Harper, Michael S. 1938-

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Michael S. Harper 1938-

(Full name Michael Steven Harper) American poet and editor.


Harper is well known for complex poems that are informed by his interest in jazz and blues structure and that do not yield their deeper contents easily upon cursory readings. With a dense style that has been called both demanding and allusive, Harper combines personal experience with history, commenting on the "forgetfulness" of the American people and using stories from both his family's past and from events in black history in general to illustrate his points. His work is unique for its use of repetition, which critics have suggested recreates the chant of oral tradition in African American poetry. A longtime professor at Brown University, Harper has received National Book Award nominations for the collections Dear John, Dear Coltrane (1970) and Images of Kin (1977), and he served from 1988 to 1993 as Rhode Island's first poet laureate.


Harper was born in 1938 in Brooklyn, New York, to Walter Warren Harper, a postal worker, and Katherine Johnson Harper, a medical stenographer. Harper has pointed to two early influences on his writing career: the large collection of jazz albums that his parents owned and the family's 1951 move when Harper was thirteen to a previously segregated community in Los Angeles, made up mostly of white people. Harper was an indifferent student during high school, where he was enrolled in an industrial arts program; his father insisted, however, that his son be allowed to pursue a college preparatory curriculum. Earning an associate's degree from Los Angeles City College in 1959 and pressured to become a physician as his maternal grandfather had been, Harper enrolled in pre-med classes at Los Angeles State College (now California State University). There he was advised by a professor to give up his aspirations to a medical career since, as the instructor believed, blacks were unable to survive the rigors of medical school. Having already developed an interest in poetry and history while in high school, Harper excelled in his college-level English courses, where he was especially impressed by Ralph Ellison's novel The Invisible Man and by the spiritually intense writings of the English Romantic poet John Keats. After completing his bachelor's degree in 1961, he enrolled at the Iowa Writers' Workshop. There Harper once again was dispirited by discrimination in the form of segregated housing arrangements, but he began to focus seriously on poetry. He completed his master's degree in creative writing at the University of Iowa and then taught at various schools—including Lewis and Clark College, Reed College, and California State College (now University) at Hayward—before becoming affiliated with Brown University in 1970. During this time he had poems published in various academic and general journals and then began to bring together the materials that in 1970 would be published as his first book of poems, Dear John, Dear Coltrane. By 1975 he had published six collections of poetry, but in the years since the 1970s he has not written as prolifically. The collection Rhode Island was published in 1981, and the volume Healing Song for the Inner Ear appeared in 1985. Two additional books of poetry appeared during the 1990s, including Songlines (1991) and Honorable Amendments (1995), which won the George Kent Poetry Award in 1996. Harper's volume of collected works titled Songlines in Michaeltree (2000) brings together work from his past as well as previously unpublished verse. Beginning in the 1990s Harper began editing or co-editing standard collections of African American poetry.


In certain respects Harper's poetry defies characterization, for it is controlled by intensely personal rhythms emanating from his deeply rooted jazz and blues impulses. At the same time the scope of his writing is attuned to a historical sense of moment. Combining history with memory, Harper sets out to affirm his conviction that man must not allow himself to be dislocated from his historical continuum. In Dear John, Dear Coltrane, the poet-narrator uses the deceased jazz saxophonist John Coltrane as a reference point around which he connects personal and familial experiences with black history and with American experience in general. In one often-quoted reflection upon his status as an African American poet, Harper remarks: "I don't believe in either/or, I believe in both/and. I'm not a Cartesian poet." In his next collection, History Is Your Own Heartbeat (1971), Harper begins with a personal and seemingly everyday theme, his mother-in-law's sufferings from gallstones. But that theme is expanded into a range of symbolic meanings—the gallstones become symbolic of various kinds of American illness, both spiritual and physical, among whites as well as blacks. Although Harper's early work includes many poems about his wife's family, his wife, and their children, it was not until the publication of Nightmare Begins Responsibility (1974) that he began to write about his own past. In addition to personal family figures, Harper also has used the lives of key black figures in collections such as Debridement (1973), which contains poems about Dwight H. Johnson, who was awarded the Congressional Medal of Honor for bravery in Vietnam and was subsequently shot while attempting to rob a grocery store in Detroit; Images of Kin, which addresses musicians and African American leaders of the past; and Honorable Amendments, which summons up images of great black artists, including Zora Neale Hurston, Dexter Gordon, Sarah Vaughan, and Ralph Ellison. In Songlines in Michaeltree, jazz legends are again conjured up in verse, and the influence of poets as diverse as W. B. Yeats and Gwendolyn Brooks is also noticeable.


A prominent line of critical study involves Harper's fascination with black music and his attempts to reproduce some of its qualities in words. Some critics have speculated that Harper employs jazz as a metaphor for spiritual resolution, or spiritual wholeness, alluding to the traditional African American belief in the power of music to bring unity and communal strength. Other scholars have shared the view that Harper demands exceptional attentiveness from his readers, pointing out how juxtaposition, dense references, allusions to other writers, and the fragmentation of syntax and grammar pervade his poems. Other critics have speculated about the relationship between people and geography in Harper's work. Viewing his poetry from the standpoint of an ecocritic—one who studies the relationship between landscape and literature—Elizabeth Dodd has considered Harper's "moral ecology," proposing that he examines the history of such social issues as economics, racism, and education in order to depict the emotional impact felt by individuals inhabiting particular landscapes throughout time. Harper's interest in the significance of historical events and persons has continued to provoke critical study. Discussing Harper's poems about "John Henry Louis" (who represents the real-life Vietnam veteran Dwight H. Johnson), Kyle Grimes, for instance, has focused on the verse in Debridement in terms of the "blurring" of boundaries between the fields of mythology, fiction, and history. Grimes has claimed that Harper alternates between different perspectives and uses completely diverse narrative voices in order to offer "a language of open-ended myth which is capable of articulating the brutal particulars of human experience, the ‘human essentials’ upon which a valid history of Vietnam might be founded." Several commentators have asserted that Harper's concentration on the past is not what makes his work unique. His admiration for and respect for his "kin," a primary tradition in African American literature, connects his work with writers such as Ellison and Robert Hayden. However, what further distinguishes Harper's poetry is the fact that his "kin" are not limited to ties of blood or race; Harper includes both black and white historical figures and as a result bases his connection to history on the universality of human experience.


Dear John, Dear Coltrane (poetry) 1970

History Is Your Own Heartbeat (poetry) 1971

Photographs, Negatives: History as Apple Tree (poetry) 1972

Song: I Want a Witness (poetry) 1972

Debridement (poetry) 1973

Nightmare Begins Responsibility (poetry) 1974

Images of Kin: New and Selected Poems (poetry) 1977

The Collected Poems of Sterling A. Brown [editor] (poetry) 1980

Rhode Island: Eight Poems (poetry) 1981

Healing Song for the Inner Ear (poetry) 1985

Songlines: Mosaics (poetry) 1991

Every Shut Eye Ain't Asleep: An Anthology of Poetry by African Americans since 1945 [coeditor with Anthony Walton] (poetry) 1994

Honorable Amendments: Poems (poetry) 1995

Songlines in Michaeltree: New and Collected Poems (poetry) 2000

The Vintage Book of African American Poetry [coeditor with Anthony Walton] (poetry) 2000

Debridement/Song: I Want a Witness (poetry) 2002

Selected Poems (poetry) 2002


Kyle Grimes (essay date autumn 1990)

SOURCE: Grimes, Kyle. "The Entropics of Discourse: Michael Harper's Debridement and the Myth of the Hero." Black American Literature Forum 24, no. 3 (autumn 1990): 417-40.

