

Poet Michael S. Harper b. 1938

Subjects Race & Ethnicity, Social Commentaries, Crime & Punishment, Relationships, Family & Ancestors

Poetic Terms Free Verse

 Michael S. Harper


Acclaimed poet and teacher Michael S. Harper was born in 1938, in Brooklyn, New York. Known his innovative use of jazz rhythms, cultural allusion, historical referent and personal narrative, Harper is “a deeply complex poet whose mission is to unite the fractured, inhumane technologies of our time with the abiding deep well of Negro folk traditions,” said John Callahan in the New Republic. Harper does this, noted Poetry reviewer . . .

Continue reading this biography

Poem Categorization

SUBJECT Race & Ethnicity, Social Commentaries, Crime & Punishment, Relationships, Family & Ancestors

Poetic Terms Free Verse

Report a problem with this poem

Originally appeared in Poetry magazine.

This poem has learning resources.

This poem is good for children.

This poem has related video.

This poem has related audio.