‘Nightmare Begins Responsibility’ was published in Songlines in Michaeltree: New and Collected Poems. It contains the rhythm, musicality, and powerful emotions that readers are likely used to within Harper’s poetry.
Harper conveys very personal experiences within the two stanzas of this poem. He alludes to the loss of his own children, two sons, and the emotions he contended with on a daily basis.
Explore Nightmare Begins Responsibility
‘Nightmare Begins Responsibility’ by Michael S. Harper is a heart-breaking poem that depicts the death of a newborn child.
The poem begins with the speaker, a Black father, watching white doctors taking care of his son. He’s helpless, separated from his son and everything that’s going on, by a partition. He’s filled with sorrow as well as distrust, finding himself doubting the doctors’ intentions. He feels as though his child is not going to receive the proper amount of attention (that which would be given to a white child).
As he watches throughout the night, he struggles with his emotions. Finally, the child dies, and he’s forced to contend with a future in which he bears the loss of two sons. As the poem concludes, the father reanalyzes the events of the night and how, with no regard to skin color, a white doctor spent all night breathing for his son.
You can read the full poem here.
I place these numbed wrists to the pane
watching white uniforms whisk over
him in the tube-kept
In the first lines of this poem, the poet begins by setting the scene. The speaker, a father, is standing in the hospital watching as doctors, “white uniforms,” take care of his newborn son. The speaker uses distancing language (seen through his description of doctors and nurses as “white uniforms). This is furthered in the next lines as he expresses distrust in what these men and women are doing to and with his son.
It’s clear the speaker, a Black man, feels at odds with the medical community, the majority of whom are white. He is frustrated, angry, and deeply worried for his child.
He uses the word “prison” in line four. It stands alone and should, to any reader, make quite the impression. Alone in the fourth line, it emphasizes the place the father sees his child in as well as the way the father feels as he stands at a distance from the proceedings. He’s trapped, and there’s no way for him to help his child.
He expresses fear that the doctors are doing less to help his son than they could. The poet depicts this through the use of original languages, such as “distrusting tubes,” an example of personification.
As the lines progress, the poet runs words together, creating portmanteaus. They help convey the chaotic atmosphere of the neonatal intensive care ward and the father’s feelings of loss and fear. Nothing quite makes sense as one is facing the death of a child, the poet implies.
Lines like “distrusting-white-hands-picking-baboon-light” suggest the speaker’s distrust of the doctors around him. Although they may be caring for his son, he can’t help but see them in a negative light. This perspective shifts somewhat towards the end of the poem.
on his son who will not make his second night
of this wardstrewn intensive airpocket
heartbeat in my infinite distrust of them:
In the second half of the first stanza, the speaker shifts. He describes, from the perspective of an outsider, how “his son…will not make his second night.” This is the first moment in the poem that readers are fully aware that the child does die and that the father’s vigil ends in the worst possible scenario.
When the speaker refers to the child’s father’s “asthmatic / hymns of night-train” readers can imagine the man’s suffering, tears, stress, and horror at finding out that again, he has lost a son.
The following lines are the most rhythmic of the poem. The poet uses numerous new, combined words that depict a landscape of turbulent emotion and suffering. The speaker describes the “mother” who can only know that the child has “flown / up into essential calm unseen corridor / going boxscarred home.” This suggests that the mother may not have been as close to tense and terrifying action as the father was. Still recovering from labor, she doesn’t see firsthand what’s going on with her son.
The following words in the next lines are phrases of praise. For example: “mamaborn” and “sweetsonchild,” or “sweet son child.” He was loved, the speaker implies, and his loss is going to be felt intensely.
The stanza concludes with the speaker’s anger and distrust of the medical community coming to the forefront once again. There is no “heartbeat” in the midst of his infinite distrust. There is no reason to change his mind, he thinks, regarding what these doctors and nurses have done or haven’t done for his son.
and of my distrusting self
nightmare begins responsibility.
In the final lines of this moving poem, the speaker refers to his “distrusting self.” He knows how he’s felt toward the doctors in the hospital and admits that there was a “white-doctor-who-breathed-for-him-all-night.” Meaning, that there is a doctor (who he initially didn’t trust) who spent all night working with his newborn son, trying to get him to breathe, pumping air, by hand, into his body.
Here, the speaker reveals that this is not the first child he’s lost. This is the second son he has experienced pass away, and he knows the experience for the nightmare that it is. It causes a “panebreaking heartmadness,” he says. This incredible turn of phrase describes both the anger and deep, untouchable sadness that the speaker dealt with, and is dealing with, as a result of these losses.
The poem ends with the title phrase, “nightmare begins responsibility.” Here, the speaker is likely alluding to the weight of his sons’ deaths on his heart and how he has to bear this as a great responsibility for the rest of his life.
Throughout this poem, the poet engages with themes of loss, fatherhood, and racial inequality, As a Black man in a hospital filled with white doctors and nurses, the speaker can’t help but feel distrustful of the way his son, who is near death, is going to be treated. Despite feeling this way throughout much of the poem, by the time he reaches the last lines, he’s seen that his son is being treated with as much respect and care as he could’ve asked for.
Structure and Form
‘Nightmare Begins Responsibility’ by Michael S. Harper is a two-stanza poem that is divided into one set of twenty-three lines and another set of only six. The poet wrote this piece in free verse. This means that the poem doesn’t follow a specific rhyme scheme or metrical pattern. The lines vary in length. For example, the first line is eight words long, and the third is only one word in length.
Throughout this poem, the poet makes use of several literary devices. These include but are not limited to:
- Imagery: the use of particularly interesting descriptions that should capture the reader’s imagination and make it easy for them to envision a scene. For example, “distrusting white-pink mending paperthin / silkened end hairs, distrusting tubes.”
- Portmanteau: a trademark of Harper’s verse, seen through the combination of two words to create a new word. For example, “trunk-skincapped” and “gonedowntown”
- Alliteration: the repetition of the same consonant sound at the beginning of multiple words. For example, “watching white” in line three and “gloved” and “gasoline” in line six.
- Personification: occurs when the poet imbues something non-human with human characteristics. For example, “distrusting tubes.”
The tone is sorrowful and desperate. The speaker’s role changes throughout the poem. But, for the majority of the lines, they convey the emotions of a father who is experiencing the loss of a second son, as the poet did. His emotions come through in the seeming disorder and chaos of the language he uses.
The title refers to the weight of the loss the father experiences. The nightmare, or the death of his second son, is only the beginning. He has the rest of his life to bear the sorrow and regret.
The speaker is, in part, a father watching his son being handled and cared for by doctors in the neonatal intensive care unit. But, in the middle of the poem, the speaker transitions. They describe the father, mother, and recently deceased child at a distance.
The message is that the loss of a child changes one’s life in a permanent way. The speaker knows that he’s going to have to carry the feelings associated with this loss for the rest of his life, as he has with the death of another son.
Michael S. Harper is considered to be one of the most important and influential African American authors of his generation. His work often touched on personal struggles, conflict, African American culture, and more.
Readers who enjoyed this piece should also consider exploring some related poems. For example:
- ‘Hey, Black Child’ by Countee Cullen – is a moving and memorable poem that is directed to and dedicated to all the black children who have been taught by the world that their lives can’t amount to anything.
- ‘Mother to Son’ by Langston Hughes – uses the metaphor of a staircase to depict the difficulties and dangers one will face in life.
- ‘Death of a Young Son by Drowning’ by Margaret Atwood – a beautiful and impactful poem about the death of Susanna Moodie’s young son. Atwood explores the grief of the mother and how her life changed.