[In the following essay, Grimes proposes that in Debridement the poet presented "a new sort of history, a new sort of mythology—a language of ‘open-ended myth’ capable of articulating between the brutal human reality of warfare and the broader cultural meanings of that violence."]

For most people, myth refers to Jung's concept of myth. That's not what I mean by myth. The point about myths is that they are open-ended. They are open-ended when they are true in that they suggest new arrangements of human essentials based on contingent human experience, not on historical, systematic experience. Human beings are capable of all kinds of possibility, combination, and diversity. But if one has a vision of history as myth as lie, one has a closed, reductive view of things. Of course the fantasy of white suprem[ac]ist America with its closed myths has always been a fantasy of a white country. Out of that kind of fantasy came genocide, Indian massacres, fugitive slave laws, manifest destiny, open-door policies, Vietnam, Detroit, East Saint Louis, Watts, the Mexican War, Chicago and the Democratic Convention of 1968. So one ought to be careful about myth as lie, when it's stereotyped, when it's reductive, when it freezes experience and denies freedom. Myths are true when they suggest new arrangements of human essentials confirmed by past experience, when they invoke modes of connotation and implication, when they are open-ended.

          —Michael Harper (O'Brien 98)

One consequence of the post-New Critical theorizing of literary studies has been a blurring of the traditional disciplinary distinctions among history, literary narrative, and mythology. Recent work in historiography has shown that history, despite its pretensions to fact, relies for its very significance on matters of discursive presentation formerly thought to be solely the province of fictional narrative—tone, point of view, character development, and so on. In Hayden White's view, for instance, a given set of historical events is made familiar to an audience largely by a process of the "emplotment" of those events into an already familiar cultural form. Likewise, literary critics whose work is informed by social and historical concerns have convincingly challenged the New Critical notion that literature is a pristine and apolitical discourse, totally uncontaminated by contemporary social issues. Fredric Jameson has even gone so far as to contend that the political is the "absolute horizon of all reading and all interpretation" (17). Finally, in the work of cultural critics such as Roland Barthes, mythology is shorn of its reputation as fantastic narrative explanation and given instead a broader cultural definition which encompasses all the attitudes and stories which a given culture has made, in one form or another, conventional.

This blurring of disciplinary distinctions is crucial to our understanding of our own culture, and nowhere is this more evident than in our attempts to make sense of American experience in Vietnam. For most Americans, Vietnam was a war of words and rhetorical stances. To be sure, on the far side of the globe shrapnel ripped through the flesh of Americans and Vietnamese alike, but within the U.S. the battle centered upon radically divergent interpretations of the raw data—both verbal and visual—flowing in from Southeast Asia. Those who supported American military intervention in the region tended to view the violence of war as a necessary evil which had to be endured and even perpetrated in order to further the cause of democratic freedom in South Vietnam. Those who opposed American intervention tended to view wartime vio- lence as an act little short of intentional genocide, the inescapable consequence of a sort of transcontinental manifest destiny.

The ideological combat between these two camps constituted what was and is a crisis in American mythology: The confrontational rhetoric that marked the public debate about Vietnam was a battle for control of the central interpretive myth of the American military. Until Vietnam, America saw itself as a liberating force—the Minutemen "liberated" the Colonies from English monarchy, the North "liberated" the slave-ridden South in the Civil War, America and its allies "liberated" Europe from the tyranny of Nazism and Fascism in World War II, and so forth. With Vietnam, however, the myth of America as liberator was in danger of utter collapse. During the 1960s and '70s it became painfully evident that American military force in Southeast Asia was not liberating anyone. Quite the contrary, American power was slashing blindly through the Vietnamese landscape murdering anyone, regardless of political persuasion, who stood in its path. The myth of the liberator was threatened by the image of America as violent aggressor.

And herein lies the value of Michael Harper's Debridement. The poems are about a black soldier who won the Congressional Medal of Honor for heroism in Vietnam but then, when he returned to civilian life in Detroit, was unable to cope with a paradoxical combination of fame and poverty and was eventually shot to death while trying to rob a suburban grocery store. The sequence is not, as it might appear at first reading, just an attempt to rewrite Vietnam according to a different myth—i.e., the myth of America as oppressor, which stems, of course, from slavery, the central fact of Black American history. Such an approach would be just as reductive, just as false to the particulars of human experience, as the myth of the liberator. Instead, the sequence attempts to heal the mythological wound of Vietnam by replacing the possible closed myths with what Harper calls an "open-ended myth," a myth that takes into account the contingencies of human experience and tries not to distort the particulars of that experience. Thus, the sequence is in part critical: It analyzes the collision of myth-making discursive strategies through which our understanding of Vietnam has been generated, and it dramatizes the mythological machinery through which cultural and historical "truths" are systematically maintained by a sort of cultural blindness and historical amnesia. But the sequence is also creative: By remaining always conscious of the poem's status as a mediating and therefore potentially reductive or distorting mythical discourse and by constantly exposing the reductiveness and distortions of the established myths which infiltrate the sequence, Harper offers in Debridement a new sort of history, a new sort of mythology—a language of "open-ended myth" capable of articulating between the brutal human reality of warfare and the broader cultural meanings of that violence.


Before I can delve into the Debridement poems themselves, I must take a brief detour through a couple of cultural texts, each of which details the battlefield heroics of an American soldier by the name of Dwight Johnson. The first text is an entry from a U.S. Senate publication entitled Medal of Honor Recipients, 1863-1973. (I quote this piece in full.) The second is a New York Times article by John Nordheimer which provides an overview of Johnson's biography. (From this piece, I quote an excerpt covering basically the same material as that in the Senate record.) These texts, each read in the context of the other, will help to clarify what Harper means by a "closed" myth; they demonstrate the sort of writing against which the Debridement poems take their stand.

Johnson, Dwight H.

