Witch Doctor

By Robert Hayden 1913–1980 Robert Hayden
I
He dines alone surrounded by reflections   
of himself. Then after sleep and benzedrine   
descends the Cinquecento stair his magic   
wrought from hypochondria of the well-
to-do and nagging deathwish of the poor;   
swirls on smiling genuflections of
his liveried chauffeur into a crested   
lilac limousine, the cynosure
of mousey neighbors tittering behind   
Venetian blinds and half afraid of him   
and half admiring his outrageous flair.

       II
Meanwhile his mother, priestess in gold lamé,   
precedes him to the quondam theater   
now Israel Temple of the Highest Alpha,   
where the bored, the sick, the alien, the tired   
await euphoria. With deadly vigor
she prepares the way for mystery
and lucre. Shouts in blues-contralto, ”He’s   
God’s dictaphone of all-redeeming truth.
Oh he’s the holyweight champeen who’s come   
to give the knockout lick to your bad luck;   
say he’s the holyweight champeen who’s here   
to deal a knockout punch to your hard luck.“

       III
Reposing on cushions of black leopard skin,   
he telephones instructions for a long
slow drive across the park that burgeons now   
with spring and sailors. Peers questingly   
into the green fountainous twilight, sighs
and turns the gold-plate dial to Music For
Your Dining-Dancing Pleasure. Smoking Egyptian   
cigarettes rehearses in his mind
a new device that he must use tonight.

       IV
Approaching Israel Temple, mask in place,   
he hears ragtime allegros of a ”Song
of Zion“ that becomes when he appears   
a hallelujah wave for him to walk.
His mother and a rainbow-surpliced cordon   
conduct him choiring to the altar-stage,
and there he kneels and seems to pray before   
a lighted Jesus painted sealskin-brown.
Then with a glittering flourish he arises,   
turns, gracefully extends his draperied arms:   
“Israelites, true Jews, O found lost tribe   
of Israel, receive my blessing now.
Selah, selah.” He feels them yearn toward him   
as toward a lover, exults before the image
of himself their trust gives back. Stands as though   
in meditation, letting their eyes caress
his garments jewelled and chatoyant, cut   
to fall, to flow from his tall figure
dramatically just so. Then all at once
he sways, quivers, gesticulates as if
to ward off blows or kisses, and when he speaks   
again he utters wildering vocables,
hypnotic no-words planned (and never failing)   
to enmesh his flock in theopathic tension.   
Cries of eudaemonic pain attest
his artistry. Behind the mask he smiles.   
And now in subtly altering light he chants
and sinuously trembles, chants and trembles   
while convulsive energies of eager faith   
surcharge the theater with power of   
their own, a power he has counted on   
and for a space allows to carry him.   
Dishevelled antiphons proclaim the moment   
his followers all day have hungered for,   
but which is his alone.
He signals: tambourines begin, frenetic
drumbeat and glissando. He dances from the altar,   
robes hissing, flaring, shimmering; down aisles   
where mantled guardsmen intercept wild hands   
that arduously strain to clutch his vestments,   
he dances, dances, ensorcelled and aloof,   
the fervid juba of God as lover, healer,   
conjurer. And of himself as God.

Robert Hayden, “Witch Doctor” from Collected Poems. Copyright © 1962, 1966 by Robert Hayden. Copyright © 1985 by Emma Hayden. Reprinted with the permission of Liveright Publishing Corporation.

Source: Collected Poems (Liveright Publishing Corporation, 1985)

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

Poet Robert Hayden 1913–1980

Subjects Religion, History & Politics, Social Commentaries

Poetic Terms Blank Verse

 Robert  Hayden

Biography

Born Asa Bundy Sheffey into a poor family, Robert Hayden’s parents left him to be raised by foster parents. Due to extreme nearsightedness, Hayden turned to books rather than sports in his childhood. Some of his best-known poems can be found in his collection A Ballad of Remembrance. Hayden was the first African American to be appointed as Consultant in Poetry to the Library of Congress. Hayden's formal, elegant poems about the . . .

Continue reading this biography

Poem Categorization

SUBJECT Religion, History & Politics, Social Commentaries

Poetic Terms Blank 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.