The Undertaker's Daughter
Toi Derricotte
(University of Pittsburgh Press)
Derricotte's father was an undertaker. He never did practice, though. He did practice doing a number on her using his belt. "He'd explain how he had studied hard so he knew where to hit me and not leave a single mark."

    He'd brag about it. He wanted me to appreciate the quality of his work. Like any good teacher, he wanted to pass it down.

He also practiced carrying her upstairs, by the hair, lifting her up bodily, yanking her up to the top floor. She recalled being relieved when they moved to a two-story house: "Now my father had only one flight to carry me up by my hair."

When she was not being tortured, like most children of violent parents, Toi was trying to please him. And even now, years later, she can't get him out of her mind: "You would think that the one treated so cruelly would 'kill' the abuser, throw him out of the brain forever," but

    the abuser is the one most taken in, most remembered; the imprint of those who were loving and kind is secondary.

"Sometimes, I thought that's why my father beat me. Because he was afraid he would be forgotten."

§   §   §

It's rare for us to get a book of poetry, pick it up, start at the beginning ... and find it impossible to put down. Perhaps it is because Derricotte's vignettes are so powerful. This is how she begins the story of her childhood:

    I want to go back to where the first and last wisdom forms, the secret self locked in the tentative field of protoplasm, whatever was cooled and cooked on the rock, whatever mitochondria god stuck his thumb in, back back, I am not afraid to be memoir.

She carries us back there, and then forward, a hair-raising (precisely!) journey, past childhood, past a punishing father, the always in-the-background mother, the black memories ... complete with homages to Sylvia Plath, Richard Wright, Billie Holiday ("the way she asked men to beat her up before she went on stage so that she would remember the pain.")

Derricotte survived with her skills (words and songs) intact, and here has turned verse and prose into a complex, powerful mix. The book is rich with horror but also rich with paeans to those who saved her, including several small verses dedicated to Telly.

Who? A tropical fish? Yes, a fighting 'betta," from Thailand. Chosen to be included, perhaps, because the male

    believe it or not --- blows
    bubbles for the eggs to rest in, making a clear
    quilt over the top
    just in case some nice
    female comes along.
--- A. W. Allworthy
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