Rank and organization: Specialist Fifth Class, U.S. Army, Company B, 1st Battalion, 69th Armor, 4th Infantry Division. Place and date: Near Dak To, Kontum Province, Republic of Vietnam, 15 January 1968. Entered service at: Detroit, Mich. Born: 7 May 1947, Detroit, Mich. Citation: For conspicuous gallantry and intrepidity at the risk of his life above and beyond the call of duty. Sp5c. Johnson, a tank driver with Company B, was a member of a reaction force moving to aid other elements of his platoon, which was in heavy contact with a battalion[-]size North Vietnamese force. Sp5c. Johnson's tank, upon reaching the point of contact, threw a track and became immobilized. Realizing that he could do no more as a driver, he climbed out of the vehicle, armed only with a .45[-]caliber pistol. Despite intense hostile fire, Sp5c. Johnson killed several enemy soldiers before he had expended his ammunition. Returning to his tank through a heavy volume of antitank rocket, small arms and automatic weapons fire, he obtained a submachinegun with which to continue his fight against the advancing enemy. Armed with this weapon, Sp5c. Johnson again braved deadly enemy fire to return to the center of the ambush site where he courageously eliminated more of the determined foe. Engaged in extremely close combat when the last of his ammunition was expended, he killed an enemy soldier with the stock end of his submachinegun. Now weaponless, Sp5c. Johnson ignored the enemy fire around him, climbed into his platoon sergeant's tank, extricated a wounded crewmember and carried him to an armored personnel carrier. He then returned to the same tank and assisted in firing the main gun until it jammed. In a magnificent display of courage, Sp5c. Johnson exited the tank and again armed only with a .45[-]caliber pistol, engaged several North Vietnamese troops in close proximity to the vehicle. Fighting his way through devastating fire and remounting his own immobilized tank, he remained fully exposed to the enemy as he bravely and skillfully engaged them with the tank's externally mounted .50[-]caliber machinegun; where he remained until the situation was brought under control. Sp5c. Johnson's profound concern for his fellow soldiers, at the risk of his life above and beyond the call of duty[,] are [sic] in keeping with the highest traditions of the military service and reflect great credit upon himself and the U.S. Army. (862-63)

Most of the men who served with Sergeant Dwight Johnson remembered him that way—easy-going, hard to rattle, impossible to anger.

Another Side

But Stan Enders remembers him another way. Stan was the gunner in Skip's tank that morning in Vietnam three years ago, during the fighting at Dakto.

"No one who was there could ever forget the sight of this guy taking on a whole battalion of North Vietnamese soldiers," Stan said as he stood in the sunshine outside Faith Memorial Church in Corktown three weeks ago, waiting for Skip's funeral service to begin.

Their platoon of four M-48 tanks was racing down a road toward Dakto, in the Central Highlands near the Cambodian border and the Ho Chi Minh Trail, when it was ambushed. Communist rockets knocked out two of the tanks immediately, and waves of foot soldiers sprang out of the nearby woods to attack the two tanks still in commission.

Skip hoisted himself out of the turret hatch and manned the mounted.50-caliber machine gun. He had been assigned to this tank only the night before. His old tank, and the crew he had spent 11 months and 22 days with in Vietnam and had never seen action before, was 60 feet away, burning.

"He was really close to those guys in that tank," Stan said. "He couldn't just sit still and watch it burn with them inside."

Skip ran through heavy crossfire to the tank and opened its hatch. He pulled out the first man he came across in the turret, burned but still alive, and got him to the ground just as the tank's artillery shells exploded, killing everyone left inside.

‘Sort of Cracked Up’

"When the tank blew up Dwight saw the bodies all burned and black, well, he just sort of cracked up," said Stan.

For 30 minutes, armed first with a .45-caliber pistol and then with a submachine gun, Skip hunted the Vietnamese on the ground, killing from five to 20 enemy soldiers, nobody knows for sure. When he ran out of ammunition, he killed one with the stock of the machine gun.

At one point he came face to face with a Communist soldier who squeezed the trigger on his weapon aimed point-blank at him. The gun misfired and Skip killed him. But the soldier would come back to haunt him late at night in Detroit, in those dreams in which that anonymous soldier stood in front of him, the barrel of his AK-47 as big as a railroad tunnel, his finger on the trigger, slowly pressing it.

"When it was all over," Stan said, walking up the church steps as the funeral service got under way, "it took three men and three shots of morphine to hold Dwight down. He was raving. He tried to kill the prisoners we had rounded up. They took him away to a hospital in Pleiku in a straightjacket."

The rhetoric of the Senate document is remarkable for several reasons. First of all, the account of Johnson's actions pretends toward a complete objectivity. The narrative begins with a series of apparently significant facts about the hero—his rank and organization, his birthday, the site of his heroics, and so forth. Whatever purpose such details serve in the Congressional record, for the casual reader they signify a fully factual discourse, one that simply reports data about Johnson without attempting to color that data with any sort of interpretive statement. Furthermore, the description of Johnson's exploits in combat includes no attributions like "according to Johnson's commanding officer" or "Johnson's comrades report that …"; instead, it presents its information as the indisputable truth. Clearly the intent of such a discursive strategy is to make the language of the record as authoritative as possible: The compilers of the record aim toward a "degree-zero" of language in which events are presented as pure truth and language itself is only a means of recording and communicating that truth as transparently as possible.

In spite of these efforts at objectivity, though, the passage maintains a strongly celebratory attitude toward the hero. The diction, for instance, constantly underscores the unquestioned valor of Johnson's acts. The soldier is praised for "conspicuous gallantry and intrepidity," for having "courageously eliminated more of the determined foe," for a "magnificent display of courage," and so forth. These valorizing phrases are embedded in the context of a seemingly objective and factual report, and, consequently, the report develops an image of Johnson as a man of incredible, selfless courage. Furthermore, the description at least implicitly portrays Johnson as fully cognizant of what he was doing and the reason that he was doing it. There is no suggestion that Johnson's risking his life "above and beyond the call of duty" was anything but an act, motivated by unquestionably noble goals, of high courage in the ideology of the military.

Finally, and perhaps most telling, is the very purpose of the Senate record. The volume is an attempt to celebrate and preserve for history those acts of heroism so outstanding as to earn the Congressional Medal of Honor. (The book contains well over 900 pages of these one-paragraph hero narratives.) Of course, the less "heroic" aspects of personal valor do not come under the purview of this sort of historical project, and the omissions are inevitably significant. In the present case, for instance, the narrative ends with Johnson fighting bravely at his machine-gun post, "where he remained until the situation was brought under control." Had the narrative continued, it would have been forced to account for the shots of morphine needed to bring Johnson under control, with his trying to kill the North Vietnamese prisoners taken in the skirmish, and with the straitjacketed Johnson being carted off to a hospital in Pleiku. In short, because it concentrates solely on acts of valor and systematically excludes any information that might compromise such valor, this "official" version of military heroics offers an image of the American hero as an unbelievably courageous, level-headed soldier who sets personal safety at naught in the selfless pursuit of patriotic duty.

As such, the Senate record provides us with a clear example of a "closed myth." Roland Barthes can, I think, help us to understand exactly what a closed myth might be. According to Barthes, myth is a "second-order semiological system"; that is, myth takes the full-fledged signs of one semiological system (language) and uses them as the signifiers in its own production of meaning and signification. The military personnel who decide who is to receive the Medal of Honor, for instance, listen to a number of stories like Stan Enders's account of the Dakto battle. These stories then become, in essence, signifiers in a broader production of meaning—i.e., the myth of heroism inherent in the Medal of Honor itself. In this conversion of linguistic sign to mythic signifier, however, the original linguistic meaning loses its historical contingency, its essential difference. Barthes continues, "The essential point in all this is that the form [the myth signifier] does not suppress [linguistic] meaning, it only impoverishes it, it puts it at a distance, it holds it at one's disposal" (118). In other words, when conceived of as a signifier in a process of myth signification, the given historical data are made vulnerable to ideological appropriation.

