Toi Derricotte

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We Ain't Seen Nothing Yet!
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Transcript Note:  Toi Derricotte’s poems are transcribed directly from her reading at the Centenary Celebration in 1986 and sometimes differ slightly from versions published later.  

I hope I can convey to you the spirit that I feel. I'm very nervous and when I get nervous I get sort of a dead feeling.  But inside, under that dead feeling, I hope I can convey the spirit I feel of cordiality about us sharing what we're sharing. And I'm very proud.  I say in a poem of mine, "I was not born here." I suppose I am a New Jersey poet. And I say, "I was not born here." But I was a fool…  So, I'm very proud that we, of New Jersey, could be the home for the centennial tribute to Emily Dickinson. I just think we should applaud that. 

I think, we're really special in our support of poetry and of poets and certainly this is where I got my start: a reading like this. I was listening to Maxine and Ruth Stone speak this morning and they were saying a reading like this probably couldn't have happened twenty years ago. Later Ruth said that – not only that – but that she feels that we're on the threshold of an enormous explosion of women writers (get out of the way everyone!) and that, as wonderful as this is, that we probably haven't seen nothing. But there's so much here to come.  And I'm just going to read some of my favorite Emily Dickinson poems. I'm not an Emily Dickinson scholar, but I have loved Emily Dickinson for many, many years, for many reasons. One of the reasons is her great way of looking at everything without turning back, without flinching.  She looked at it.  And this poem, I love:

It was not Death, for I stood up,
And all the Dead, lie down -
It was not Night, for all the Bells
Put out their Tongues, for Noon.

It was not Frost, for on my Flesh
I felt Siroccos - crawl -
Nor Fire - for just my Marble feet
Could keep a Chancel, cool -
And yet, it tasted, like them all,
The Figures I have seen
Set orderly, for Burial,
Reminded me, of mine -

As if my life were shaven,
And fitted to a frame,
And could not breathe without a key,
And 'twas like Midnight, some -

When everything that ticked - has stopped -
And Space stares all around -
Or Grisly frosts - first Autumn morns,
Repeal the Beating Ground -

But, most, like Chaos - Stopless - cool -
Without a Chance, or Spar -
Or even a Report of Land -
To justify - Despair.

[end poem; JP 510]

And just beauty in Emily Dickinson.  She appreciated beauty in nature, in her language.  Just the beauty. No matter what she's talking about, her language, so beautiful. 

Her face was in a bed of hair,
Like flowers in a plot -
Her hand was whiter than the sperm
That feeds the sacred light.
Her tongue more tender than the tune
That totters in the leaves -
Who hears may be incredulous,
Who witnesses, believes. 

[end poem; JP 1722]

And we're certainly here to do that, aren't we? And there was a little debate, we've had a lot of talks about politics, which – It's interesting that it came up with so many people.  It was almost like I want – I wish we could go into a separate room and break into groups and everybody talk about politics and poetry, because obviously there's a lot here to be said from various people.  How we feel about it. But I found that, you know, Emily Dickinson--I'm sure you all go to back of the book and read the index of her first lines. Since she doesn’t have titles.  That’s the only way you can get it – is through the index of her first line. And sometimes you read these things and it's like standing in line at the A&P and you see the headlines of the National Inquirer: "I am afraid to own a body"; "I am alive, I guess"; "I am ashamed, I hide," and on and on.  “I felt a funeral in my brain.”  She's wonderful with these first lines. Don’t they –they make you wanna peek. Peek into every one.  But on politics, we were talking yesterday about politics and Emily Dickinson and whether or not she chose—and blah blah and on and on—but I found this poem (it’s an interesting poem to me) in which she says this:

I took my Power in my Hand -
And went against the World -
'Twas not so much as David - had -
But I - was twice as bold -

I aimed my Pebble - but Myself
Was all the one that fell -
Was it Goliath - was too large -
Or myself - too small?

