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Toi Derricotte’s Open Confession

[By Jerry W. Ward]

Open
confession — public broadcasting of once private spiritual desire and/or
agony   — may be good for the
soul.  As far as contemporary American
poetry goes, whether open confession is a many splendid thing or a depressing
invitation to tour another person’s dread and suffering is debatable.

The
poetic mode identified as confessional is as ancient as the Epic of Gilgamesh
and as modern as Toi Derricotte’s The
Undertaker’s Daughter
(Pittsburgh: University of Pittsburgh Press,
2011).  In African American poetic
tradition, poets as diverse and different as Gwendolyn Brooks, Lenard D. Moore,
Wanda Coleman, Pinkie Gordon Lane, Kalamu ya Salaam, and Robert Hayden have
confessed.  What does it profit you to
add the burden of another’s psychological/metaphysical dread to your own?  Is the dread imaginary or real?  Is the confession a hook to catch the reader,
to bait her or him?  What is the profit
in peeping through the keyhole of language at the intimate violence behind the door,
the eternal agon resurrected by memory?

These
questions worry your reading of The
Undertaker’s Daughter
.  Derricotte
invites you to compare her performance with that of Sylvia Plath’s famous book
of confessional poems Ariel (1965),
especially the poem “Daddy.”  She bids
you to recall Richard Wright’s “lifelong mental suffering, and how those
experiences fueled his writing” (88). 
Derricotte’s prose and poems in her most recent book are provocative.
The
blurbs or authenticating testimony provided by Yusef Komunyakaa, Natasha
Trethewey, and Terrance Hayes speak of “a chiaroscuro of hue and emotion,” of
exploring “the nature of inheritance – its legacies of language and cruelty and
sorrow,” and of “acuity and grace.”  As
supporting agents for Derricotte’s open confession, the blurbs remind you of a
grave matter.
Social
networking has minimized the nobility of privacy.  The
Undertaker’s Daughter
reminds you that privacy will be a luxury for the
powerful and wealthy in a future.  It is
fitting to allow Shakespeare’s Iago to have the final words:  “I say put money in thy purse.” (Othello I.iii)