Archive for January, 2012

Now We Are Six by Bloomsbury AuctionsMy mother used to have us children memorize poems in the summers.  I don’t remember if we got a reward or not (learning to dive merited a candy bar, so I suspect the same for poem-memorization), but we didn’t resist.

The easiest poems to memorize were A.A. Milne’s from the wonderful When We Were Very Young and Now We Are Six.  Funny and sing-songy, his poems practically demanded memorization, like this, from “Disobedience”:




James James

Morrison Morrison

Weatherby George Dupree

Took great

Care of his Mother

Though he was only three.

James James

Said to his Mother,

“Mother,” he said, said he;

“You must never go down to the end of the town, if

you don’t go down with me.”



Child's Garden of Verses (Russel) cover by katinthecupboardFustier and less fun were Robert Louis Stevenson’s poems from Child’s Garden of Verses, but for some reason I still remember the first two lines of one of the poems.  And I never even understood it.  Maybe I just liked the imperative.


Fairy Bread

COME up here, O dusty feet!

Here is fairy bread to eat.

Here in my retiring room,

Children, you may dine

On the golden smell of broom

And the shade of pine;

And when you have eaten well,

Fairy stories hear and tell.


This is all by way of introducing the most adorable youtube video I have ever seen.  Here is a little boy—a three-year old little boy!—-reciting Billy Collin’s “Litany.”  What marvelous parents, to feed their son’s delight in the sounds and flow of language.


If you want to follow along the lengthy poem he’s memorized, click on the “add to” button.


Go ahead and listen—it could be the happiest 2 minutes of your day.  Here’s the link:




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poem is on marble pillar, left


The Weakness

By Toi Derricotte

That time my grandmother dragged me

through the perfume aisles at Saks, she held me up

by my arm, hissing, “Stand up,”

through clenched teeth, her eyes

bright as a dog’s

cornered in the light.

She said it over and over,

as if she were Jesus,

and I were dead. She had been

solid as a tree,

a fur around her neck, a

light-skinned matron whose car was parked, who walked on swirling

marble and passed through

brass openings—in 1945.

There was not even a black

elevator operator at Saks.

The saleswoman had brought velvet

leggings to lace me in, and cooed,

as if in the service of all grandmothers.

My grandmother had smiled, but not

hungrily, not like my mother

who hated them, but wanted to please,

and they had smiled back, as if

they were wearing wooden collars.

When my legs gave out, my grandmother

dragged me up and held me like God

holds saints by the

roots of the hair. I begged her

to believe I couldn’t help it. Stumbling,

her face white

with sweat, she pushed me through the crowd, rushing

away from those eyes

that saw through

her clothes, under

her skin, all the way down

to the transparent

genes confessing.



Scenes of impersonation are staples of both romantic comedies and action, thriller and suspense movies.  From Harry Potter to Mrs. Doubtfire, characters disguise themselves to get what they want, be it information, safety or love.  The danger of being unmasked keeps the scene racing forward and keeps me under a blanket.  I can hardly stand to watch as I wait for the inevitable slip in diction or hairpiece, the bosom to drop askew, the polyjuice potion to wear off.


Surely I’m not the only one who found Ron Paul’s glue malfunction more painful than amusing.  Maybe such scenes recall the angst of teenage years, years most of us spent at least some time pretending to be someone else, someone cooler, someone who knew where to find the top 40 radio stations because she really didn’t spend all her time listening to show tunes.  Years later, the shame and humiliation of being exposed aren’t buried very deep.


For instance, I walk through an expensive store like Saks (which I did when I left “The Weakness” the week before Christmas), and suddenly I’m a frousy mouse trying to act like a woman who buys $300 blouses.  You don’t belong here, I wait for the salesclerk to sneer. Poser.

Saks Fifth Avenue Detroit MI by Patricksmercy

The old Saks in Detroit, now gone


But that squishy discomfort was the worst that would happen to me, a decently dressed white woman in a predominantly white mall.   In this autobiographical poem, masquerading is far more dangerous and damaging.  Derricotte grew up in a middle-class black neighborhood in a segregated and racially tense Detroit.  Just two years before the incident in the poem, a race riot on Belle Isle left 34 dead, 25 of them black.  President Roosevelt had to call in 6,000 federal troops to end the violence.  So it was no small act of courage for Derricotte’s grandmother to walk into Saks like she owned it.


As a light-skinned black, Derricotte could “pass”  (a term we put in quotes because of its toxic suggestion that looking white is succeeding), and her grandmother demands she play along with the impersonation.  But the girl is terrified. Her grandmother’s act has turned everything topsy-turvy.  An old black woman becomes royalty in her fur collar and is deferred to by white salesclerks.  The white salesclerks, with their tortuous wooden collars, become slave-like, kneeling before young Derricotte as they lace up her velvet leggings.  One slip from the little girl and the jig is up.


The weakness in little Derricotte’s legs sets the scene in motion. But hers is not the only weakness in “The Weakness.”  The grandmother, who seemed strong as a tree trunk, is degraded and weakened by the poem’s end.  The last few lines are riveting:


her face white

with sweat, she pushed me through the crowd, rushing

away from those eyes  

that saw through  

her clothes, under

her skin, all the way down  

to the transparent  

genes confessing.


