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“I”: New and Selected Poems Summary
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Toi Derricotte’s poetry collection, “I”: New and Selected Poems (2019), brings together some of Derricotte’s most popular poetry from across her career spanning more than fifty years. Nominated for the 2019 National Book Award for Poetry, the collection received widespread critical praise. Derricotte is an award-winning, bestselling novelist and poet. Her accolades include the 2012 PEN Award, the 2012 Paterson Poetry Prize for Sustained Literary Achievement, and the Lucille Medwick Memorial Award. She has served as the Chancellor of the Academy of American Poets and Professor Emerita at the University of Pittsburgh.
In “I”: New and Selected Poems, Derricotte considers her entire body of poetry as one long project. She explores how her writing evolved over the decades, considering why she handled the subject matter in the way she did. More than anything, Derricotte wants to take her readers on a journey that celebrates poetry and the written word.
Derricotte explains that poetry is a means to explore the truth. She notes that our personal truths often make other people uncomfortable, but that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t express ourselves. Derricotte believes that writing can be a spiritual experience; she loves expressing her own deepest truths through the medium of poetry. She carefully selected the poems in “I” to reflect her truths and the evolution of her poetic style.
Evolution, or change, is a critical theme in “I”. Derricotte notes that she only survived years of childhood abuse and trauma through her ability to change. Moving past her experiences, she didn’t let them define her. In poems such as “As my writing changes I think with sorrow of those who couldn’t change,” she laments the passing of great writers who didn’t live to see their writing evolve because they couldn’t shake off the past.
Derricotte explores her abuse in the poems taken from her earlier work, The Undertaker’s Daughter. She begins with “I am not afraid to be memoir,” a short poem in which she regrets no longer being an innocent child who thought her parents were perfect. In “Burial sites,” she remembers her earliest trauma. She believes that a little piece of her died each time her father hit her or verbally abused her, and these pieces of her soul are now buried in her past.
Derricotte explains that her childhood abuse caused her to despise herself. She felt that there was something wrong with her, because her father couldn’t possibly hate a good child. She made it her mission to seek out this monstrous part of herself to destroy it. Only as the years go by does she accept there is nothing wrong with her. Her father is the monster.
Childhood abuse isn’t the only obstacle Derricotte faces. As a light-skinned African American woman, she also experiences racism from both white and black communities. Examining how this racism makes her feel in an earlier collection, Tender, she includes twenty-eight poems from Tender in “I”. The collection is racially charged.
Derricotte links these racially-themed poems with a short introduction to Elmina Castle. Elmina Castle housed slaves for more than three centuries. Beginning her journey through Elmina Castle with the poem “Exits from Elmina Castle: Cape Coast, Ghana,” readers have a sense that she is not just walking with slaves from centuries ago. She is walking with the ghosts from her own past.
Just as Derricotte explores her relationship with her father in her poetry, so she writes about her mother, noting that her mother despises her poetry. She hates it because it reminds her of the childhood she truly gave Derricotte, not the one she pretends she gave her. As Derricotte points out, no one likes it when others hold up a mirror showing them who they truly are. Derricotte explores this concept in “The mirror poems.”
A significant poem in the collection is “Christmas Eve: My Mother Dressing” in which Derricotte describes the effort that her mother put into hiding who she is. She tried everything from cosmetics to new clothes to mask her real identity. Everything about her mother felt like a performance. Derricotte presents her mother as an inauthentic woman who never believed that she was good enough; she took these insecurities out on her own daughter. Derricotte cannot remember ever feeling close to her mother.
Another significant influence in Derricotte’s life is religion. Growing up in a Catholic household and attending Catholic school for years, she remembers how frightened she felt when she first thought of Hell. Worried that God would cast her aside if she told anyone about the abuse she received, she spent her entire childhood fearful and silent. Poems included from the Captivity collection consider this fear alongside other issues such as racism, sexism, and classism.