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  • Beyond the Veil:Indeterminacy and Iconoclasm in the Art of Robert Hayden, Janet Kozachek, and Tom Feelings
  • Sarah Wyman


Robert Hayden employs innovative modes of signification to unveil and expose race-based violence in the United States. In "Night, Death, Mississippi" (1966) he defies bildverbot1 traditions, or the customary injunction against representing the sacred or, in secular times, the secret. This policy pertains to what must not be shown because it lies beyond the reach of representation (traditionally, God or the Shoah) and also applies to what must not be shown because its portrayal undermines hegemonic ideologies that maintain and naturalize systems of oppression (as in the phenomena of lynching and slavery). Some topics are designated unspeakable, "beyond the veil," or simply lack first-hand witnesses. Yet, this barred access or knowledge gap due to iconoclastic tendencies in the culture does not inhibit a poet accustomed to poetry's mode of meaning by indirection. While we live in a time of relative freedom of speech and expression, vestiges of the prohibition against depicting unrepresentable subject matter have led writers and artists to seek alternate aesthetic strategies that insist on historical and contemporary realities even as they dismantle conventional realism.

Hayden's innovative portrayal of the ostensibly obscene (ob scaena) matter of a death by lynching works according to ambiguous modes that depend on the materiality of the medium (language), rather than the materiality of the desecrated body itself. By treating language as a revelatory concrete substance—a clay of sounds, a stack of stanzas, a shifting web of syntax ruled and unruled—Hayden calls attention to his creative activity, and by extension, to the hidden or forbidden subject matter as well. Thus, the medium's material qualities anchor the poem as does the space/time referent: Mississippi, U.S.A., in the mid 1960s. From this fixed point, the poet then raises metaphysical questions about society and human suffering. In defiance of restrictions against using art to signify certain categories of experience, Hayden tears away the rhetorical veil that falls over episodes too terrible to recount (to use a common collocation from slave narratives), employing a poetics of indeterminacy that both tempers and intensifies the truth with its rhetorical [End Page 263] power. The poet's insistence on the subject matter, examining a generalized episode of a recurring event, serves as a call to witness for both those who follow his line of vision and those who avert their eyes. Dispersing perspective among at least four entities, Hayden offers a polyphony of internal and articulated voices that stage a quasi-narrative spanning past, present and future experience, both actual and imaginary.

The trope of the veil occupies a central position in U.S. literary history, due in part to the ways W. E. B. Du Bois uses it in The Souls of Black Folk (1903) as a sign of mourning, an instrument of separation or concealment, and a marker of prophecy. Werner Sollors explicates Old Testament references to demonstrate the metaphor's function to "separate Afro-Americans from American culture at large but also [to give] them a more profound vision and higher destiny" (49; qtd. in Gates and Oliver xxviii):

Du Bois imaginatively adapted two biblical images of the veil as a division within the Temple [Exodus 26.33] and as the cover that the divinely inspired Moses wore when he came back from Mount Sinai and spoke to the people [Exodus 34.33-35].


Hayden transposes this metaphoric configuration into an aesthetic strategy as he writes "Night, Death, Mississippi," using language to obscure and reveal in delicate tones of lament that ultimately solidify the protest nature of his poem.

Hayden twice evokes the notion of iconoclasm, literally "the breaking of icons," in his essays on Harlem Renaissance-era activism (Prose 46) and on later aesthetic innovations ("Recent Poetry" 69). According to Hayden, Harlem Renaissance artists shattered inauthentic images of the Black experience, asserting their own new depictions in place of old stereotypes.2 In a classic example, Alain Locke attempts to reject the received image of the Old Negro, one that "never existed except as a White fiction" (Hatcher 58). He replaces this demeaning depiction...