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On "Elegies for Paradise Valley"

Robert Stepto

The "Elegies for Paradise Valley" are presently eight in number, and while each poem may be said to be "set" in Paradise Valley--Hayden's name for his boyhood neighborhood in Detroit--the "Elegies" do not limn a place as much as they illuminate the ties between kinfolk who are bound as well to place. In this way, Hayden's "Paradise Valley" is a historical field--a culture's magic circle--much like the one established in Harper's "Photographs/ Negatives." And, just as Harper (like Ellison, in some measure) deliberately orchestrates his images so that both birth and burial are contextual properties of photograph and negative, darkroom and graveyard, human image and apple tree, the antipodes of Hayden's field are similarly conjoined and disparate because "Paradise Valley" is also a birthing and burial zone, a vision of the Garden as well as of the Pit of the Fall.

Indeed, it is with images of the Pit that the series of Elegies begins, forcing us to wonder if the series' narrative vector will chart upward and, if so, in what form the incremental stops will appear. The first poem is short and taut, a window on a wasteland infested with race rituals including those cultural carcinogens which, as Ellison's Invisible Man observed, promote certain phases of blindness:

From "After Modernism, After Hibernation: Michael Harper, Robert Hayden, and Jay Wright" in Chant of Saints: A Gathering of Afro-American Literature, Art, and Scholarship. Ed. Michael S. Harper and Robert Stepto. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1979. Copyright 1979 by the Board of Trustees of the University of Illinois.

Pontheolla T. Williams

"Elegies for Paradise Valley," is a poetic treatment of some slice-of -life ghetto characters he knew. The poem alludes to the taproot of his personality. The eight-part elegy sets forth his meditations upon his life in Detroit during the twenties and thirties. In it, he reflects upon the end of a place, a time, a people. It was a place where, as a boy, he saw a iunkie die in the maggot-infested alley beneath his "bedroom's window," and it was a place where he recognized the "hatred ... glistening like tears in the policemen's eyes." Instead of the planned and gentle introduction of children to the best in a cultural environment that is alluded to in the "Pestalozzi's fiorelli" phrase, the children in his ghetto were dependent upon "shelter" that the ordinarily unusual alliance of "Godfearing elders" and "Godless grifters" jointly provided.

Among these "protectors" was his Aunt Roxie's friend, "Uncle Crip, " who was a frequent visitor in the Hayden households.

From Robert Hayden: A Critical Analysis of His Poetry. Copyright 1987 by the Board of Trustees of the University of Illinois.

John Hatcher

'Elegies for Paradise Valley’ is a sequence of eight childhood scenes that imply both an attitude and a story. The most lavishly praised of any poems in the volume, the sequence begins with the poet's first intimations that he is himself an alien:

[. . . . ]

In part two the speaker describes the 'Godfearing elders, even Godless grifters' as 'Rats fighting in their walls'. The ambiguous 'their' could refer here to the ghetto landlords, more often White than Black, thus implying that the persona and his people must struggle to survive in dwellings not their own, or, more inclusively, that the Black populace is viewed by the rest of the citizenry as an unwanted nuisance in the wafts of the city edifice.

The child's awareness of himself as alien and of the human mechanism of prejudice which creates such a status develops further in part seven as the persona recalls his parent's lore about Gypsies. They 'kidnap you', they had said, and he 'must never play/ with Gypsy children' who 'all got lice in their hair'. But the as yet unconditioned psyche of the child suggests the ironic process at work when his own people ascribe to the Gypsies the same alien status they have themselves: . . .

In a more general sense the poem catalogues the rich assortment of characters who populated the child's world and filled his imagination with a pageantry of human possibilities. In part five Hayden resorts to a delightful list of baroque characters succinctly captured by one-line epithets in the traditional mode of an ubi sunt elegy: . . .

Uniting these elegies throughout the eight sections is the elliptically told story of Uncle Crip who is murdered by Uncle Henry. It is Uncle Crip's laughter we hear enjoying Bert Williams on the victrola; it is his voice that wisely points out to the boy that the Gypsies grieve as 'bad as Colored Folks', and 'Die like us too'. It is Uncle Crip who dances with the boy to 'Jellyroll/ Morton's brimstone/ piano on the phonograph'. Ultimately, however, the poem focuses on the sense of 'guilt/ and secret pain' evolving in the psyche of the young boy who, in spite of his rigorous Baptist training, is charmed and enchanted by Uncle Crip's boisterous ways.

from From The Auroral Darkness: The Life and Poetry of Robert Hayden. Copyright 1984 by John Hatcher.

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