The Violent Process of Night, On Robert Hayden’s “Night, Death, Mississippi”

Right away Robert Hayden’s poem drew me in with the “A quivering cry. A Screech owl?” I wasn’t sure exactly where we were going to go from there, but it did a great job of capturing that haunted sort of night. I also appreciated the way the question was worded in a way that realistically engaged with the old man’s environment, but by the end of the stanza I understood that this man “in his reek/ and gauntness” is cruel as he responds to the cry only with laughter. After reading the poem its clear that this speaker was a former KKK member who still gets a kick out of racial violence, though he can’t participate anymore in the violence due to his health. But no matter, it seems his son will carry on his racial hatred for him, and the whole family will play their role in this hatred. Hayden I think really captured the sickness of the reality of this racial hatred that many white Americans had for African-Americans at that time, the reality that it was almost an activity for the family to do, a game really.

The gauntness of the man I think is quite revealing. Here is someone who seems to be just so full of hatred and violence that its almost scarred his being, he reeks of cruelty because that is all he seems to be excited about giving out to the world. When he hears the cries he makes an effort to turn off the kitchen lamp, even though he is limping. It seems he wants no distractions, and wants to really immerse himself in the cries he hears. Hayden from this perspective certainly gets across the old man romanticizing his past: “Time was. Time was./White robes like moonlight/ In the sweetgum dark.” This idea brings us back to something we spoke of in our discussion last week with the language poets, the idea that poetry can elevate anything really, and that can prove to be dangerous when dealing with certain ideologies. To the old man at that time, there was poetry in what he was doing, they were his halcyon days it seems.

Both parts interestingly enough, begin in media res. In the first part the violence seems to be happening already as the cry is given out. And in the second part: Then we beat them, he said/ beat them till our arms was tired/ and big old chains/ messy and red.” The son is already telling his story to the father it seems. I think Hayden did this deliberately in the poem, to emphasize to readers that this horror show was a process, something that was already flowing and would only be accelerated by the night.

At the end with ” You kids fetch Paw/some water now so’s he/can wash that blood/off him, she said,” the mother figure seems to be saying to give water to the old man so that he can wash the blood off of his son. This felt ritualistic to me, almost like a baptism, which only further inducts the son into this violence.

Question for the class: What do you make of the italics in part two. It seems to function almost like a chorus. I am very curious what people made of the last line especially. Is it the old man lamenting the end of these nights that lend themselves to racial violence? Or is there another reading?

The poem made me think of Bob Dylan’s “The Death of Emmet Till.” Have a listen to it.


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