Sunday, May 1, 2011

Memory as Pain

Couple of guests at the beach this weekend, one a young lady in college who spent part of this past week struggling with a paper due. Her paper was an assignment on a Black American poet who has perhaps long languished in the shadow of Langston Hughes and deserves a light of his own.

Robert Hayden (1913-1980) was born Asa Bundy Sheffey in Detroit, Michigan. His parents separated soon after his birth and he became the foster child of Sue Ellen and William Hayden. He earned his BA from Wayne State University, but it was his graduate study with W.H. Auden at the University of Michigan that had the most profound impact on his poetry. Hayden taught at Fisk University until 1969 when he returned to teach at Michigan. He taught there until his death in 1980. Robert Hayden’s books include Heart-Shape in the Dust: Poems (1940), The Lion and the Archer (1948), Figure of Time: Poems (1955), A Ballad of Remembrance (1962), Selected Poems (1966), Words in the Mourning Time (1970), The Night-Blooming Cereus (1972), Angle of Ascent: New and Selected Poems (1975), American Journal (1982), Collected Prose (1984) and Collected Poems (1996).

An interesting comment about Hayden from one of his students at Fisk University is worth repeating: “Professor Hayden had an aversion to birds and when they would fly into our classroom window he would get quite upset. Perhaps that was the reason he held our creative writing classes at his house.”

“Those Winter Mornings” is a poem expressing regret over the failure of a man to fully appreciate the sacrifices made by a father now gone. It is a short, poignant story of a father who even on Sundays rose before dawn to light a housewarming fire, to polish a boy’s shoes before church. For that, and for his father’s long weekly labor the boy had only an indifferent response, fearing instead the daily anger that characterized their home. Now years later he looks back with regret.


Sundays too my father got up early

And put his clothes on in the blueback cold,

then with cracked hands that ached

from labor in the weekday labor made

banked fires blaze. No one ever thanked him.

I’d wake and hear the cold splintering, breaking.

When the rooms were warm, he’d call,

and slowly I would rise and dress.

fearing the chronic angers of that house,

Speaking indifferently to him,

who had driven out the cold

and polished my good shoes as well.

What did I know, what did I know

of love’s austere and lonely offices?

Another of Hayden’s poems focuses on the beating of a child, skillfully though painfully connecting a present observation with past memories of his own childhood, and at the same time making powerful commentary on domestic violence.


The old woman across the way

is whipping the boy again

and shouting to the neighborhood

her goodness and his wrongs.

Wildly he crashes through elephant ears,

pleads in dusty zinnias,

while she in spite of crippling fat

pursues and corners him.

She strikes and strikes the shrilly circling

boy till the stick breaks

in her hand. His tears are rainy weather

to woundlike memories:

My head gripped in bony vise

of knees, the writhing struggle

to wrench free, the blows, the fear

worse than blows that hateful

Words could bring, the face that I

no longer knew or loved…

Well, it is over now, it is over,

and the boy sobs in his room,

And the woman leans muttering against

a tree, exhausted, purged—

avenged in part for lifelong hidings

she has had to bear.

The third stanza ends with, ‘His tears are rainy weather to woundlike memories:’ leading to the fourth stanza’s opening, ‘My head gripped in bony vise of knees.’ The ‘my’ tells us the poet has slipped back into the memory of beatings he himself suffered. He joins his memory to the boy’s sobs with, ‘Well, it is over now.’ The final observation comes with, ‘exhausted, purged—avenged in part for lifelong hidings [beatings] she has had to bear,’ hinting that abuse begets abuse.

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Oak Hill, Florida, United States
A longtime expat relearning the footwork of life in America