The ideological effort of the Senate record is to make Johnson himself a replica of the mythical figure of the American military hero; by extension, to make American involvement in Vietnam a replica of the myth of America as liberator. The motive toward replication of past achievements and old attitudes—which is, by the way, one of the distinctive features of a closed myth—is, in fact, built into the very structure of the Medal of Honor as an institution. For such an honor to exist, a set of criteria must first be established which, if met, will earn the medal. Thus, there is a relatively fixed pattern of events to which all Medal of Honor winners will conform and thereby become replicas of the hero. Furthermore, in the act of conferring the Medal of Honor on some new hero, the familiar cultural image of the war hero embodied in the medal is perpetuated through replication. Neither the personal history of the medal winner nor his motivation for performing the "heroic" pattern is at all pertinent to the myth of heroism. And, if that personal history or motivation would compromise the image of valor inherent in the medal, that history or motivation must necessarily be cut out of the soldier's record.

The story Jon Nordheimer presents in his New York Times article contrasts sharply with the official Senate narrative. Nordheimer's piece is more complex in its narration—he quotes liberally from Johnson's Army comrades, for instance—and in its temporality: Though essentially chronological, the article moves freely between Johnson's experience in Vietnam, his subsequent nightmares when back in Detroit, and his funeral after being shot in a grocery store robbery. The Nordheimer article is also far more detailed than the Senate record. For instance, while the Senate version concludes with Johnson heroically manning his machine gun, Nordheimer takes the battlefield account one step further, concluding this section of his story with a quote from Stan Enders, a soldier present during Johnson's heroics:

"When it was over … it took three men and three shots of morphine to hold Dwight down. He was raving. He tried to kill the prisoners we had rounded up. They took him away to a hospital in Pleiku in a straight-jacket."

This ending provides retrospectively a very different picture of the hero than that in the "official" report. In Nordheimer's version, Johnson was an "easy-going, hard to rattle, impossible to anger" figure who "sort of cracked up" when he saw his fellow soldiers being killed by the Viet Cong. The motivation for his courageous selflessness is not the supreme commitment to American ideology hinted at in the Senate record, but rather a sort of combat insanity. The American hero is a soldier who goes berserk at the appropriate place and time.

Nordheimer's essay differs from the Senate record in purpose as well as in content. Far from trying to valorize an American hero, Nordheimer's is a socially introspective article aimed at developing a broad, critical understanding of the human costs of the American involvement in Vietnam, while that involvement was still going on. In this context, Johnson's story becomes an exemplary tragedy of economic and psychological failure—the soldier is a victim of an absurd foreign policy—rather than a narrative of triumphant heroism. But, however effective the article might be as contemporary social criticism, as biography the article suffers what might be termed a "Citizen Kane problem": Nordheimer's purpose is to try to come to some understanding of a man who has just died, but the only approach to this character is through the people who knew him. Consequently, the discursive strategy of the article is to present an array of different voices—from the psychiatric reports on Johnson's "post-Vietnam syndrome," to quotes from family members and from Johnson's associates in the military—, but all of these voices, though decidedly more personal than the "officialese" of the Senate record, are necessarily objective. The goal is, in a sense, to let the hero speak for himself in the first person, but all we get are third-person accounts, third-person explanations.

Like the reporter Thompson in Citizen Kane, Nordheimer tries to piece together the various individual points of view in hopes of discovering the causes of Sergeant Johnson's behavior, particularly the cause of the attempted grocery store robbery in which Johnson was killed. Toward this end, Nordheimer carefully distinguishes between the various voices; the quotes from Johnson's friends and acquaintances are carefully introduced and set off with quotation marks, the psychiatrist's notes are printed in italics, and so forth. In this more or less conventional prose discourse, each voice entering into the story becomes something of a discursive integer: Each voice offers a firsthand look from a specific point of view and at a specific moment in Johnson's biography. The narrator functions in this context as a kind of Master of Ceremonies; the voice provides some factual background information and links as coherently as possible the various observations and discursive attitudes represented in the quotes. The result is a relatively seamless and presumably factual story which, because it is more detailed, exposes the supremely reductive discourse of the Senate record, a discourse blinded by its infatuation with the romance of the war hero.

But Nordheimer's commitment to a straightforward narrative coherence also makes it difficult for the account to project any conclusions about the meaning of the biography.1 The reason for this failure is clear if we bear in mind that interpretation—the tracing of a meaning through a given body of information—is essentially a process of recoding, and recoding generally entails the use of myth. The Senate record, for instance, examines Johnson's combat experience and sees a soldier who "distinguished himself conspicuously by gallantry and intrepidity at the risk of his life above and beyond the call of duty" (Medal of Honor Winners). Johnson's actions in combat are no longer merely the details of individual biography; rather, they are recoded in accordance with the myth of the hero. As far as the Senate record is concerned, Johnson's battlefield exploits now have meaning—i.e., Johnson himself is a replica of the war hero and has therefore earned the Medal of Honor. In Hayden White's terms, Johnson's story has been "familiarized" through its conversion from a set of historical details to an example of an already familiar cultural form.

By contrast, Nordheimer's article dismisses all such baldly ideological attempts to mythify Johnson's experience. Nordheimer's effort is, after all, aimed more at research and smooth presentation than at interpretation; but, in his endeavor to discover the "true story" about Dwight Johnson, Nordheimer commits himself to an ideology perhaps even more pernicious than that of the Senate record. Ultimately, Nordheimer's article reflects an implicit faith that, if all the facts were known, they would fall into a tidy narrative which could relate with full authority the precise causes of what he calls "Dwight's odd behavior." From the point of view of a strict narrative analysis, Nordheimer's narrator assumes a stance of patronizing superiority over the other voices which enter into his article. It is the narrator who governs these voices, commanding them to speak and keeping them in their place through tricks of punctuation and typography. Politically, the implications of this narrative structure are dangerous because covert. The narrator uses others' voices for his own purposes but never allows those voices to pose any serious challenge to his own all-powerful voice. In short, the discursive structure of Nordheimer's prose maintains a mythology of its own: the myth that a well-informed writer can understand and convey without misrepresentation the meaning of a life outside of his or her own experience, and that the writer can do so without implicating his or her own act of writing in the same myth-making activity that is so obvious in the Senate record.


It is time now to turn to a couple of poems from Harper's Debridement sequence and begin to examine how the poems, in their function as a critical document, deconstruct these mythological discourses and resolve the paradox of the hero-victim. Though they do not appear consecutively in the sequence, "Caves" and "A White Friend Flies in from the Coast" tell, once again, the story of Dwight Johnson's battlefield heroics.2

Four M-48 tank platoons ambushed
near Dak To, two destroyed:
the Ho Chi Minh Trail boils,
half my platoon rockets
into stars near Cambodia,
foot soldiers dance from highland woods
taxing our burning half:
there were no caves for them to hide.

