from Burial Sites

- 1941-

Trauma is not what happens to us, but what
we hold inside us in the absence of an
empathetic witness.

Peter Levine, The Unspoken Voice





The first was a bassinet. I don’t remember what it was made of; I think it was one of those big white wicker baskets with wheels. When I couldn’t sleep at night, my father would drag it into the kitchen. It was winter. He’d light the gas oven. I remember the room’s stuffiness, the acrid bite of cold and fumes.

     My father didn’t like crying. He said I was doing it to get attention. He didn’t like my mother teaching me that I could cry and get attention. Nothing was wrong with me, and, even if I was hungry, it wasn’t time to eat. Sometimes, I screamed for hours, and my father—I do remember this—would push his chair up to the lip of the bassinet and smoke, as if he were keeping me company.

     After a few nights, he had broken me.  I stopped crying.  But, when he put the bottle to my lips, I didn’t want it.  I was too exhausted to drink.





Most times I liked my food. I didn’t mind eating until my daddy started making me clean my plate and either struck me off my chair if I didn’t or lifted me up by my hair and held me midair if I was slow. He wanted me to eat faster; he didn’t have all day.

     He’d hold me off the floor until I pleaded. I’d sputter in fear and humiliation—I don’t remember pain—but I had to button up before he put me down to do exactly what he had told me to do, fast.

     Slowness was a sign of insubordination. If I missed a pea or a crumb, I was trying to outwit him. I must have thought he was stupid. And if I pleaded that I hadn’t seen the pea, he’d know I was lying. “Your story is so touching till it sounds like a lie.”

     I swallowed it down; I wiped that look off my face. But still he would notice my bottom lip beginning to quiver.  This was a personal insult, as if I had taken a knife and put it to his face. If my brow wrinkled in a question—“Do you love me, daddy? How could you hurt me like this?”—this implied I was pursuing my own version of the truth, as if I were his victim.

     It was a war of wills, as he so clearly saw, and these were my attempts to subvert him, to make my will reign, to plant my flag.

     He was the ruler of my body. I had to learn that.  He had to be deep in me, deeper than instinct, like the commander of a submarine during times of war.




I hear in myself a slight opposition, a wounded presence saying, “I am me, I know who I am.” But I am left with only a narrow hole, a thin tube that the words must squeak through. Where words might have gushed out as from a struck well, now, instead, I watch it—watch every word. It wasn’t my father’s thought that I took in; it was his language. It is the language in me that must change.


More by Toi Derricotte

The Weakness

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 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.

In Knowledge of Young Boys

i knew you before you had a mother,
when you were newtlike, swimming,
a horrible brain in water.
i knew you when your connections
belonged only to yourself,
when you had no history
to hook on to,
when you had no sustenance of metal
when you had no boat to travel
when you stayed in the same
place, treading the question;
i knew you when you were all
eyes and a cocktail,
blank as the sky of a mind,
a root, neither ground nor placental;
not yet
red with the cut nor astonished
by pain, one terrible eye
open in the center of your head
to night, turning, and the stars
blinked like a cat. we swam
in the last trickle of champagne
before we knew breastmilk—we
shared the night of the closet,
the parasitic
closing on our thumbprint,
we were smudged in a yellow book.

son, we were oak without
mouth, uncut, we were
brave before memory.

Elegy for my husband

Bruce Derricotte, June 22, 1928 - June 21, 2011

What was there is no longer there:
Not the blood running its wires of flame through the whole length
Not the memories, the texts written in the language of the flat hills
No, not the memories, the porch swing and the father crying
The genteel and elegant aunt bleeding out on the highway
(Too black for the white ambulance to pick up)
Who had sent back lacquered plates from China
Who had given away her best ivory comb that one time she was angry
Not the muscles, the ones the white girls longed to touch
But must not (for your mother warned
You would be lynched in that all-white Ohio town you grew up in)
Not that same town where you were the only, the one good black boy
All that is gone
Not the muscles running, the baseball flying into your mitt
Not the hand that laid itself over my heart and saved me 
Not the eyes that held the long gold tunnel I believed in 
Not the restrained hand in love and in anger
Not the holding back
Not the taut holding