[end poem; JP 540]

Well, I guess Emily experienced a little self-doubt, wouldn't you say? I am going to do something that I rarely rarely do, but it's in honor of especially the people who I see sitting around this room writing in notebooks.  I wrote here, yesterday.  I was sitting just there thinking about how to-, what I wanted to say about why I was going to read this. It's because I think it's something that would have probably ended up in the drawer. And so I read it because I hope that we will be the fortunate ones who take these things that we're writing and take them out of the drawers. I know a lot of times I wish I could go back to a drawer.  So, this is what I wrote. And I just named it: "Sitting with Myself in the Seton Hall Deli, Twelve O'Clock Thursday":

When I read with them, when I hear them,
I will know
I'm inferior.
This is useless emotion.
No one’s concern,
but one little tiny ego trying to stay afloat. 

I don't like myself to be sniveling,
but I need to sit with myself for a while & keep myself company.
You'll be alright. You may not act like any of them,
but you have your way.
What good does self-pity do?
Underneath self-pity is anger.
You have come to learn.
I pity myself, who has come here to adore the great poets,
hates my miserable leaky leaky cup, who
cannot concentrate, but looks from this one to that,
who will sit in the seat of the theater shrunken down,
I will cry with the beauty of their words.
I will feel humble, small, incompetent, 
I will not be able to hear without the pain of [?]
I am so close, but so far away!
Even on the stage
my closeness makes me see the truth.
Can I never
leap, leap
over these personal complaints
and be a poet who speaks
not to myself, but to you.
I do not have the words, the brain,
to form the words to go out of self
I cannot speak for the woman suffering,
but I know the authentic 
Self-pity, and self-doubt, I acknowledge you.
I will not hate you.
You are part of me.
I will not push you away.
I will sit with you & keep you company.
You will walk with me under my clothes 
where no one can see.
I will have my hand on your heart all the time.
I will not deny your grief.
I will not tell you to take your hand out of my pocket.
I will not forget you as if you had died without a funeral.
Breath, for you are my [feet?]
Are you afraid I will leave you in the dark?
And close the door
because you are small, frightened?
Come with me into the room.
with all your whispering. 
Tell me in my ear.
Put your invisible tiny hand around my neck, those fat rosy fingers.
Picture a body along my ribs
and picture me shapeless as a new born.
I can carry you monkey fashion,
your head a small cup on my neck.

And then, I started to feeling it. And I the fear started to fill me, of all these wonderful women and I wrote this Thursday:

In order to love women
you have to come to the Emily Dickinson Centennial
Reading at Seton Hall University
& hear Maxine Kumin say: "Emily, you are
a poet, you were. And
you lasted."
     In order to
last you must kiss the poet on the
back of her red hair just as she
approaches the podium, weak, un-
believing. Un-
believable how confidence can come from
tasting the Parmesan placed as a gift
on top of the deli soup, the
final blessing.
Compare and contrast yourself with the
greats, the
dead, the Pulitzers, the
scholars, the housewives.
Those who know how to move a house
cross country better than you do.
Or those who know how to give their bodies
and change a man, [replaced by a man with silver...?] 
[Replaced by girls with babies...?]
Even [...?]  
It doesn't matter whether we come here by
car or bus or promises. 
Or whether you walk on a lame ankle.
It doesn't matter if we have not
been promoted, or
whether we must first
sit in the ladies' room with a blank notebook
& wonder whether or not  to wipe the seat.
The waters of the housewives before us. 
       Emily waited to be famous
till all her friends and enemies were dead.
Good girl! I wish some of my friends
would do the same!
In order to love women you
have to hear Ruth Stone forgive her husband.
Take the corpse by the throat.
Whether or not we betray each other for fame, guys, clothes,
whether or not we commit suicide,
whether or not we pay the exorbitant phone bills to the stars,
I say burn baby burn.
Burn. I [bleed?]. 

because she could not say
rape, I say rape.
because she could not say
penis, I say penis
because she could not say
breast & mean that sexual rising
i say breast & mean
that sexual rising

"Tell all the truth, but tell it slant," she said. 
all our eyes are blind,
still [we’re not with?] images
blindness is pure protection investing in an IRA
this morning, I thought, yes,
but will I be alive to collect?
We are her daughters,
But could she accept us?
Is she ready for
all these voices?
She wasn't a leader.
Was her white
a put-down of the black?
Still I love her.
I love her.  
Even if I have to get down on my knees,  
I will reach out for my own life. 

[end poem]

That's for Emily. 

