A Note on My Son’s Face

By Toi Derricotte b. 1941 Toi Derricotte
Tonight, I look, thunderstruck
at the gold head of my grandchild.   
Almost asleep, he buries his feet   
between my thighs;
his little straw eyes
close in the near dark.
I smell the warmth of his raw   
slightly foul breath, the new death   
waiting to rot inside him.
Our breaths equalize our heartbeats;   
every muscle of the chest uncoils,   
the arm bones loosen in the nest   
of nerves. I think of the peace   
of walking through the house,
pointing to the name of this, the name of that,
an educator of a new man.

Mother. Grandmother. Wise
Snake-woman who will show the way;   
Spider-woman whose black tentacles
hold him precious. Or will tear off his head,   
her teeth over the little husband,
the small fist clotted in trust at her breast.

This morning, looking at the face of his father,
I remembered how, an infant, his face was too dark,   
nose too broad, mouth too wide.
I did not look in that mirror
and see the face that could save me
from my own darkness.
Did he, looking in my eye, see
what I turned from:
my own dark grandmother
bending over gladioli in the field,
her shaking black hand defenseless   
at the shining cock of flower?

I wanted that face to die,
to be reborn in the face of a white child.

I wanted the soul to stay the same,   
for I loved to death,
to damnation and God-death,   
the soul that broke out of me.
I crowed: My Son! My Beautiful!   
But when I peeked in the basket,   
I saw the face of a black man.

Did I bend over his nose
and straighten it with my fingers   
like a vine growing the wrong way?   
Did he feel my hand in malice?

Generations we prayed and fucked   
for this light child,
the shining god of the second coming;   
we bow down in shame
and carry the children of the past   
in our wallets, begging forgiveness.

A picture in a book,
a lynching.
The bland faces of men who watch   
a Christ go up in flames, smiling,   
as if he were a hooked
fish, a felled antelope, some
wild thing tied to boards and burned.   
His charring body
gives off light—a halo
burns out of him.
His face scorched featureless;
the hair matted to the scalp
like feathers.
One man stands with his hand on his hip,   
another with his arm
slung over the shoulder of a friend,   
as if this moment were large enough   
to hold affection.

How can we wake
from a dream
we are born into,
that shines around us,   
the terrible bright air?

Having awakened,
having seen our own bloody hands,   
how can we ask forgiveness,
bring before our children the real   
monster of their nightmares?

The worst is true.
Everything you did not want to know.

Toi Derricotte, “A Note on My Son’s Face” from Captivity. Copyright © 1989 by Toi Derricotte. All rights are controlled by the University of Pittsburgh Press, Pittsburgh, PA 15260, www.upress.pitt.edu. Used by permission of University of Pittsburgh Press.

Source: Captivity (1989)

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Poet Toi Derricotte b. 1941

Subjects Family & Ancestors, Birth & Birthdays, Social Commentaries, Parenthood, Living, Relationships

Poetic Terms Free Verse

 Toi  Derricotte


Toi Derricotte is an award-winning poet whose writings, though frequently autobiographical, treat universal subjects such as racism and identity in ways that are moving, painful, and illuminating. Her style is credited with an evocative simplicity reminiscent of Emily Dickinson, though it also contains the kind of expansive colloquial expression attributed to Walt Whitman. Derricotte is also known for treating sexual topics with . . .

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SUBJECT Family & Ancestors, Birth & Birthdays, Social Commentaries, Parenthood, Living, Relationships

Poetic Terms Free Verse

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Originally appeared in Poetry magazine.

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