Aldon L. Nielsen: On "Middle Passage"

Between the two litanies of ships' names Hayden introduces the ironic and elegiac voice of the poem's organizing persona, a voice that speaks only a few times but that seems to have seized control over the assorted documents written in other hands that Hayden takes into his hands in his poem; it is this voice that announces the poem's defining trope: "Middle Passage: / voyage through death / to life upon these shores." Announcing also its own textual strategy, Hayden's poem immediately embarks upon an intertextual passage that refigures the Middle Passage of its title, voyaging through a textual death to rebirth in a new poetics of a new world. By next adopting the voices of the slave traders themselves and adapting their texts to his own purposes, Hayden accomplishes a scriptural revolution that mirrors the revolt of the Amistad Africans. Hayden, in rewriting the words of the slave owners and captains, in ironically voiding them and redeploying them within his historical discourse, effects a metaphorical repetition of the Amistad rebellion, a rebellion in which the cargo, the tenor, seizes the vehicle and redirects it homeward. Just before his second list of ships, Hayden transcribes the log of a captain that brings into our reading presence the absent songs of the Africans. The captain, uneasily listening to the African languages rising from his craft, must turn to an intercessor, the ship's linguist, to learn that the Africans' words are "a prayer for death, / ours and their own." He seemingly seeks no translation of the more startling songs his log states were sung as they went under the waters by those who threw themselves overboard.

Then, following the list of ships, the poem speaks again in its own voice, a voice that alludes most strongly to other texts as a means of troping its own renewed source of song, signifying its reemergence in full control of the words it masters and forms.

Details

Criticism Overview
Title Aldon L. Nielsen: On "Middle Passage" Type of Content Criticism
Criticism Author Aldon L. Nielsen Criticism Target Robert Hayden
Criticism Type Poet Originally Posted 14 Jun 2020
Publication Status Excerpted Criticism Publication Writing between the Lines: Race and Intertextuality
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Contexts No Data Tags No Data

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