That’s great! That’s nice that we can do that, isn’t it? Now don’t you wish we could hear all these things in these notebooks? Seriously, I don’t like poems about self-pity.  I don’t like self-pity.  I picked – there’s a lot of things being written that people are thinking, this is not good stuff to write it, put it in a drawer.  So, that was good.  I’m glad I could do that.  That line, that last line.  Does anybody know whose last line that was?  That was Sharon Olds. She was reaching out for her own life. 

Now, the other thing I'm going to read, I’m really going to stay with these new ones.  And as you can see here’s another one that’s very new. But it’s about it’s about my mother. I’ve never read it, and I just tried to clean it up today.  And I think that we’re here, and I think part of what we’re doing here is clearing up with our mother, with Emily, with each other.  And I think that’s an important part.  And I also want to say something else.  I want to say about my poems being very personal. Emily Dickinson didn't exactly write that way. But I think what’s so wonderful is that we can be all these various voices and be speaking here in these different ways. That’s what makes it so wonderful. This is called “[...?]”:

In the Chinese restaurant, I find my fortune:
“An inherited treasure awaits you.”
I do not think of opening a strange letter
with gold contents pouring around my feet.
I do not think of the guilty spoils of the living,
the mink cape hanging with mothballs.
Rather, I think of my mother
whose cold cream repulsed me.
Mother of blood, pain, death.
Mother of disappointment, anger, dread.

I think of her now, 65, still scrubbing the basement down.
Packing food packets for the [old…?]
Spitting epitaphs at her drunk husband,
chopping the miserable garlic,
whipping the unjust cream.
Sitting alone in the T.V. light with the new quilt,
passing stitch by stich through her fingers.
Something unspeakable buttons her lip as she sits there
making, making.

Why was I born a woman?
Why did I come out of that bloody [slit slipped?]
[Like what I came out of?]
I will never get out of these passages.
The light is always far ahead.
My father said it as a curse.
I buckled my lips.
The trick was to learn how to turn your pain around
like the Christian martyrs
who gave their bodies to the lions, smiling.
Truly turn your pain around
not just put on the [mask…?]
For them the hair of anger bristles out of the mouth.
A red eye peeked.
My mother walked on the stage smiling,
but her smile never convinced me
that she didn’t want revenge, reparation.

What have I inherited?
I am the voice of her rage.
[I’m crippled and stressed out of these words?]
Anger, even at her.
I do wish to touch her to make her mine.
What I pushed away from
[it’s squirrely head,
dog whined its need corrugated by bleach?]
With drooping breasts.

She never knew how to hold me.
She never knew how that pleasure in her body,
that rocking like the sea.
But she washed, ironed, scrubbed, pleated, [screened?]
What I want to know is, did she have a choice?
Or was I forced on her like a package in the mail?
Let me inherit some knowledge beyond description.
Some knowledge that does not question but accept.
Like the blood that passed through the cord we shared.
Let me be open to know what has passed through her.
What pain kept her alive.
What joy, destroyed. 
Who wants to claim that old bag?
[Broken trunk too much to drag home broken feather?]  
[Dove that hats washed down in the crown?]
Neither dream nor belly will keep me cooped up here, in her.

God damned nature.
God damned heavy breath.
“I don’t want her, daddy.  Don’t leave me here with her when you go out to drink.”
My mother speaks, “Daddy’s gone out with a whore.
My hair is falling in the sink.
My daughter is a witch to take my tit in her teeth.
My cooking pots are dropping.
The man across the street is leaning into our living room with cheap binoculars.
I am the creole beauty raised on fig cream
Baby is beating me out of what I own.
I am no good. I am no good.
(scrub scrub)
My litany.”
I want to join her -- 
not now as she is, kneeling on the newspaper printed floor
scrubbing in her pink slip,
her legs open so I can peak up
at the black cat eye slit drooped with hair,
a ragged pushed down brush, 
that lullaby of body rocking --
but in some state of purity before paradisum,
naked, not knowing her nakedness.
Let her be forgiven for growing arthritic in her twisted heart.

