The poem by Etheridge Knight “Hard Rock Returns to Prison” is a work embodying the essence of the human nature, and its act of leadership and resistance. It depicts the conformity humans tend to follow out of the fear. It emphasizes the impossibility of opposition against the system because the system uses the most effective tactic against its enemy – it eliminates the leader. To win the war, kill the king.
For Etheridge Knight, Hard Rock is such a “leader”, “the doer of things that others dared not”, and the person who fought against the system for obviously quite a long time, for he has become a legend already. He is the history, the legend of the prison. And they thought he would be the future.
There is a symbolism in the name “Hard Rock”. It implies something that is difficult to crush, to oppose, something stronger, something that will violently confront any threat – and that is Hard Rock’s way. Hard Rock is a rebel against oppression, humiliation and racism. He “was known to take no shit from nobody”. As the author describes him, we see that his rebellious and indomitable nature is written on his face. Even his appearance arouses fear – scars and welts prove he was a “fighter”. His looks fit the character described – “split purple eyes, lumped ears, welts above the eyes”. Hard Rock’s features reflect his actions, like “he smacked the captain with his dinner tray”, “he set the record for the time in the Hole – 67 straight days!”, and “he bit a screw on the thumb”. This behavior evoked admiration and praise from the confined.
In prison people are respected when they have no fear and the power to resist. Those who show “fangs” are renowned and well-respected. They become the targets, the aims for the oppressors, and the means of influencing the rest. If you kill the leader, the rest will obey; it is the ancient rule of nature. The system – the legal power – uses force against Hard Rock to intimidate the rest. The prisoners see him as the “Destroyer, the doer of things (they) dreamed of doing but could not bring (themselves) to do”. Their will is crushed when they see Hard Rock has become a vegetable. Even he, Hero, had lost the fight against the system. They took him to the Hospital for the Criminally Insane and conducted a lobotomy: “the doctors had bored a hole in his head, cut out part of his brain, and subjected him to the electricity shooting”.
Hard Rock was to the prisoners, almost like Jesus to the Christians, and words in the poem are clearly an allusion to the Scripture – “the Word” and “the biting whip”. I believe there are several parallels with the Bible in the poem – the scene when he has been brought back – “handcuffed and chained”, recalls the Christ’s arrest and the way to Golgotha, while most of his followers, except for the women “all waited and watched, like indians at a corral, to see if the WORD was true”. The use of “WORD” in capital letters refers both to the biblical meaning of the teachings and, later, the gospel of John. Simultaneously, the role of oral communication as the only possible way of communication in prison is emphasized, the messages were coded and passed from one man to another. The meaning of the WORD in the prison cannot be underestimated. The faith and the spirit of the prisoners depend on the WORD. Hard Rock’s followers relied upon his previous deeds (“wrapped ourselves in the cloak of his exploits”), just like the disciples of Jesus spread the word about his miracles. Etheridge Knight’s was also the WORD.
And just like the apostles, Hard Rock’s cellmates gave him up when they found he was not the same as he used to be. The WORD was true. When they realized their leader was killed, the pack went to pieces, and there was no idol left for the crowd to follow. Thus, the opposition died when the leader did. Their fear of standing alone against the system is concentrated in the last stanza: “The fears of years, like a biting whip, had cut grooves too deeply across our backs”.
This picture provides associations with slavery. When Hard Rock is broken, his followers become a crowd of servants, nothing else. “The biting whip across (their) backs” conveys the picture of slaves whose obedience is enforced by the violence of the system. The scene suggests a suppressed uprising that melted away as soon as their hero, their inspiration, was taken from them.
Those who are on the edge of the razor are always under greater pressure than the rest of the flock. And those who stand against the system, the rules, are being attacked cruelly and mercilessly, just as Hard Rock was. Those who do not yield are destroyed either physically (as with opposition leaders like Martin Luther King Jr. or Mahatma Gandhi), or left defanged like Hard Rock. Certainly, one may claim you cannot compare those spiritual leaders with a cruel and crazy prisoner, for they had different goals and different means of achieving them. But despite the goals and the means, despite their philosophy or their deeds, the rebels are generally treated in the same way. To win the war, kill the king.
Although the leaders I compared with Hard Rock did not cease to be after physical death, I mean the movements they lead never ceased to be, unlike the movement Hard Rock lead. But that was not the point. In fact, if the movement finds any response in the hearts and minds of the followers. When a strong person arrives, he or she will continue to lead the flock, and the fight continues. When Martin Luther King Jr. died, when Mahatma Gandhi was assassinated, there movements did not cease to be. And I suppose, Hard Rock’s movement did not really cease to be either. They only expected for the arrival of the new leader, just like the Christians expected the new Messiah.
Jesus, who had influence upon people, and was thus a threat to the system of Jewish oligarchy and their Roman overlords, was also killed. Eliminating the threat has always been more effective then fighting it. To win the war you should kill the king of the enemy state. This premise applies to the heroes of those outcasts the system has locked away.
It is interesting how the author contrasts the protagonist’s appearance before and after the lobotomy: at first scarred, and violent, proud and unwilling to suffer any oppression, Hard Rock later “just grinned and looked silly”. The description of his eyes clearly illustrates the change of spirit within: “his eyes empty like knotholes in a fence”. The line contrasts with the leonine “yellow eyes” depicting Hard Rock described in the first stanza.
I cannot but mention that there is a certain emotional impact created by the last stanza, uncovering the tragedy of one person, and the willingness of his admirers to delude themselves rather than accept that he is gone: “we told ourselves that he had just wised up, was being cool; but we could not fool ourselves for long”. The scene of disillusionment is especially impressive because the author uses minimal syntax and sentence structure to describe the pain felt by Hard Rock’s followers: “And we turned away, our eyes on the ground. Crushed.”
There is no story of Hard Rock’s life in the poem – except for a few prison legends, his criminal record is omitted. The author does not tell us why he was convicted, or who Hard Rock was. The poem does not contain any justification for Hard Rock’s criminal behavior and sins; still, it is obvious that Etheridge Knight admires Hard Rock, and the criminals share the feeling.
Knight uses several comparisons to convey Hard Rock’s impotence after the lobotomy. The author calls him “a freshly gelded stallion”, calling attention to his utter weakness – the disability to fight the oppressors. The change of personality in Hard Rock was so astonishing that the inmates could not believe their eyes. Hard Rock did nothing.
This personal tragedy of a small leader is a truly impressive piece of poetry. It wins the hearts of those who read it carefully. It won mine. The story of a man who fought the system, the flock that followed him, and the way the system resolved the matter presents a small landscape of the way things are in the greater world outside the prison walls. In politics, the principle of eliminating the leader to weaken the enemy is still a priority, just as it has been for millennia. Remember the deaths of “the disagreeable” from the history of most countries: political purges in communist countries: ex-USSR, China, Cuba. Remember the recent assassination of Benazir Bhutto. I do not want to discuss current political issues; I just mean that the story of Hard Rock is applicable to many other stories of our time. In the fight for power, the ends justify the means. To win the war, kill the king. À la guerre comme à la guerre.