TOI DERRICOTTE and Tender
I have been afraid to check out Toi Derricotte's Tender. I was going to add for some reason, but I know why.
I love Toi Derricotte.
She is the co-founder of Cave Canem, Home for Black Poetry, with Cornelius Eady (which is reason enough to love her), but she is also a writer who scares me.
To say that she writes about shame is to say too little.
(Why do I feel the need to write such short paragraphs?)
Knowing her the way I do (which is to say, not well, but well enough), I knew that a book with a name like Tender was going to be extremely raw. I knew that everything I have read by Derricotte gets at a kind of tenderness, a vulnerability that breaks me down. Like, for example, this article. (In fact, she doesn't even have to be writing. She could just be looking at me with those serious, forgiving eyes and I could have to start crying.) What kind of thing could she have tackled in this book that would cause her to name it such a thing?
Even though I was afraid to go back into the places in my mind Toi Derricotte takes me, there is something addictive about it. Like the way you want to rub a bruise. You know it's going to hurt, but you want to do it anyway. Why? Maybe it's a way of knowing the bruise is there. Maybe it's a way of knowing you're alive. Maybe it's just something you can't help and it has no reason.
Well, but this last one doesn't quite work with my thinking on Derricotte's work. Although I don't always know what force is driving me back to her work, I do always see reason in it. I do understand her work as an undoing of silences, a breaking of oppressive codes. I am conscious of needing to witness that, both for me (I need to see how to break these codes) and for her (I need to be witness to her act).
Because, after all, like I already said, I love her.
She gets inside the thing you can't talk about. Then she gets inside the inability to talk about it. And in going all the way through a thing like that, she comes out with something of an edge. I, too, feel tougher for having come through the other side of her work.
That said, I picked up Tender today. I couldn't wait to get inside. From the driver's seat in my car, I opened it up to the middle of the book and then had to go all the way to the front and all the way to the back. In other words, I read the whole thing in one sitting, in the front seat of my car, still strapped into place by my seatbelt. And that was a good thing.
What a ride she took me on. At intervals I screamed or cried or laughed a belly laugh. I'm glad I was alone in my car. And strapped in. Able to go ahead and feel everything.
What shocked me about Tender is the range of subjects from experiences shared with many, many people to experiences shared with just a few people (ie: family life) to experiences shared with no one else.
Check out the relationship between this, from "The Tour":
. . . Where our mothers were held, we walk now
as tourists, looking for cokes, film, the bathroom.
A few steps beyond the brutalization, we
stand in the sun . . .
and this, from "When My Father Was Beating Me":
. . . Sometimes I saw the world from her perspective: she was beautiful and pitiful and overwhelmed, she was also some blood-sucking witch--not a whole being--able to stretch and contort herself like a cry, something that hated and was flexible . . .
and this, from "The Body Awakening":
A few weeks ago, at a writer's conference,
my whole body hurt with feelings,
the clitoris throbbed,
I was extruded out of myself,
but when I left that place, came back to my "safe" husband--
the man who loves me and will stay with me
no matter what--I began to feel sheltered,
separated from the most powerful feelings,
and the clitoris too drew back . . .
I wasn't ready for that. All the shifting i was going to have to do. But I am so, so, so, so glad i read it.
Mendi Lewis Obadike
PS. Check some of her stuff out here:
another Post Script, this one from October 10:
this post script went out with the sweat-news issue on Toi Derricotte and Tender today. Thought I would post it here, as well.
PS. Since posting this, I realized I haven't spoken to my concerns about women's art and black art and black women's art in relation to this writing. There is something appealing to me about the crevices of the psyche that Toi Derricotte explores. (Other writers do this, too, but perhaps none so much as Derricotte.)
Part of my desire to write about it here was to consider the bigness of writing on some small things. Small, because they are about intimacy, or because they are about what goes on inside the head, even if they are also about big H History as well.
I don't know how to separate this from what Cornelius Eady is doing in _Brutal Imagination_. Maybe I can't. Maybe the separation is artificial. Maybe the difference I'm reading is not in the work, but rather, in their reception. I'm not really talking about how their work gets awarded. Maybe it receives a different kind of attention, but what I'm thinking about is the way in which we, a community of their readers differently respond.
I'm thinking of a reading I attended this summer at which Toi Derricotte, Cornelius Eady, and Sonia Sanchez read. All of them dealt with powerful, sometimes painful, ideas. But it was hardest to congratulate Toi Derricotte afterwards. Everytime I have heard her read, I have found it difficult to say a cheery "Congratulations!" in response. Or even a "Good job!" And it's not because I don't think she pulled it off or because I wasn't moved. It's because I don't know how to say "Thankyou for showing me that bruise in myself and in yourself." It was hard enough to read/listen to. I don't want to then talk about it again.
I mean, I do. But it's like how when you see a nun or a priest or a priestess, someone dressed up in her/his religious gear, you want to run away. Not always because you don't believe what they believe, but maybe because you're not ready to think about faith and spiritual matters right that moment. Not that you think they are going to make you talk about these things, but just looking at them makes you think them. That's how I feel sometimes, talking to Toi
I don't know why I could say to Cornelius Eady, after his reading, "I could listen to you read those poems over and over again." Maybe it's because I'm not forced to think about the way the imaginary black man Susan Smith created *is* the life he is sometimes made to live in. (You know, in that *that* is what is mapped onto his body when he appears in some public spaces. ) But why wouldn't I think of that? As painful as it is to hear the poems and think of that. Why don't I think, when I see him afterwards, he is going to make me think of these horrible things he has just made me think about? Is this about him being a man and Derricotte being a woman? I don't know. Maybe it's about the work.
I have to come back to these questions. Stay tuned.