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The Poems

(Literary Essentials: African American Literature)

Toi Derricotte’s third published poetry collection, Captivity, is divided into four sections: “Blackbottom,” “Red Angel,” “The Testimony of Sister Maureen,” and “The Terrible Bright Air.” The first section’s opening poem, “The Minks,” describes the animals her uncle raised for sale in five hundred cages in the backyard of the house she lived in on Norwood Steet as a child. Derricotte describes in painstaking detail the effects of such captivity on essentially wild animals: Sometimes, they paced compulsively; sometimes, the mothers snapped the necks of their kits; often, they hid in their wooden houses. In the fall, the minks were slaughtered for their skins, which returned to the yard pinned by their mouths to metal hangers. In front of company, Derricotte’s uncle would take out the skins and blow on them, parting the hairs to show their bright “underlife.” The poet uses this image to end the poem in a lovely simile comparing the “underlife” to people’s souls, shining and manifesting their inner life. Written in forty lines of uneven length with no stanza separations and no rhymes, the poem reads like a story, yet, because of its brevity, personification of the animals, and striking similes, it retains the condensation and impact of fine poetry.

The second poem, “Blackbottom,” is the poem for which the section is named. Black Bottom is an old African American neighborhood close to Detroit that developed during the 1920’s through the 1940’s. Although Black Bottom is usually described as a crime-and poverty-ridden area, it was also a vibrant center of racial and cultural identity, well known to Derricotte, who grew up in Detroit and graduated from Wayne State University.

The poem describes a middle-class African American family who left the area for a nice suburb, Conant Gardens, in northeast Detroit. They return to Black Bottom’s streets to immerse themselves in the sights, sounds, and smells of their old neighborhood, knowing that on Monday they will be safe at their jobs and schools back in their new, middle-class home. The old neighborhood excites them and makes them proud. They realize they have lost something, for hearing the music of the streets makes them realize:

We had lost our voice in the suburbs, in Conant Gardens,   where each brick house delineated a fence of silence,we had lost the right to sing in the streets and damn creation.

The remainder of the first section’s poems deal with Derricotte’s youth. They include poems for her mother and father, a poem about the house on Norwood Street, fires in childhood, her high school, and the concluding poem of “Blackbottom,” “The Struggle,” a meditation on her confusion about the racial aspirations of her family.

The poems in the second section, “Red Angel,” deal with a later period of Derricotte’s life. They cover adult topics such as making love, marriage, friendship, and the problems that occur in adult life. The last three poems in the section include one about Derricotte’s mother and two about her father. The poems are still composed of varied-length lines with no apparent form, except for “Squeaky Bed,” which is divided into three stanzas, and “Touching/Not Touching: My Mother,” which is divided into two sections rather than stanzas.

“The Testimony of Sister Maureen,” the third section of the book, is based on the story of a teaching nun with the Sisters of St. Joseph who was tried in court for manslaughter in the death of her newborn son in 1976. She was found not guilty. The poem, narrated in the first person, is surreal, beginning in the clerestory of the nun’s convent, where she is advised by another woman to confess the identity of her lover. In the second part of the poem, the nun describes the changes she undergoes, her skin growing black and the miracle of God burning in her bones. More formal elements shape this poem: The stanzas are divided into seven sections, the narrator uses italics...

(The entire section is 1,010 words.)