We saw no action,
eleven months twenty-two days
in our old tank
burning sixty feet away:
I watch them burn inside out:
hoisting through heavy crossfire,
hoisting over turret hatches,
hoisting my last burning man
alive to the ground,
our tank artillery shells explode
killing all inside:
hoisting blown burned squad
in tank's bladder,
plug leaks with cave blood:
there were no caves for them to hide
"A White Friend Flies in from the Coast"
Burned—black by birth,
burned—armed with .45,
burned—submachine gun,
burned—STAC hunted VC,
burned—killing 5-20,
burned—nobody know for sure;
burned—out of ammo,
burned—killed one with gun-stock,
burned—VC AK-47 jammed,
burned—killed faceless VC,
burned—over and over,
burned—STAC subdued by three men,
burned—three shots: morphine,
burned—tried killing prisoners,
burned—taken to Pleiku,
burned—held down, straitjacket,
burned—whites owe him, hear?
burned—I owe him, here.

I shall skip over what is perhaps the most characteristic trait of the poems—the vivid, almost cinematographic quality of the imagery—in order to concentrate on the challenges these poems present to the sort of closed-mythic writing of the Senate record and the Nordheimer article.

With "White Friend," Harper offers us one potential mythic reading of the story of "John Henry Louis" (as Harper calls his protagonist)—a reading which would interpret the hero's history in terms of racism and exploitation, what I earlier called the myth of America as oppressor.3 This reading is most clearly presented in the narrative frame of "White Friend," consisting of the title, the first line, and the closing couplet. The opening line of the poem, "Burned—black by birth," associates the black of charred flesh with the black of race, thus graphically presenting the consequences of white exploitation of blacks and suggesting that we read Louis's history in terms of this exploitation. The penultimate line of the poem, "burned—whites owe him, hear?" underscores this reading by emphasizing the indebtedness of a generic white culture to the black hero-victim. Harper's own comments on his protagonist provide a useful gloss on these lines: "… his life is a kind of paradigm, a commentary on history, of the psychic nature of Black people in service to other people's dreams, and other people's nightmares" (Chapman 471). In the historical context of the Vietnam war, of course, the dream was that of white America—that its influence in the form of "Democracy," "free-market capitalism," and military force could somehow hold sway in Indochina; the nightmare was the war itself. Blacks were literally "in service" to this dream because the draft regulations of the '60s and '70s effectually ensured that those who actually had to go to Vietnam and experience the very real horrors of a demythified military policy were the poor and the Blacks.

The racial exploitation theme runs through many of the Debridement poems, but Harper never allows it to dominate the sequence, to become the interpretive "master code" through which the meaning of the sequence can be isolated and fixed. The black-white reading ignores, for instance, the implications of the last line, "burned—I owe him, here." If we take the "I" as a pronoun for the white friend of the title, clearly there is a process of healing at work in the poem—a process running counter to the expressed theme of black-white power relationships. The white friend at least senses his personal and racial indebtedness to the black hero. Also, the specificity of the last word, "here," in combination with the first-person singular pronoun, undercuts the generic quality of the "whites" in the previous line.

In short, Harper has suggested one mythic reading of the Louis story—a reading in terms of the victimization of blacks by whites. But despite the validity of such a reading as cultural criticism, it is ultimately reductive insofar as individual experience is concerned. Precisely because it generalizes human experience, it views all whites as replicas of the oppressor and all blacks as replicas of the victim. Consequently, Harper exposes the inadequacy of the exploitation reading by ending the poem with a focus on particularities of human experience which directly contradict this monolithic polarity of black and white. Unlike, say, the Senate record, which simply leaves out any information that might challenge the central myth of heroism, Harper presents within a single text both an interpretive myth and some specifics that counter that myth. And Harper makes certain that the reader sees this apparent contradiction: The final two lines of the poem are inseparably linked through the verbal trickery that makes them sound almost identical.

In "White Friend," then, Harper uses the tools of poetry—in this case, point of view and poetic repetition—to unmask one mythical reading of Louis's story. A closer examination of Harper's poetic technique also reveals how the poems implicitly pose a challenge not only to specific cultural myths like racism or heroism but also to the conventions of prose discourse itself.

At first reading, the language of "Caves" seems fairly straightforward—an almost prosaic description of the ambush of "STAC John Henry Louis's" platoon. But, if we bear in mind the structuralist notion that repetition is the fundamental principle of poetic language, we can begin to uncover the technical sophistication of Harper's work. The overall framework of the poem is easy enough to spot: two descriptive paragraphs, each concluding with the line "there were no caves for them to hide." Less apparent is the way the language of the poem moves from the prosaic at the beginning to the prosodically self-conscious at the end. Harper, in fact, has borrowed the language in the opening lines almost verbatim from Nordheimer's piece, and the first two lines still read like a newspaper headline. The language here thus adheres more to a grammar of narrative chronology and apparent mimesis than to one of poetic artifice. As the poem progresses, however, the prosody becomes increasingly pronounced, first with the repetition of "hoisting," then with end rhymes (explode, squad, blood; inside, hide) and alliteration. Indeed, the lines

our tank artillery shells explode
killing all inside:
hoisting blown burned squad
in tank's bladder,
plug leaks with cave blood:

offer an excellent example of the use of repeated phonemic clusters as a principle of poetic unity. Note, for instance, the repeated /l/ sounds in "artillery shells explode / killing all" and the phonemic similarity of the words "explode … blown burned … bladder … plug … blood."

The poetic repetition in Harper's sequence as a whole reaches its most frantic extreme in "White Friend," a poem in which each line begins with the italicized "burned." Jurij Lotman helps to illuminate the function of this initial repetition:

The repetition of the same element mutes its semantic significance (cf. the psychological effect produced when a word is repeated several times, with the result that it begins to sound like nonsense). At the same time, the means for conjoining these elements which have lost their meaning is brought to the forefront. Thus elements themselves are formalized and simultaneously their formal bonds are semanticized.


In "White Friend" the repeated "burned—" loses its meaning and becomes not so much a semantic vehicle as a means for poetic disruption of the narrative Harper borrowed from the Times article. (The fact that as I read the poem silently I need to force myself not to ignore the "burned" at the beginning of each line confirms Lotman's point.) Formally, the poem focuses our attention on the act of narration; the battle narrative is the element which is, in Lotman's terms, formalized and semanticized. But the story of the hero's combat experience that was so smoothly and coherently expressed in Nordheimer's article is here barely intelligible over the constant interruption of "burned" and over the characteristic subverbal letters and digits of military language.

The radical formal repetition of "White Friend" thus completes the discursive process begun in "Caves." Taken together, the poems demonstrate how Harper begins with the ordinary language of Nordheimer's journalism and then slowly wrenches that language away from its complacent pretensions to documentary mimesis by making it increasingly conscious of its own artificiality, of its forcing of historical data into a conventional narrative form. In sharp contrast to the objective, degree-zero language of the Senate report and to the coherent narrative of Nordheimer's article, the language here is almost pulled apart by the entropy of its own discursive forces: one striving to present the experience of the soldier as a prosaic and readable narrative, the other striving to formalize the words according to an inner logic of poetic repetition. The result is the practically schizophrenic discourse of "White Friend," in which the narrative logic of chronology and causality vies with the poetic logic of repetition and grammatical fragmentation, with each logic subverting and exposing the inadequacy of the other. This sort of language, which recognizes the contradictory logics of its own construction, must also recognize and call into question its status as a mediator between Johnson/Louis's experience and the historical or mythic record of that experience.

