Poetry

Poetry Sunday: ‘The undertaker’s daughter,’ by Toi Derricote

 

The undertaker’s daughter

Terrified at a reading to read
poems about my fears & shames,

a voice in me said: Just
open your mouth. Now

I read about Anubis, the God of Egypt

who ushered the dead
to the underworld, who performed the ritual of

The opening of the mouth

so they could
see, hear & eat. 

Had it been my father speaking,

giving me back that
depth of taste & color,

fineness of sound
that his rages stifled,  

twisted & singed shut?  I had thought

it was a woman’s voice,
though I had hoped

all my life that my father would feed me
that milk my mother could not

make from her body. 
Once, when I opened the door & saw

him shaving, naked, the sole of his foot
resting on the toilet, I thought

those things hanging down were
udders.  From then on I understood there was a

female part he hid—something
soft & unprotected

I shouldn’t see.

 

First published in Prairie Schooner. “The undertaker’s daughter” from The Undertaker’s Daughter, by Toi Derricotte, c. 2011. All Rights are controlled by the University of Pittsburgh Press, Pittsburgh, PA 15260. Used by permission of the University of Pittsburgh Press. Order The Undertaker’s Daughter at here.

 

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Toi Derricotte_author photo_3-21-16Toi Derricotte is the author of The Undertaker’s Daughter (University of Pittsburgh Press, 2011) and four earlier collections of poetry, including Tender, winner of the 1998 Paterson Poetry Prize. Her literary memoir, The Black Notebooks (W.W. Norton), received the 1998 Anisfield-Wolf Book Award for Non-Fiction and was a New York Times Notable Book of the Year. Her honors include, among many others, the 2012 Paterson Poetry Prize for Sustained Literary Achievement, the 2012 PEN/Voelcker Award for Poetry, the Lucille Medwick Memorial Award from the Poetry Society of America, two Pushcart Prizes and the Distinguished Pioneering of the Arts Award from the United Black Artists. Derricotte is the co-founder of Cave Canem Foundation (with Cornelius Eady), Professor Emerita at the University of Pittsburgh and a Chancellor of the Academy of American Poets. Her website is toiderricotte.com.

 

Notes on “The undertaker’s daughter

Rebecca Foust, Poetry Editor

Rebecca Foust, Poetry Editor

Today’s poem is from the first section of Toi Derricotte’s most recent book of poetry, The Undertaker’s Daughter, and bears its name as well as the name of the book. I chose it for the way it holds so many elements that seem to define Derricotte’s work: issues of family, history, and identity, the importance of memory to creativity and of creativity to spiritual wholeness, and themes of transformation and redemption. Also characteristic is its plain-spoken style and insistence on specificity, authenticity, and candor tempered with qualities of tenderness and vulnerability.

“The undertaker’s daughter” is spare on the page, 29 lines organized into 17 stanzas consisting sometimes of couplets and sometimes of single lines. It’s in free verse, unmetered and without a formal rhyme scheme, though some slant rhyme sonically knits the poem’s end-words:  read/dead/could (lines 1, 6, 9) and eat/that/thought/not/foot/thought (lines 10, 12, 16, 20, 23, 24). Many line breaks are unconventional, for example, the one that divorces an adverb (“just”) from its verb (“open”) in line 3 and another that separates a noun (“part”) from its article (“a”) in line 26. These serve, I believe, to enact the speaker’s impediment to giving voice to her poems. The lines are short, ranging from three words in line 29 to eleven in line 26, giving the poem a columnar appearance on the page. Ampersands used in place of the word “and” contribute to the brevity of lines.

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 in such poems, and whether reading silently or aloud, each one requires a pause for the time it takes the eye to reverse left and drop down to the next line. A poem with short lines may appear “simpler,” but it’s actually harder to read, another way Derricotte enacts the difficulty of speaking about very personal subject matter of extreme emotional intensity.

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