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

The poem opens in the memory of a reading when the speaker, finding herself “[t]errified   .   .   .   to read/poems about my fears & shames,” heard an inner voice urging her to “Just / open your mouth.” Perhaps wanting to heed the advice but unsure how to do it, the speaker researches an ancient Egyptian God who prepares the dead for the underworld by opening their mouths, a ritual that inverts our culture’s funerary practice of closing the mouths of our dead. That this is often the chore of undertakers is perhaps what leads the speaker to think of her father when she ponders whose voice it was that she heard. (Derricotte’s father and grandfather both were undertakers.) Thinking of the father evokes the memory of his “rages” which, we learn in lines 11-16 “stifled  / / twisted & singed shut” the speaker’s own mouth.

The speaker decides it was “a woman’s voice” she’d heard, puzzling for someone who’d “hoped // all my life that my father would feed me / that milk my mother could not.” The memory of her parents unearths another more specific recollection of the time the speaker walked in on her father in the bathroom and, seeing his testicles, mistook them for “udders.” That very particular, intimate and transgressive thought leads the speaker to a revelation, a way to understand and come to terms with her father: “From then on I understood there was a // female part he hid—something / soft & unprotected // I shouldn’t see.” From that “shouldn’t,” we understand that the experience also taught the speaker that softness and vulnerability are things to be kept hidden.

The arc made by the movement from memory to memory to revelation in the poem is the arc of what Derricotte has described as her creative process. Art, she says, is made from what has long been buried. The buried thing (sometimes taking the form of trauma) is a precondition, and the process of making art requires excavation of memory, in some cases requires clearing away voices that repress and obscure the artist’s own true voice. What emerged when she was writing The Undertaker’s Daughter was the “tender, almost childlike voice” that animates a series of poems in the book about the speaker’s relationship with Telly the fish. Derricotte says those poems were “scary” to write, the word reminding me that courage is not absence of fear but is instead acting in spite of being afraid. An important source of the power of Derricotte’s voice is this vulnerability and the sense that the revelations come with great effort and at great cost. I was moved to read that Derricotte found the first poem in her book, “Burial Sites,” so painful to read aloud that, as a way to distance herself from the material, she began singing it at readings.

The creative process also requires synthesis (what Derricotte calls “a connection between what I’m going through and what I went through”) and, ultimately, transformation:

I do believe that sometimes things go underground. It happens in history   .   .   .   it happens to generations of people, but I don’t think things are lost   .   .   .   . A saving grace for humanity [is the way we] carry memory and what we do with that.   .   .   . Nothing goes to waste and we create out of what has been buried and left behind. We regenerate, we relive.

The work is arduous—Derricotte says it’s taken 20 years or more to write some of her poems—but it is crucial to forging identity and an authentic voice.

Her reputation for unflinching candor was why I was so pleased that Derricotte (along with Wendy Barker, Lorna Dee Cervantes, and Natalia Trevino) joined a panel I recently led at AWP in Los Angeles called  “Still Got the Juice: Fierce Writing By Women of a Certain Age.” And fierce she is as I discovered when I heard, at the Berkeley Lunchtime Series last November, her poems about sex, childhood abuse, and the broader societal violence suffered by women and especially women of color. In another kind of courage, Derricotte defies the critical tradition that views memoir as inferior to literary fiction and dismisses issues of family and relationship as “women’s issues.” Derricotte points out that use of autobiographical material is no different than any writer’s use of historical material and says outright (in another poem from The Undertaker’s Daughter) “I am not afraid to be memoir.” My view is that it is less the subject matter that makes bad writing than it is what is done with the subject matter. An unedited outpouring of remembered events, like you might find in a journal entry, is not a poem. But today’s writer shows that—with deep, purposeful vision, revision, and imagination—it could be. 

[Editor’s Note: the quotes from Toi Derricotte above are from two interviews: “Acclaimed poet Toi Derricotte closes the book on her harrowing childhood with The Undertaker’s Daughter,” Bill O’Driscoll, 11/12/11, in Pittsburgh City Paper,  and “Who Do You Think You Are: A Conversation with Toi Derricotte” Leslie Ann Mcilroy, 8/30/14, Heart: Human Equity Through Art]


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Paradise Drive book coverRebecca Foust’s fifth book, “Paradise Drive,” won the 2015 Press 53 Award for Poetry and was reviewed in the Georgia Review, Hudson Review, Huffington Post, Philadelphia Inquirer, San Francisco Chronicle, Washington Review of Books, and elsewhere. Recognitions include the 2015 American Literary Review Award for Fiction, the 2015 James Hearst Poetry Prize, the 2014 Constance Rook Creative Nonfiction Award, and fellowships from the Frost Place, MacDowell Colony, Sewanee Writer’s Conference, and West Chester Poetry Conference. “Paradise Drive” can be ordered at www.press53.com. For more information visit rebeccafoust.com.


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