Best Worst Year: Episode 95 (Or, Toi)

Rosary pendulums from your rearview mirror with unwavering doubt. The Virgin Mary is velcroed to your dashboard, blessed by your grandmother’s wineglass, and present at her deathbed. There is a cross bent from palm leaves, 2011. They are supposed to be burned on Good Friday, between noon and three–ashes accompanying the footsteps to Golgotha. You were never good with fully committing to the letter of ritual. This crucifix has seen two different cars, half a countryside, and several former future ex-girlfriends. You are picking up your mentor from a single-gate airport in central Illinois. You have learned to keep only what you carry and always revise yourself up to the neck of a stanza. She studies you for a moment before breaking into sunlight and jazz. She comments on the BVM statue which has held vigil over your actual miles for years. Heartland skies and grace thread a needle through years of fabric. Another stitch in the seams of stories and miles. Conversation like no time has passed at all.

interstate coils
around the valley
fog passes for ghosts

Together you uncover half a decade buried beneath farm to table greens and wild-caught salmon. Hibiscus and blood orange cast cloud cover in a teeming tea cup terrarium. Even without her red pen, her hands retain an editor’s precision. The years are reduced away, paired down from bloated prose and false endings to a muscular truth–a present understanding of life after the academy for her and life outside the coal-souled mine for you. You think about her story, The Black Notebooks, and how the word passing means something entirely different for those who have guilt baked into their skins at birth. She gave you permission to write, and you have never looked back.

the folded arms
you’ve learned to ignore

You are backstage at the Hoogland Center of the Performing Arts, listening to her reshape the dimensions of a theatre with breath. Has it been that long since she stood in the pooled light of a ballroom reciting poetry to a room of writers? There are so many poems–some take a handful of feathers from you and mistake it for flying while others would never know gravity without blood. She reminds you that we all have a gap for wings between our shoulder blades, and the weight of language is never anyone’s burden alone.

of bridges
ink settles into bone

Toi Derricotte is the author of The Undertaker’s Daughter (University of Pittsburgh Press, 2011) and four earlier collections of poetry, including Tender, winner of the 1998 Paterson Poetry Prize. Her literary memoir, The Black Notebooks (W.W. Norton), received the 1998 Anisfield-Wolf Book Award for Non-Fiction and was a New York Times Notable Book of the Year. Her honors include, among many others, the 2012 Paterson Poetry Prize for Sustained Literary Achievement, the 2012 PEN/Voelcker Award for Poetry, and the Distinguished Pioneering of the Arts Award from the United Black Artists. Derricotte is the co-founder of Cave Canem Foundation (with Cornelius Eady), Professor Emerita at the University of Pittsburgh and a Chancellor of the Academy of American Poets. About ten years ago, over coffee at The Hibernia Diner in Rockaway, New Jersey, she agreed to work with Jim Warner on his Master’s capstone at Wilkes University. She has been his mentor ever since.

Jim Warner is the former Assistant Director of Graduate Writing Programs at Wilkes University. His poetry has appeared or is forthcoming in various journals including The North American Review, New South, No Tokens, and The Minnesota Review. He is a contributing editor for Quiddity. Follow him on twitter @whoismisterjim.

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