Unburying the Bird: An Introduction to Toi Derricotte

Honored here among “older women,” Toi is my absolutely young friend—in her prime, energetic, a leader. But, yes, she has become one of the “elders.” She has survived, she has earned wisdom, and she has shown the courage that art sometimes visits upon even its most detached practitioners (John Updike, on Orhan Pamuk.) However, Toi has never been “detached.”

Montclair, NJ, in 1972: “You have to meet Tony’s mother,” my daughter insisted, rushing home from sixth grade, describing Toi’s beauty. And Tony’s mother was also a poet, amazing! Our families wove together, and we shared years of excitement and solace.

When my daughter was in high school, she performed a dance to “Unburying the Bird,” (from Toi’s first book, The Empress of the Death House, 1978.) I still consider it a totem poem: buried birds/ are usually/ dead . . . but sometimes/ one has been known/ to go underground . . . At the end of the poem, which is full of motion and light, . . . you free her/ . . . you breathe on her/ one day/ you open up your hand,/ & show her sky.

I believe that Toi has done that for me, probably for many others, surely for herself.

Toi is lovingly attentive—she asks wonderful questions, often hard ones; and she listens wholly. She deals with difficulty, but she embodies delight. And she is always ready to laugh.

Nobody is more honest. She speaks up and her poems speak out. The poems confront us, as she confronts herself, and they make demands on the language. They re-invent poetry as an art of saying what needs to be said and what cannot be said.Everything you did not want to know (“A Note on My Son’s Face,” 1989.)

Her poems are always surprising. “Her lines dive for metaphors like herring gulls,” I noted thirty years ago. What wild imagery. Her style was generated from passionate need and fear. As she says: Poems do that sometimes—take/ the craziness and salvage some/ small clear part of the soul,/ and that is why, though frightened,/ I don’t stop the spirit . . . (from “After a Reading at a Black College,” 1989.)

We were both writing out of private agony and endangered love. From the time we met in a corner of my family room, we were in a conversation that has never stopped. We were no longer just atypical PTA ladies, isolated in a suburb; we recognized each other, sharing poems, inventing lessons, worrying, laughing.

Our friendship drew us to writers all over New Jersey. We were inspired. And while the poems were in front of us, our work on racial awareness was underneath. A Jewish activist in the civil rights movement and a black woman facing those bitter issues on a private level.

Toi was always designing new genres—mixing poetry and prose, and breath lines and lyrics—and using anaphoric repetitions, as in nursery rhymes or ancient songs. Sometimes her poems chant and sometimes they talk. But what talk! Over tables in coffee shops, against resistance from the past, in ghostly dialogues, and from way inside. She is talking to her (now grown) baby, to her (dead) father, to her “Dead Baby” self, to black folks, to white friends, to me, to her lonely self, to her beloved.

Black people have historically been treated as invisible in our culture. Toi felt it uniquely as a light-skinned black woman who looks white; also, having been an abused child, she was invisible even from the notice of close family members. Toi’s sense of invisibility has been crucial to her breaking into vivid poetry— to realize herself, and to uncover the world.

By the mid-seventies, Toi was already daring to question propriety, taboos, and social norms, and to confront racist behavior in “integrated” Montclair, our “model” town. Meanwhile, her work was revealing a rush of emotions, stripping her voice, simplifying punctuation. In those days of new forms, image leaps, breath lines, Toi was in the vanguard. She was a wonderful mentor.

During the first wave of the feminist movement, we were awakening ourselves. I didn’t know other women who shared so intimately; it seemed that we were the only ones chatting about orgasm, the clitoris, what men did (or didn’t do); smells, surgeries, scars, eccentric affairs, lesbian sex, our kids’ troubles. We rejoiced when we were able to write in anger—at our mothers or our men, at racism or domestic cruelty. We heard important women writers’ voices, and we talked and talked, admitting mistakes—our bad marriages, bad lines, dangerous affairs, jealous words, gaining weight, stupid jokes, the whole jumble. We wrote poems for each other to celebrate friendship and to work on difficulties.

We mourned together, too. We learned not to be ashamed of weeping, or accusing, or confessing. Rigorous personal relationships: rigorous poetry. Life and art. And when my life was so painful I couldn’t write, Toi said, “Ride with the pain. It will be part of you. You’ll remember, then later you will write . . .” She was telling the truth, and I’ve quoted those lines back to her.

Toi’s poems went into ever more “dangerous” subject areas: “The Testimony of Sister Maureen” (1989) presents the (imagined) words of a nun who killed her baby. The poems to her father were innovative and shocking. And soon she was to writeNatural Birth, the breathtaking narrative about her dramatic decisions and birthing.

In “Blackbottom” (1989) she woefully observes the black social class system: An expensive car tours through the lower class neighborhood, and the riders see the local people whose very existence/ tore us down to the human. Self-criticism (in the plural “we”or the singular “I”) insists on bitter truth. And that’s how she was in daily life.

I was close with her during the years of those awakenings, and the need to tell, and the bold poems. That openness is what she urges (and allows) in others—students, protegés, poets whose work she takes seriously: tell it, be brave, expose everything; see what happens. I used to say to Toi that she was growing an Ancestor inside her. Perhaps I could hear the voice! We believed it—whenever we felt magic enough.

Even since Toi moved away to Washington DC, our connection has been steady. She deciphers the verbose tangle of my messages. She even salvaged a “found” poem from my scribbles in the margin of a letter I wrote when I was grieving. I had been thinking of Toi’s notions about heaven; she made me understand that I too could be “praying.”

Toi’s ancestral voice is more audible now. Her poems have spoken for some of the living old women, as well as the ancient mythic figures. She sought her lineage in the small Louisiana town where her great aunts and grandmother had lived; in her mother’s stories; in the memory of her henna-haired Webster grandmother, the “empress of the death house”; in wise cousins and poet friends a short generation ahead of her; and in today’s powerful women.

We see each other rarely. But when she e-mails me to say that she has carved out a few weeks for her own work, I picture the young woman I used to find curled in her white wicker armchair, draped in her shawl, with her books and papers all around, and the still woods outside; or, as in recent years, in my little guest room, wrapped in a quilt, looking sober, writing in her journal, meditating or reading. She lives inwardly; perhaps more so now that she has a significant leadership role. She has that depth of purpose.

Toi has grown into the wisdom and certainty, the beauty that was always there. She has caught up with the power of the ancient Mother-Spirit she has been harboring all these years. She has become that powerful figure described, prophetically, in the final poem in Captivity: Mother. Grandmother. Wise/ Snake-woman who will show the way . . .


Madeline Tiger's eighth collection of poetry is Birds of Sorrow and Joy: New and Selected Poems, 1970-2000 (Marsh Hawk Press, 2003). She is a teaching artist for the state of New Jersey and for the Geraldine R. Dodge Foundation. Recent poems appear in Edison Review, Rhino, and Tiferet. She lives in Bloomfield, NJ, under a weeping cherry tree.

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