Poetry Sunday: “Christmas Eve: My Mother Dressing,” by Toi Derricotte

Commentary by Rebecca Foust, Poetry Editor

The first thing I noticed about today’s poem is the variability in the lengths of its lines, which range from very short in stanza 3 to a few exceptionally long lines in stanzas 1 and 2. Having such a wide range makes the poem feel like a bellows, sometimes expanding and sometimes constricting. I remember being surprised the first time I realized that short lines slow a poem down rather than speed it up. Line breaks come sooner and more often, and each one requires a pause for the time it takes the eye to reverse left and drop down to the next line. Short-line poems are harder to read than long-line poems, but hardest of all is a poem that, like this one, combines both. It defies even the rhythm of everyday speech, one way Derricotte enacts the effort of speaking about a very personal subject matter of extreme emotional intensity.

“Christmas Eve: My Mother Dressing” consists of 32 lines organized into three stanzas of 14, 10, and 8 lines. This structure reminds me that “stanza” comes from the Italian word for “room,” and indeed, we do occupy three different rooms here. The first is straightforward memory of the mother dressing for the holidays, the focus on details of that toilette: hair carefully braided and pinned up with “tortoise pins, like huge insects” that make tangible ancestral links to a “dead mother” and a “living grandmother.” The imagery here is lovely and positive except for those “insects” (though I see scarabs and still find them lovely) and most notably the “peachy foundation” the speaker says seemed “to trap” her mother. This is an early clue about the poem’s underlying concern with something not at all apparent from its title: race and class.

Stanza 2’s “now” occupies a very different room. Perhaps it is the peachy foundation that triggers the memory of other details, those that mark her mother with the menial labor that defines her existence. Her hands, “her poor hands,” are “old from scrubbing,” and like her face after application of the foundation “whiter than they should have been.” In this context, those fingernails filed into points and painted “a jolly color” evoke pathos instead of festivity. An interesting line break in line 20 tells us that the mother’s hands were restless, “wanted to be put away,” wanted to be “prayed;” that is, folded in prayer or made useful. We feel the speaker’s sorrow for hands not used for anything other than housework, prayer, or to “pull hairs like a witch from her chin.” This last reference, along with “magnify / every blotch—as if acid were thrown from the inside,” explains the speaker’s sorrow; they convey her mother’s self-judgment and shame.

The threshold into the room of stanza 3 is the word “but.” A disjunctive adverb, it signals a change or turn, and it is here that the speaker both makes clear the source of her discomfort with her mother and also allows herself to return to the more positive elements of the memory of that Christmas Eve. On this one night, her mother is not beaten down by housework drudgery. Instead, she is triumphant, a vision: “But once a year my mother / rose in her white silk slip, / not the slave of the house, the woman.” And for a moment, she allows her child to share in that very positive vision of herself. The speaker is permitted to stand on the bed, and I love the small, intimate human act that concludes the poem—“my face looked directly into her face”—as the speaker helps her mother into her dress.

At this time of year my thoughts return to my parents, and I was just thinking about how hard it is to remember my mother as she was every day. This poem reminds me that framing her in the context of specific events—my 16th birthday, this Thanksgiving, that Christmas Eve—is one way to recover those memories. Some are painful, and some are wonderful, but I miss my mother so much that I am grateful for any shred, and for poems like this that enable me to recover them.



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