John Hatcher: On "Middle Passage"
The dramatic and powerful "Middle Passage" is, first of all, a synthesis of historical voices recalling the inhuman cruelty of a people transported as chattel. And yet we must infer that violence from the civilized rhetoric of the court deposition:
that there was hardly room 'tween-decks for half
the sweltering cattle stowed spoon-fashion there;
that some went mad of thirst and tore their flesh
and sucked the blood.
We do not hear the voice of the African captives or their leader Cinquez; any indictment of the slavers comes from our own reaction to the powerful irony of the accusations of the slavers themselves, as is exemplified in the speech by the Spanish emissary from Havana:
We find it paradoxical indeed
that you whose wealth, whose tree of liberty
are rooted in the labor of your slaves
should suffer the august John Quincy Adams
to speak with so much passion of the right
of chattel slaves to kill their lawful masters
and with his Roman rhetoric weave a hero's
garland for Cinquez.
Assembled by Hayden from historical records, these speeches document the fabric of a society, ostensibly founded on principles of freedom and justice, actually interwoven with threads of racism and injustice:
Shuttles in the rocking loom of history,
the dark ships move, the dark ships move,
their bright ironical names
like jests of kindness on a murderer's mouth ...
But just as the ancient identity and beliefs of the Mexican people reassert themselves, so these poems recount the "timeless will" of a people to struggle for freedom and identity:
the deep immortal human wish,
the timeless will:
Cinquez its deathless primaveral image,
life that transfigures many lives.
Voyage through death
to life upon these shores.
[. . . .]
in addition to referring to the second leg of a three-part journey of a slave ship (from America to Africa, from Africa to a Caribbean or West Indies port, from there to America) this middle journey implies the middle or transitional stage in the progress of the speaker, of the Afro-American people, and ultimately of mankind upon the shores of physical reality and history. In a most general sense the middle passage thus reflects the sentiments of the Bahá’í burial ring inscription which states that we come from God and return to God. The ascent from slavery symbolizes in broad terms the aspiration toward detachment and certitude for which the speaker longs in "Veracruz," and which the sleepers anticipate in "The Prophet."
|Title||John Hatcher: On "Middle Passage"||Type of Content||Criticism|
|Criticism Author||John Hatcher||Criticism Target||Robert Hayden|
|Criticism Type||Poet||Originally Posted||14 Jun 2020|
|Publication Status||Excerpted Criticism||Publication||From the Auroral Darkness: The Life and Poetry of Robert Hayden|
|Printer Friendly||View||PDF Version||View|
|Contexts||No Data||Tags||No Data|