Night, Death, Mississippi

Tired as I was last night, I found myself painfully awake at 11.30, 11.45, somewhere close to midnight and, after a respite, half past one. There is, as ever, too much in my head, and no one around but me to discuss it with, which leaves me reeling, aching for some sort of release--hard to come by in mid-day, near impossible at night.

I've never suffered from the sort of insomnia that might rob me of rest altogether (knock on wood), and always manage to will myself to sleep through some combination of sheer fatigue and repeated reminders that whatever I'm preoccupied with on the verge of unconsciousness can wait until the morning. The worries will still be there; the lists of things that must be done will rewrite themselves come sunrise; whatever pleasant thoughts may be keeping me up won't be gone for good if I succumb to sleep. But pushing those things aside tends to be an arduous process, and one at which I'm not particularly skilled.

Last night as I lay in bed with the usual set of fears (albeit with some recently added variations) racing behind my eyes, I found myself suddenly thinking of a line from Robert Hayden's 'Night, Death, Mississippi':

O night betrayed by darkness not its own

Whether that was just another example of the constant storm of lyrics, lines, words, phrases kicking up dust in my head or an attempt by my subconscious to steer me away from the melodramatic path to which I seemed to be making strides, I can't say. I do know, though, that it pulled me up and back, away from the details of my own fretting, at enough of a distance to show me more of a diffuse picture, to dilute the worries and uncertainties and doubts enough to allow me, finally, to sleep.

Night, Death, Mississippi
A quavering cry. Screech-owl?
Or one of them?
The old man in his reek
and gauntness laughs --

One of them, I bet --
and turns out the kitchen lamp,
limping to the porch to listen
in the windowless night.

Be there with Boy and the rest
if I was well again.
Time was. Time was.
White robes like moonlight

In the sweetgum dark.
Unbucked that one then
and him squealing bloody Jesus
as we cut it off.

Time was. A cry?
A cry all right.
He hawks and spits,
fevered as by groinfire.

Have us a bottle,
Boy and me --
he's earned him a bottle --
when he gets home.

Then we beat them, he said,
beat them till our arms was tired
and the big old chains
messy and red.

O Jesus burning on the lily cross

Christ, it was better
than hunting bear
which don't know why
you want him dead.

O night, rawhead and bloodybones night

You kids fetch Paw
some water now so's he
can wash that blood
off him, she said.

O night betrayed by darkness not its own


Anonymous said...

heart wrenching. truly a great poem.

Anonymous said...

what's it about?

Emily said...

It's about Ku Klux Klan attacks in Mississippi. Heart wrenching indeed.

Anonymous said...

what does that last line mean?

Emily said...

I think the last line is somewhat open to interpretation. I've always read that "darkness" as a reference to evil, to a sort of blackness of the human soul (as opposed to night-darkness).