Historically, there must be a place for a woman who grows old and bitter,
Who cannot please her husband or her daughter.
Who can only please God.
There must be some pedestal where she can stand
erect like a Virgin Mary.
For she too opened her legs,
however humbly,
and admitted the Holy Serpent. 
Every time I killed him, I killed her.
The black ant crawling up my arm,
it is her pressing her lips to my skin,
trying to hold me.

She shoved my hand out of her mouton coat when I needed warmth.
“Stop dragging me down,” she said.
I was imperfect, small, dependent, my dignity smaller than a button. 
Then, I would have held her.
Now, we stand in the same room like dancers
who put up their hands as if to touch, but imitate a mirror.
She’ll rescue me.
Once more she’ll pull me out of dark,
like the magician pulls the swiveling snake out of a black barrel of water.
Just when I give up, when I think I’ll choke on phlegm,
she’ll open the door and know what’s to be done.
She’ll vacuum until there’s no dust in my throat,
polish the windows,
cook beef stroganoff in its bloody sop, 
she’ll stuff the rice food into my mouth until I want to scream
and can’t scream and live,
until I get fat as the sea and balance her world on my nose.
Just when I think the strangler has pulled the straps out of her shoulders,
when I think she’ll cough her soul into the toilet,
when I don’t know which end of her blood is coming out,
she’ll be sown up good as new
and come back to finish what she started. 

[end poem]

And one more for Mother called “Christmas Eve, My Mother Dressing.n. I’ve got to show this other part too, right?

My mother was not impressed with her beauty;
once a year she put it on like a costume,
plaited her black hair, slick as cornsilk, down past her hips,
in one rope thick braid, turned it, carefully, hand over hand,
and fixed it at the nape of her neck, stiff and elegant as a crown,
with tortoise pins, like huge insects,
some belonging to her dead mother,
some to my living grandmother.
All the time, sitting on the stool at the mirror, eyes watching her face.
She applied a peachy foundation that seemed to hold her down,
      to trap her like a beautiful butterfly
as if we never would have noticed what flew among us unless
      it was weighted and bound in its mask.
Vaseline shined her eyebrows,
mascara blackened her lashes until they swept down like feathers;
darkening [parts…?]
her eyes deepened until they shone from far away.
[Twins through…?]

Now I remember her hands, her poor hands, which, even then
      were old from scrubbing.
whiter on the inside than they should have been,
and hard, the first joints of her fingers, like little fattened pads,
the nails filed to sharp points like old-fashioned ink pens,
      painted a jolly color.
Her hands stood next to her face and wanted to be put away,
released to their solid life,
for the return of the scrub bucket and brush to make them useful.
And, as I write, I forget the years I watched her
pull hairs like a witch from her chin, magnify
every blotch -- as if acid were thrown from the inside.

But once a year my mother
rose in her white silk slip,
the woman of the house, not enslaved
took the ironed dress from the hanger --
allowing me to stand on the bed, so that
my face looked directly into her face,
and hold the garment away from her
as she pulled it down.
Then she arranged with dignity.
I lay on the bed quiet,
privy to a great one to whom it was given,
to watch a miraculous […?]
[…?] for the ordinary was exchanged for beauty.  

[end poem]

Nope, you know what I think I’m going to do.  I’m going to read a little fiction...  When in doubt. I'm going to read a little section from Natural Birth. I'll read this section called "Ten Twenty-Nine" and it puts you right in the middle of it. I should lead you up very gently.  Here we are, right in the middle of labor. Are you ready for it? It hits you in like that, right? Right out of the blue.

going to the bathroom, worse than cramps, can't stop
going to the bathroom, shaking my head over the toilet.
just sit. sit on the toilet. don't move. just shake
your head. trying to go real hard. 
it hurts      i can't help it       oh
it hurts so bad!

lie on the bed and can't breathe right. go to sleep and
wake up in the middle of a wave, too late...

what time is it, i can't keep track of time...

fall asleep. two minutes. can't stand the pain. have
to go to the bathroom. feels so ugly pressing down there,
shame, shame! have to go to the bathroom all the time.
shake my head. can't believe it hurts like this and
getting worse.

lie back in bed, just breathe. just relax. watch the
clock. one minute goes so slow. seems like 10:29, the
clock is stuck there, stuck on pain...