Both the deconstruction of the white oppression reading and the discursive tension between narrative mimesis and poetic repetition function in the poems as techniques of demythification. In the former, Harper introduces a mythic reading into the poem only to qualify that reading with contradictory historical particulars; in the latter, the language becomes self-conscious, aware of its mediation of historical events. To these two demythifying techniques I may now add a third—a technique involving Harper's presentation of poetic voices and manipulation of point of view. To a degree, Harper follows Nordheimer's lead in his attention to historical accuracy in the account of the hero and in his extensive use of quoted material. Indeed, since the Times article is the primary source for the Debridement poems, it could hardly be otherwise. But there is a crucial difference between Nordheimer's and Harper's presentations of the various voices through which the historical details are revealed. While Nordheimer organizes these voices so that each makes a specific contribution to an overall form of chronological and relatively univocal narrative, Harper shatters the chronological coherence of the story so that he can juxtapose radically divergent points of view. In other words, where Nordheimer follows a principle of continuity as he composes the voices which enter into the texture of his discourse, Harper composes the voices so as to underscore their differences and expose the conflicts between the ideologies implicit in each voice. In so doing, Harper unmasks the contradictory myth-making forces which vie with one another for explanatory control over the soldier and his story.

Look, for instance, at the title poem of the sequence:


On the face of it, it is difficult to see exactly what connects these very different discourses. After all, only the first and last lines of the poem are Harper's; the middle three paragraphs are quoted from Nordheimer's article and from Webster's Dictionary. And we certainly have nothing like Nordheimer's narrator to help us make some coherent sense of these fragments of language. It is clear, however, that the poem—the first in the Debridement sequence—establishes the discursive, myth-making forces between which the soldier is trapped. The institutional language of the second paragraph, for example, claims Louis as a member of the Medal of Honor Society, but in the next paragraph Louis rejects that membership. Likewise, the racial exploitation reading is introduced in the opening line "BLACK MEN ARE OAKS CUT DOWN." Then, on the tenuous connection of "CUT" in the first line and "CUTTING" in the definition paragraph, we can see how, from the point of view of the racial reading at any rate, the institutional myth-language conceives of black men like Louis as "contaminated tissue" which might infect the purity of the Medal of Honor Society. Louis is presumably the black man who is, paradoxically, included in and cut down by the myth of heroism represented by the Society. Finally, the last line of the poem is Harper's ironic reworking of a bumper sticker slogan that was popular with the patriotic right during the Vietnam era, "America: Love it or Leave it." The slogan implies a self-righteous stewardship of the nation in that it assumes a fair possession of the lands and principles of America by the dominant culture. In its historical context, the slogan condemns those who protested against involvement in Vietnam as somehow deficient in "Love" and therefore not entitled to remain within the dominant culture. But, as Harper's word play points out, the dominant culture in fact forcibly stole America from another culture (by means of a belief in the myth of manifest destiny, by the way), and its "rights" to stewardship rest simply on the power it has to defend its ideology. The crucial fact, it seems, is that the original slogan assumes and asserts its own validity and refuses any discussion of or challenge to its sentiments. To allow such discussion would be, in the poem's terms, to risk contamination and infection.

Taken as a whole, then, the poem offers examples of several different discourses, all of which are invested with contradictory ideological commitments. As such, the poem's unifying structural principle, if one can call it that, is discursive negation: Louis rejects the Medal of Honor Society, the racial reading challenges the ideology implicit in the institutional language of the second paragraph, the final line negates ironically its bumper sticker source, and so forth. The result of this structure by negation is a poem that highlights what might be termed a force of "discursive entropy." Each voice in the poem, because of its ideological commitments, is inherently critical of the other voices, but no single voice is capable of embracing and thereby transcending the discourse of the others. There is certainly no fully authoritative voice in the poem which can, like Nordheimer's narrator, knit the various ideological strands into a coherent and univocal whole. Instead, the voices are all, in a sense, correlatives of the slogan upon which the last line is based; they all assert their own validity by negating without discussion the validity of conflicting ideologies. Each voice implies an ideological direction away from the others; that is, each voice tries to defend the "purity" of its own ideological stance by isolating itself from the contaminating influences of contradictory stances—America: Love it or Leave it.

The work of the poet in poems like "Debridement" is not so much to write the lines as to compose the various voices in such a way that they challenge one another's claims as authoritative discourse. In fact, the entropic force evident between the divergent discourses of "Debridement" becomes a radical structural principle of the sequence as a whole. As Harper notes in his comments on the structure of Debridement, "The poem is written in alternating subject-object sections in two different voices, one a very clinical voice which always begins, ‘subject’; the other voice is the voice of the man who is the ultimate victim" (Chapman 471). This alternation is most clearly evident in the contrast between the psychiatric notes about the hero and the poems about the hero's experiences in Vietnam and Detroit. For example, the second poem of the sequence (immediately following "Debridement" ) is called "Corktown" :

Groceries ring
in my intestines:
grits aint groceries
eggs aint poultry
Mona Lisa was a man:
waltzing in sawdust
I dream my card
has five holes in it,
up to twenty holes;
five shots out of seven
beneath the counter;
surrounded by detectives
pale ribbons of valor
my necklace of bullets
powdering the operating table.
Five impaled men loop their ribbons
'round my neck
listening to whispers of valor:
"Honey, what you cryin' 'bout?
You made it back."

The poem is written from a strongly subjective point of view; indeed, the first two lines of "Corktown" yank the reader out of the mythic, discursive combat of "Debridement," offering instead an inside, even visceral look at the hero. The three italicized lines recall momentarily the structure by negation of "Debridement," but the remainder of the poem constructs Louis's dream life while he lies on the operating table after having been shot in the grocery store robbery. The associations of Louis's dream are revealing: For one thing, Louis clearly sees a connection between the five to twenty Vietnamese soldiers he killed in combat and the five shots from the grocery store manager which eventually kill him. This being the case, the medal which is supposedly a badge of honor becomes for him the badge of a murderer, a "necklace of bullets." The only real difference between the hero and the Vietnamese soldiers he killed is that Louis "made it back." As far as the hero is concerned, the violence of Vietnam and the violence of Detroit are one. In short, the poem demonstrates the moral ambiguities in the lived consciousness of a man who, as Harper says, is "both a victim and an executioner" (Chapman 471).

Harper follows "Corktown" with the sequence's first set of psychiatric notes:


Like "Corktown," these notes take as their subject Louis's dream life; unlike "Corktown," however, the voice here is radically objective. Far from presenting Louis's dreams as lived experience, the psychiatric notes treat the dreams as symptoms of a deeply disturbed "subject." As a discourse, the psychiatric notes resemble the mythic prose of the Senate report: They see in the hero's history a replica of the "guilt-survivor," and they label the soldier as such. But in this act of labeling, the psychiatric discourse effectively insulates itself from any real confrontation with the moral issues of the soldier's case. The notes do not, for instance, grapple seriously with Louis's question about losing control in Detroit. To do so would necessitate a moral analysis of the similarities and differences between heroic valor and murder; it might even risk equating the two, as Louis does in "Corktown." Consequently, the notes treat the question "scientifically"—as the symptom of a disturbed psyche. Just as the Senate record of Johnson's heroism in combat must necessarily ignore the shots of morphine and the straitjacket so as preserve the purity of its hero myth, so too must the psychiatric notes ignore the moral ambiguities of Louis's case lest these moral questions subvert the supposed objective purity of scientific diagnosis.

