On the Turning Up of Unidentified Black Female Corpses

Toi Derricotte

Mowing his three acres with a tractor,a man notices something ahead—a mannequin—he thinks someone threw it from a car. Closerhe sees it is the body of a black woman.Medics come and turn her with pitchforks.Her gaze shoots past him to nothing. Nothingis explained. How many black womenhave been turned up to stare at us blankly,in weedy fields, off highways,pushed out in plastic bags,shot, knifed, unclothed partially, raped,their wounds sealed with a powdery crust.Last week on TV, a gruesome face, eyes bloated shut.No one will say, "She looks like she's sleeping," ropesof blue-black slashes at the mouth. Does anybodyknow this woman? Will anyone come forth? Silencelike a backwave rushes into that fieldwhere, just the week before, four other black girlshad been found. The gritty image bangs in the airjust a few seconds, but it strikes me,a black woman, there is a question being askedabout my life. How can Iprotect myself? Even if I lock my doors,walk only in the light, someone wants me dead.Am I wrong to thinkif five white women had been stripped,broken, the sirens would wail untilsomeone was named?Is it any wonder I walk over these bodiespretending they are not mine, that I do not knowthe killer, that I am just like any woman—if not wanted, at least tolerated.Part of me wants to disappear, to pullthe earth on top of me. Then there is this partthat digs me up with this penand turns my sad black face to the light.

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Toi Derricotte is the author The Undertaker’s Daughter and four previous poetry collections: The Empress of the Death House; Natural Birth; Captivity; and Tender, winner of the Paterson Poetry Prize. She is the recipient of two Pushcart Prizes and fellowships from the National Endowment for the Arts and the Guggenheim Foundation, among other honors. Derricotte is cofounder of Cave Canem, professor emerita at the University of Pittsburgh, and a former chancellor of the Academy of American Poets.

This collection features more than thirty new poems as well as selections from five of Derricotte’s previously published books of poetry.

“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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