(Masterpieces of American Literature)

In “Nightmare Begins Responsibility,” Michael S. Harper exposes the complex emotions of a parent facing the death of a child and the sensations of moving forward in the aftermath of life’s most horrific realities. Harper draws on his personal experiences of losing two young sons to respiratory distress syndrome, as the speaker in this poem finds himself trapped behind “the pane” of hospital glass and left to grieve in a state of “panebreaking heartmadness.” Desperate to protect a loved one but powerless to do so, the speaker in this poem and his baby are at the mercy of medical staff and technology; transforming W. B. Yeats’s famous quote, “In dreams begin responsibility,” Harper identifies fear and pain as forces shaping what is yet to come.

Harper’s repetition of “distrusting” emphasizes the emotional strain of relying on “white uniforms” and “white-hands” to save his black child. As Harper explained in 1995, the vulnerability and apprehension of the speaker, however, stems not only from racial divisions but also from “the distrust we all feel toward the medical culture,” of “deferring to people” who are trained to care for the body but not necessarily to nurture its soul. The fast-paced rhythms of the first stanza, achieved in part by conflating images using extensive hyphenation and eliminating end punctuation, suggest the unrelenting nature of impending misfortune, recall the sights and sounds of organized disorder during a medical crisis, and capture one’s inability to stop the progress of life and death. Harper uses images of movement and migration, especially those of trains and flight, to connect the historical journeys of race and culture with the personal journeys of family, artistry, and loss.

The visible gap between the first and second stanzas shifts the mood of the poem from fearful anxiety to resolute grieving. The final line of the poem, which declares that the pains of life are the thresholds for authentic living, asks the reader to acknowledge suffering as an impetus for creating new experiences: As the poet states, “Because one has to transcend what one can’t change, and one has to live in the world. I think we can live through much of the grief that is brought to us if we can accept it willingly and openly.”