The first three poems of Debridement thus establish a rhythm of alternation between radically different voices and points of view. The conflict between the subjective and objective views of Louis's dream life exemplifies once again—this time at what might be termed the macrostructural level of the sequence as a whole—the same discursive entropy that was evident in the title poem "Debridement." The efficacy of the sequence as a politically critical discourse in fact depends upon Harper's yoking together of these diverse voices so that their conflicting points of view expose the peculiar blindness of each mythic reading of Louis's history. The hero myth, the racial myth, and the psychological myth—all turn out to be, in essence, modes of name calling. According to the Medal of Honor Society, Louis is an American hero; according to the racial reading, Louis is either the victim of white oppression or an "electronic nigger" (see the poem "In the Projects" ); according to the psychiatric notes, Louis is a "guilt-survivor" afflicted with a "post-Vietnam adjustment depression problem." None of these mythic readings is really adequate to the lived experience of Louis himself; none of the myths engages the fundamentally moral torment of the hero/victim. Instead, each mythic reading of Louis's experience must to some degree distort that experience in order to make it fit a prefabricated mythic mold.


But Debridement is a creative as well as a critical text; Harper is not content simply to deconstruct the various mythic readings of his protagonist's history and then let it stand as an unresolved and possibly unresolvable paradox. On the contrary, Harper's goal in Debridement is to replace these so-called "closed" myths with an "open-ended" myth, a myth that develops from the lived experience of Louis and which will, as Harper says, "suggest new arrangements of human essentials" (O'Brien 98). This is an ambitious project, to be sure, and Harper is only partially successful with it. Still, by reexamining the voices that speak in some of the poems, it will be possible, I think, to see the sort of discourse in which an open-ended myth might be couched.

For the most part, Harper, like Nordheimer, carefully distinguishes between the objective and subjective voices in the sequence. As if the diction and point of view were not sufficient, he even separates the voices typographically; the objective sections are usually italicized and printed in all capital letters, while the subjective poems are printed in conventional Roman type. Occasionally, however, the voice of the supposedly subjective poems becomes highly ambiguous. Recall, for instance, the opening paragraph of "Caves." The first two lines of the poem, as I mentioned earlier, sound very much like the abbreviated language of newspaper journalism. As the paragraph continues, the voice becomes increasingly ambiguous:

the Ho Chi Minh Trail boils,
half my platoon rockets
into stars near Cambodia,
foot soldiers dance from highland woods
taxing our burning half:
there were no caves for them to hide.

The shift to present tense verbs and to the first-person pronouns my and our tends to associate the voice here with Louis, but the diction—the trail that "boils," the platoon that "rockets into stars," the foot soldiers who "dance from highland woods," and so forth—counters this association. Rather than the voice of a specific soldier, these lines suggest a subjective vision of some ahistorical or primal ritual of violence and death.4 Finally, in the italicized line, the tense shifts back to the past and the pronoun switches to the third-person "them"; the voice is objective once again.

The paragraph as a whole, then, subtly orchestrates at least three different poetic voices. It begins with a two-line objective summary of the battle; shifts immediately to a subjective, present-tense account of the battle; and concludes with the italicized line which is essentially a mythic explanation of the battle. But this final line is mythic in a completely different sense than the closed myths about heroism in the American military tradition or about the racial injustice of a black soldier in service to the dreams of a white military. One could not argue, for instance, that a line like "there were no caves for them to hide" is distorting of or reductive of the "facts"—either objective or subjective—of combat. Neither does the line resort to mere categorization or name calling; it does not attempt to single out and appropriate for its own historically specific purposes any particular player or any particular act from the field of battle. If anything, the term caves picks up on the hints of an ahistorical, ritualistic reality presented in the previous lines. Furthermore, the pronoun them is sufficiently ambiguous to refer to all the combatants—beleaguered platoon and foot soldiers alike. Thus, the line does not even take sides in the battle and thereby differentiate between protagonists and antagonists. Instead, the line focuses on what Harper calls a "human essential"—in this case an utterly fundamental fact of warfare, the need for shelter from violence. In so doing, the line offers at least a glimpse of a discourse that can unite the subjective and objective voices which elsewhere in the sequence are marked by radical and irresolvable difference.

Harper's open-ended mythic discourse operates on a principle of similarity; it is a discourse that senses the common ground, the "human essentials," shared by what might otherwise appear as radically different voices, radically different acts. In fact, one of the avowed purposes of Debridement is to express precisely this sort of human commonality. Harper, in his interview with Abraham Chapman, claims that the book is about "being able to envision someone outside of one's experience and outside of one's cultural circumstances, and at the same time give him, by assumption, the same human meaning as one would ascribe to oneself, very difficult in the American context" (471). Very difficult indeed—even in Debridement itself it is not always clear exactly what sort of language could convey this sense of assumed common humanity, though the inner monologue of "Corktown" seems to offer one such example. Louis—in his dream life, at any rate—identifies with the Vietnamese soldiers he killed in combat, and he equates the bullets that kill in Vietnam with the bullets that kill in Detroit. For Louis, violence itself is the enemy, and it matters little to him if that violence is associated with war or with an ordinary urban environment. Also, the line from "Caves" suggests a common fate for all the soldiers engaged in military combat. Unlike the closed mythical descriptions of the battle found in the Senate record and, to a degree, in Nordheimer's article, the line does not differentiate between the combatants on any familiar political or ideological grounds. It does not attempt to jam the soldiers into pre-existing mythic categories.

A comparable tracing of commonalities appears structurally within the Debridement poems. There are, for instance, numerous parallels drawn between the realities of American life—particularly the life of the urban ghetto—and the reality of violence in Vietnam. These parallels work to counterbalance the entropic force of the divergent subjective and objective voices. Here, for example, are a couple of paragraphs from the poem "Street-Poisoned," which describes in almost surrealistic terms the life of the ghetto—drugs, pain, and barely controlled violence:

my pass is a blade
near the sternum
cutting in:
you can make this a career.

Patches itch on my chest and shoulders—
I powder them with phisohex
solution from an aerosol can:
you can make this a career.


Another poem, "Debridement: Operation Harvest Moon: On Repose, " presents in graphic detail the stream of consciousness of a medic or surgeon, presumably at work on the casualties of Vietnam combat. The poem begins:

Stab incision below nipple,
left side; insert large chest tube;
sew to skin, right side;
catch blood from tube
in gallon drain bottle.
Wash abdomen with phisohex;
shave; spray brown iodine prep.


