Toi Derricotte’s candor has been compared with the simple clarity of Emily Dickinson and honest communication of Walt Whitman—but only by those unfamiliar with African American poetry. Derricotte’s blunt eloquence is typical of poets in the period from the mid-1960’s to the mid-1970’s, known as the Black Arts movement, which some scholars have considered to be the counterpart of the Black Power movement. Derricotte’s style and themes are more similar to those of Nikki Giovanni or Mari Evans than to those of nineteenth century white Americans.
Derricotte is unique in her confessional treatment of racial identity. “My skin causes certain problems continuously, problems that open the issue of racism over and over like a wound,” she once wrote. That statement hangs over her photograph on the African American Literature Book Club Web site as tribute to the talent she displays in the ability to turn poignant racial episodes into instruments that sometimes strike readers’ consciences with jackhammer force and, at others, soothe their souls.
“I’m not an Emily Dickinson scholar, but I have loved her for many, many years, for many reasons,” she wrote in Titanic Operas: A Poet’s Corner of Responses to Dickinson’s Legacy (edited by Martha Nell Smith and Laura Elyn Lauth): “One of the reasons is because of her great courage to look at things—the most terrifying, the most beautiful—without flinching.”
“Her poems begin in ordinary experiences,” Jon Woodson writes of Derricotte in Contemporary Women Poets, “but she dissects the routine definitions supplied by society as a way towards making discoveries about what unsuspected resources the self actually contains.” That aptly describes what a reader will find in any of the author’s poems.
The prizewinning writer treats womanhood and race as media through which she bares her torments and forces readers to look more closely than ever before at often evaded aspects of the human experience. She writes about being an African American woman in the late twentieth century, but the work is likely to resonate with readers in any culture and time who understand that life holds more questions than answers.
The Empress of the Death House
Derricotte’s early works focused on death and birth. The theme is heavy in her first book, The Empress of the Death House, where “The Grandmother Poems” discuss her childhood experiences in her grandparents’ Detroit funeral home. Her mother’s stepfather owned the business. Although her grandmother was sickly, she used two thousand dollars of her own money to send Derricotte’s father to mortuary school, so that he might join a more stable line of work.
The Empress of the Death House grapples with the plight of women who survive abuse in an effort to sort out her feelings about her grandmother and mother. The understanding was a step on the path to self-awareness and helped her to understand her personal reactions to motherhood. In American Book Review, reviewer Joe Weixlmann, who wrote about Natural Birth, said The Empress of the Death...
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