Themes and Meanings

(Critical Guide to Poetry for Students)

Whatever he may feel about the white hospital staff, about whites generally— “them”—the father is at the center of an ongoing nightmare. He feels responsible for not being able to help his infant son. The reference to his “asthmatic/ hymns” hints at a genetic responsibility. The father also feels responsible for the future, which begins with this child’s death and begins at the close of this poem, his song of sorrow and confession. The poem moves from the father’s sense of imprisonment to his final breaking out of that prison. The penultimate line marks the climax of his struggle to gain an understanding of his ordeal. His journey to this point has been through his past, has been a painful train ride from fear and helplessness to an understanding of his responsibility and of his ability to endure the nightmare. His recollections of his own childhood have helped him gain an understanding of his responsibility to his dying son and living family.

The poem’s ending has the sound of triumph: He has gained insight, which empowers him. The train that has given him rhythms and connectedness with his roots has also carried him to this moment of understanding and resolution. In the middle of the poem, Harper says that the father, or the son, or both, “has flown/ up into essential calm unseen corridor.” Somewhere at the center of the father’s vision is a stoic peace. The nightmare, the train ride, can be endured from this calm center.


(The entire section is 410 words.)