The Poem

(Critical Guide to Poetry for Students)

Michael S. Harper’s “Nightmare Begins Responsibility” traces the feelings and reflections of a father witnessing, through a glass partition, a team of medical personnel trying to save the life of his newborn son. The setting is a hospital, but the poem’s drama unfolds in the father’s mind as he reports what he sees and the distrust he feels toward the technicians, a distrust that is ultimately muted by understanding and resolution.

At the poem’s outset, the father feels imprisoned by the glass, shut off from his son, and helpless. The infant, is in a “tube-kept/ prison,” completely at the mercy of the medical team, as is the father. The poem’s first line focuses on the father’s anguish, connecting it to his external environment with a pun on “pane”: “I place these numbed wrists to the pane.” Able only to watch, the father is gripped by fear and distrust throughout the poem—Harper uses the words “distrusting” four times and “distrust” once to reinforce the father’s primary emotion. The father distrusts the hospital staff, fearing “what they will do in experiment”; he distrusts them because they are white, clad in white hospital garb and clad in the whiteness of their race, which contrasts with his own dark skin and that of his child.

The father’s anguish stems in part from conflicting feelings, the poem’s principal focus. Seeing the white technicians struggle to save his child, the father is...

(The entire section is 455 words.)

Forms and Devices

(Critical Guide to Poetry for Students)

The poem is divided into one stanza of twenty-three lines and a second one of six lines. The lines range in length from one word to eight to ten words—some of the longer lines contain several words fused together. The poem’s rhythms arise often from the expansion and contraction of word lengths. To quicken the pace and highlight meaning, Harper connects words with hyphens: “distrusting-white-hands-picking-baboon-light,” putting them in italics as if to increase their intensity. The fused words in the twentieth line,

gonedowntown into researchtestingware housebatteryacid

reflect the rhythms of the father’s thoughts and the intensity of his emotion, suggesting that his disparate memories form a single experience and perception. The fusion of words into complex units of thought and feeling is a visual counterpart to the father’s sense of connectedness, of moving forward, of being fused with his past, his son, and himself. Their sinuous shape and unbroken rhythm suggest the train that is one of the poem’s major symbols, representing the ongoing motion of the father’s life, the repetitive rhythms of the heartbeat, and the haunting thought of arrival and departure. His infant’s arrival and imminent departure remind the father of the “night-train,” both the song and the train that is “done gone.” The train, its rhythmic sound and linked units, forms an apt metaphor of the father’s life as well as a...

(The entire section is 628 words.)


(Masterpieces of American Literature)

Brown, Joseph A. “Their Long Scars Touch Ours: A Reflection on the Poetry of Michael Harper.” Callaloo, no. 26 (Winter, 1986): 209-220.

Cooke, Michael G. Afro-American Literature in the Twentieth Century: The Achievement of Intimacy. New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 1984.

Harper, Michael S. “The Map and the Territory: An Interview with Michael S. Harper.” Interview by Michael Antonucci. African American Review 34, no. 3 (Autumn, 2000): 501-508.

Henderson, Stephen, ed. Understanding the New Black Poetry. New York: William Morrow, 1973.

Lerner, Ben. To Cut Is to Heal. Providence, R.I.: Paradigm Press, 2000.

Mills, Ralph J. Cry of the Human: Essays on Contemporary American Poetry. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1974.

Moyers, Bill. “Michael S. Harper.” In The Language of Life: A Festival of Poets, edited by James Haba. New York: Doubleday, 1995.

O’Brien, John, ed. “Michael Harper.” In Interviews with Black Writers. New York: Liveright, 1973.

Rowell, Charles H., ed. “Michael S. Harper, American Poet: A Special Section.” Callaloo 13, no. 4 (Autumn, 1990): 748-829.

Stepto, Robert B. “After Modernism, After Hibernation: Michael Harper, Robert Hayden, and Jay Wright.” In Chant of Saints: A Gathering of Afro-American Literature, Art, and Scholarship, edited by Michael S. Harper and Robert B. Stepto. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1979.