nurse comes in, asks me if i want a shot. no i don't want a
shot. i want this to be easy. please god make it easy, i said it
would be easy. no i don't want a shot don't want to give up
yet, i want it to be beautiful like it's supposed to be if i just
breathe right, can't give up they want to give up i won't
give up
, please nobody see me (the nurse says the social worker wants to
see me... and the social worker is pregnant!) god don't
let her see. i told her to have lamaze like me told her it was
easy and not to be afraid. don't let her see how hard don't
let her be afraid like i am now. never again, never have a
baby, never believe that this is beautiful or right or good
i'm rolling in the dark      the clock is stuck     the big black clock
is stuck all night. inside i'm quiet outside i roll and can't
stop it getting worse, can't stop     it's getting worse -- it can't
get worse! how could a body hold such pain? how could
such pain be here and how and what did i do? i want to
scream      i can't. my mouth is stopped     my mouth is dry --
so dry     god let me out of this hell     i did my exercises loved
my baby did everything i could, you promised if i was good
you promised if i was humble like a child and loved them all the little children

(so far to the bathroom, so cold in the night loving my baby,
so far, so cold, so long) and no one to come and save me
from this pain i cannot stop oh god no one to save me....

[end poem]

You remember that, huh? Yeah, it's hard to forget that. You know, they say that you go to sleep and forget the pain; when you wake up you don't remember anything. I wonder why I wrote this seventeen years later. I don’t know why. I didn't get it. Anyway, you come to the good part. [referencing the book] It really gets good here.  And then finally you come to the laughs, which is what I want to read for Tony [her son]: I read at Rutgers and I was having a conversation with Dean [Jewel Caws?] at Douglas and she was telling me about her son, a fantastic son, and this school that he goes to, he goes to [?] and I said “Oh, I met this wonderful boy two weeks ago at a party and we got into a long conversation, we were best friends, blah blah blah, what’s your son’s name?” “Johno” “That’s the boy!” So then, Johno was in the kitchen later and I went back to the kitchen and I said to him, “Johno, I knew you before you had a mother.”   And…not that kind of mother! Anyway, then I got home and I wrote this poem and I thought it was about Johno when I started out .  And of course, the secret of the poem that the poem knew and I didn’t was that it wasn’t about Johno at all.  And it’s called “In Knowledge of Young Boys”:

i knew you before you had a mother,
when you were newtlike, swimming,
a horrible brain in water.
i knew you when your connections
belonged only to yourself,
when you had no history
to hook on to,
when you had no sustenance of metal
when you had no boat to travel
when you stayed in the same
place, treading the question;
i knew you when you were all
eyes and a cocktail,
blank as the sky of a mind,
a root, neither ground nor placenta;
not yet
red with the cut nor astonished
by pain, one terrible eye
open in the center of your head
to night, turning, and the stars
blinked like a cat, we swam
in the last trickle of champagne
before we knew breastmilk--we
shared the night of the closet,
the parasitic
closing on our thumbprint,
we were smudged in a yellow book.

son, we were oak without
mouth, uncut, we were
brave before memory.

[end poem]

I really enjoyed reading, very much. And I do want to read for Audre, whom I dearly love.  Who has been another mother to me, a very important woman. And I think of Emily Dickinson in her white, and it makes me want to read Audre Lorde's "Coal."

is the total black, being spoken
from the earth's inside.
There are many kinds of open
how a diamond comes into a knot of flame
how sound comes into a word, coloured
by who pays what for speaking.

Some words are open like a diamond
on glass windows
singing out within the passing crash of sun
Then there are words like stapled wagers
in a perforated book,--buy and sign and tear apart--
and come whatever wills all chances
the stub remains
an ill-pulled tooth with a ragged edge.
Some words live in my throat
breeding like adders. Others know sun
seeking like gypsies over my tongue
to explode through my lips
like young sparrows bursting from shell.
Some words
bedevil me.

Love is a word, another kind of open.
As the diamond comes into a knot of flame
I am Black because I come from the earth's inside
now take my word for jewel in the open light.

[end poem]

Toi Derricotte Bio

Read more from Toi Derricotte

 "Christmas Eve, My Mother Dressing" from Captivity, University of Pittsburgh Press, 1989.  [resume reading]