She had begun her walk through Saks like a deity.  All the religious imagery in the poem, familiar to the Catholic-schooled Derricotte, is associated with the grandmother.  She walks not on water but on swirling marble, something of a miracle in that time and place.   She speaks with the authority of Jesus and the anger of a punishing Almighty Father.  But in the end she’s a different figure altogether:  Christ at Golgotha, stumbling, de-frocked, exposed, humiliated by the crowd.


Just as Derricotte’s light skin gave her a passport to enter an unfamiliar white world, so the poem becomes a passport for a white person like me to enter an unfamiliar black one.  I worried over writing about this poem, writing about race, writing about black experience.  Once again, I felt like an imposter, stepping cautiously into alien territory.  But really, I don’t need to say anything profound.  The poem is so powerful I just need to open the door to it and stay out of the way

Professor Toi Derricotte Campus Spotlight by HerCampus Pitt


Toi Derricotte was born in Detroit in 1941.   As a young girl she spent a lot of time at the home of her paternal grandparents who ran a funeral parlor in their basement.  Interesting that another Detroit poet, Thomas Lynch, also has an imagination shaped by the funeral industry.


She’s a writer who gives hope to late-bloomers.  She began writing early at age ten, in secret, and finally at fifteen had the nerve to show her poems to an older cousin. He shut her down, told her that her poems were sick.  She didn’t show her work to anyone again till she was 27 and didn’t publish till she was 43.


Now she’s a widely-admired poet and teacher who has won, among other awards, two Pushcart prizes, a Guggenheim fellowship and two fellowships from the NEA.  She teaches English at the University of Pittsburgh and is the co-founder of Cave Canem, a writing retreat for black poets.


Her latest book, “The Undertaker’s Daughter” was published in 2011.

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A few days after Christmas, a dear friend from high school passed away after a 15-year battle with breast cancer.  When I first met Christine freshman year, she was the prettiest girl I’d ever met and certainly the friendliest.  Anyone sizing up the two of us—she blond and bubbly, me silent and awkward—would not have marked us as friends. The fact that we were was to Christine’s credit, not mine. Hers was an open heart, an unusual quality for one so fair of face.


She never lost her friendly nature or her beauty, not through many years of chemotherapy, radiation, and personal tragedies.  Year after year on our annual high school girls’ weekend, my friends and I marveled at how great she looked and how she still kept generating fun.


Of course at the very end, cancer took its usual toll. As terrible as it was to see Christine’s brittle bones protrude from under her skin, it was worse to understand how much she was suffering and had been suffering for so long without complaining.


The second morning after she died, I woke up with a line of poetry in my head.  The lines are from a poem by Roethke, a poem I had read in passing a long way back and hadn’t thought of since.  And yet there it was, presented to me like a breakfast tray an unseen hand had set on my lap.  This is the thought I woke up with:


I knew a woman, lovely in her bones


That was Christine, lovely in her bones.  I hold onto that line when I think of her.  Loveliness in her bones, not cancer.  The poem gives back what cancer took away.  (You can read the entire poem here.)


R.I.P. Barb

Another poem has been floating around in my head since she died.  In this case, I knew the poem but not the particular lines.  I had to look it up.  The poem is “In View of the Fact” by A.R. Ammons.  Last January I had posted the last few stanzas in tribute to my friend Barb who died almost exactly a year before Christine.


I’m glad to have it in front of me again.  Even though the poem is written for an age group years ahead of mine, his words offer needed solace.


It may be long but it’s breezy.  If you can’t be bothered to read the whole thing, skim down to the last three stanzas.


In View of the Fact

by A. R. Ammons


The people of my time are passing away: my

wife is baking for a funeral, a 60-year-old who


died suddenly, when the phone rings, and it’s

Ruth we care so much about in intensive care:


it was once weddings that came so thick and

fast, and then, first babies, such a hullabaloo:


now, it’s this that and the other and somebody

else gone or on the brink: well, we never


thought we would live forever (although we did)

and now it looks like we won’t: some of us


are losing a leg to diabetes, some don’t know

what they went downstairs for, some know that


a hired watchful person is around, some like

to touch the cane tip into something steady,


so nice: we have already lost so many,

brushed the loss of ourselves ourselves: our


address books for so long a slow scramble now

are palimpsests, scribbles and scratches: our


index cards for Christmases, birthdays,

Halloweens drop clean away into sympathies:


at the same time we are getting used to so

many leaving, we are hanging on with a grip


to the ones left: we are not giving up on the

congestive heart failure or brain tumors, on


the nice old men left in empty houses or on

the widows who decide to travel a lot: we


think the sun may shine someday when we’ll

drink wine together and think of what used to


be: until we die we will remember every

single thing, recall every word, love every


loss: then we will, as we must, leave it to

others to love, love that can grow brighter


and deeper till the very end, gaining strength

and getting more precious all the way. . . .




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