Gifts from the dead

Toi Derricotte

A student said, I’ve been studyingyour line breaks and can’t figure outhow they work. I couldn’texplain. All those years theyfought their way to the surfacelike cats in a bag. But Lucillemust have given mebreath, because after she died, Inoticed my linesstarted to looka lot like hers! She had told me,when you lose the fleshyou gain more power. In fact,that’s the only golda poet counts on: the powerto give it away. When Ruth Stonedied, she gave mea new wayto pick up words, like thosesilver claws in grocerystores that pick upstuffed animals and this time theydon’t leap away. Ruth had said, justput your handup in the universe and a poemwill jump in. It’s crazyto trust yourselflike that! But, now,I’m learning howto live.Even when she was getting chemotwice a week, Lucille would goanywhere they asked—Australia, Alaska—carrying her thirty-pound purse, which she would nevergive up. No matter how wewarned her, shedid it for nothing! On her deathbed, she wouldn’t leaveuntil her daughters promised,We’ll be all right. You can let go.                Ruthie, starlit, ribbonedand silked, fragile-skinned, like a coat from a Chinesewardrobe in the MiddleburyGoodwill, told usshe wasn’t going todie. That evening,after we sank herdown in the hole they hadclawed out that morning,we sat around the tablewhere Marcia had planedthe pine slats of her casketjust the day before (her last words,Marcia said, spoken reallyto herself, Everyonehas to die), spooning her favorite—Kozy Shack rice pudding—right out of the plastic. Listen to Toi Derricotte read this poem:

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Toi Derricotte

Toi Derricotte’s sixth collection of poetry, “I“ New and Selected Poems, was published in 2019 and shortlisted for the 2019 National Book Award. She was awarded the Frost Medal from the Poetry Society of America in 2020. With Cornelius Eady, she co-founded Cave Canem, a home for the many voices of African American poetry, in 1996.

Winner of the 2020 BCALA Literary Awards
Winner of the 2020 Frost Medal

“Derricotte’s poems push readers and practitioners into the hard work of seeing with rigor, intelligence, and grace. Her intellect and imagination continue to forge new territory in the field of poetry, challenging what we think a poem might be and what we think it might do in the world.”
Dan Chiasson, Aracelis Girmay & A. Van Jordan, PEN/Voelcker Award Citation

“Honest, fine-honed, deceptively simple. . . deadly accurate, ‘more merciless to herself than history,’ Toi Derricotte’s poems are as unique as her point of view. And it is the specificity, the fine observation of that viewpoint…which makes it at once accessible and revelatory to readers, whatever their origins, whatever their preconceptions of the possibilities of poetry.”
—Marilyn Hacker

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