The parallel drawn between the ghetto scene and the army hospital is undeniable; and the terrible irony of "you can make this a career" is all too clear when we see firsthand the job of the surgeon. But passages like these do not call out for explication. They do their work on a visceral level—their intent and effect is shock. As Harper says of the "close focus on particulars" elsewhere in his poetry, "I work with clinical imagery to draw attention, to shock my reader with a detailed, medical closeness …" (Chapman 470). The same is certainly true here. In the context of the Debridement poems, though, the close focus on the details of maimed flesh also constitutes a kind of bedrock of the human experience of violence. This sort of language works to clear away the rubble of inadequate and reductive mythical explanations of the meaning of Vietnam, and, for that matter, of the meaning of the ghetto. And even if these stark and brutal images do not explain the causes or consequences of violence and pain, at least they offer some basic facts, some "human essentials" that any true and open-ended mythic explanation of Vietnam would have to take into account.

In a poem called "Deathwatch" (from Dear John, Dear Coltrane, 1970), Harper writes about the hospital death of his newborn son. The poem shares with Debridement a concern with the tension between clinical particulars and the outrageous distortions of cultural myth. "Deathwatch" ends with three lines which could well be taken as a key to the discursive texture of Debridement :

America needs a killing.
America needs a killing.
Survivors will be human.

In Debridement Harper, at the risk of his own poetic voice, arranges the various cultural myths which infiltrate the sequence in such a way that they annihilate one another's pretensions to authority. America needs a killing. In so doing, though, Harper at least suggests a "survivor" of sorts—a language of open-ended myth which is capable of articulating the brutal particulars of human experience, the "human essentials" upon which a valid history of Vietnam might be founded.


1. I am probably being unfair to Nordheimer. The overall form of his article, including what I here call the "commitment to a straightforward narrative coherence," is no doubt partly the result of his publishing context—the fleeting, disposable discourse of the daily newspaper.

2. My text for the Debridement poems is the original edition published by Doubleday in 1973. Several of the poems are also included in Harper's Images of Kin: New and Selected Poems (Urbana: U of Illinois P, 1977) 98-111.

3. It is, of course, significant that the Senate record does not mention that Dwight Johnson was black. In explaining the nature of mythical language such as that in the record, Roland Barthes uses an example strikingly similar to the present case: "One must put the biography of the Negro in parentheses if one wants to free the picture [of a black soldier saluting the tricolor] to receive its [mythic] signified" (118).

4. Harper's manipulation of the diction he borrows from Nordheimer is illuminating here. Where Nordheimer writes "Communist rockets knocked out two of the tanks," Harper deletes the political adjective Communist and changes rockets from a noun to a verb. To a degree, these alterations free the image from its historical and political specificity as a Vietnam battle. Also, where Nordheimer writes "foot soldiers sprang out of the nearby woods," Harper changes the verb to dance, a word replete with connotations of ritual.

Works Cited

Barthes, Roland. Mythologies. Trans. Annette Lavers. New York: Hill, 1972.

Chapman, Abraham. "An Interview with Michael S. Harper." Arts in Society 11 (1975): 463-71.

Harper, Michael. Dear John, Dear Coltrane. Pittsburgh: U of Pittsburgh P, 1970.

———. Debridement. Garden City: Doubleday, 1973.

Jameson, Fredric. The Political Unconscious: Narrative as a Socially Symbolic Act. Ithaca: Cornell UP, 1981.

Lotman, Jurij. The Structure of the Artistic Text. Trans. Gail Lenhoff and Ronald Vroon. Michigan Slavic Contributions 7. Ann Arbor: U of Michigan P, 1977.

Nordheimer, Jon. "From Dakto to Detroit: Death of a Troubled Vietnam Hero." New York Times 26 May 1971, natl. ed.: A1, 16.

O'Brien, John. "Michael Harper." Interviews with Black Writers. New York: Liveright, 1973. 95-107.

United States. Senate. Committee on Veterans' Affairs. Medal of Honor Winners 1863-1973. 93rd Cong., 1st sess. Washington: GPO, 1973.

Elizabeth Dodd (essay date 2001)

SOURCE: Dodd, Elizabeth. "The Great Rainbowed Swamp: History as Moral Ecology in the Poetry of Michael S. Harper." In Beyond Nature Writing: Expanding the Boundaries of Ecocriticism, edited by Karla Armbruster and Kathleen R. Wallace, pp. 177-94. Charlottesville: University Press of Virginia, 2001.

[In the following essay, Dodd examines "History as Apple Tree" and poems from the "Uplift from a Dark Tower" section of Images of Kin from the perspective of an ecocritic, focusing specifically on how Harper combined his treatment of the American landscape with an examination of societal issues involving racial policies, human morality, capitalism, and education.]

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This text has been suppressed due to author restrictions.

This text has been suppressed due to author restrictions.

This text has been suppressed due to author restrictions.

This text has been suppressed due to author restrictions.

This text has been suppressed due to author restrictions.

This text has been suppressed due to author restrictions.

This text has been suppressed due to author restrictions.

This text has been suppressed due to author restrictions.



Callahan, John F. "‘Close Roads’: The Friendship Songs of Michael S. Harper." In African-American Poets: Robert Hayden through Rita Dove, edited by Harold Bloom, pp. 193-203. Philadelphia: Chelsea House, 2003.

Alternates personal reminiscences about Harper with passages from his poetry, revealing the significance of Harper's "friendship songs" for the critic.

Jones, Gayl. "Jazz Modalities: Michael S. Harper's ‘Uplift from a Dark Tower.’" In Liberating Voices: Oral Tradition in African American Literature, pp. 44-54. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1991.

Examines how the poet used the "jazz perspective" in "Uplift from a Dark Tower" "to move the literature to a greater conceptual integrity, contingent with African American tradition."

Harper, Michael S., and Michael Antonucci. "The Map and the Territory: An Interview with Michael S. Harper." African American Review 34, no. 3 (fall 2000): 501-08.

Presents an interview which took place during the summers of 1997 and 1998, revised by Harper in 1999, in which the author offers his insights into such topics as his purpose in writing poems on historical figures like Willie Mays and John Brown; how music informs his verse; the importance of writing about American history; how visual art influences his verse; and the critical theories of Ralph Ellison.

Lieberman, Laurence. "Derek Walcott and Michael S. Harper: The Muse of History." In Beyond the Muse of Memory: Essays on Contemporary American Poets, pp. 173-86. Columbia: University of Missouri Press, 1995.

Offers laudatory analyses of both Walcott's Another Life and Harper's Debridement.

Pope, Jacquelyn. "Citizen Pilgrim Poet." Harvard Review, no. 20 (spring 2001): 52-4.

Concise assessment of several of Harper's poems, including "Last Affair: Bessie's Blues Song," "Vote," "9 23 99: Coltrane Notes on the Millennium," and "Critical Mass."

Additional coverage of Harper's life and career is contained in the following sources published by Gale: African American Writers, Ed. 2; Black Writers, Ed. 1; Contemporary Authors, Vols. 33-36R, 224; Contemporary Authors New Revision Series, Vols. 24, 108; Contemporary Literary Criticism, Vols. 7, 22; Contemporary Poets, Eds. 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7; Dictionary of Literary Biography, Vol. 41; Literature Resource Center; Reference Guide to American Literature, Ed. 4; and Twayne Companion to Contemporary Literature in English, Ed. 1:1.

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Harper, Michael S. 1938-

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