Toi Derricotte’s “Weekend Guests from Chicago, 1945” was first published in the November 4, 2013 issue of The New Yorker and is available here for subscribers.
“Weekend Guests from Chicago, 1945,” by Toi Derricotte, explores memory, beauty, women’s physicality, and coming of age. It also is a lovely mix of elegy, admiration, and affection. Derricotte’s territory, says Poetry Foundation (here) is “racism and identity,” and this short poem mentions and suggests all manner and mix of black and white.
This is a wonderful poem. I really like thinking out loud about poems, but that isn’t everyone’s style. If not, just read the poem!
Anyway, down to brass tacks. Right off, I was knocked out by the musical perfection of “caramel Cadillac,” not to mention its whammo visual evocation.
Similarly, I liked the sound of “reign queen/in a diamond ring” — all those n’s. There’s more of this kind of echoing sound: a trumpeting of “tuh’s” that celebrate Walter, a scattering of “wuh’s” that sigh in admiration of the Pullman porter who “woke” the speaker.
As for visuals, I enjoyed suggestion of contrast in Walter’s tan jacket against his skin, that contrast also reminding me of Walter and Julia (dramatically) emerging from the caramel Cadillac. The poem shimmers color all over itself — the flour turning the chicken white, the coffee that turns you black, the “floral robes” of the women, a bit of coffee to transform the baby’s cream, the color of the cold cream against the speaker’s skin, the way the stockings transform, the color of the “café-au-lait” admirer, and the way that color suggests transformation. Of course, this is not just color for effect, it is also the way color is not a fixed thing, either physically or symbolically or socially.
(I also like the way the lait suggests lay, the way the French suggests a different world, the way the color of “lait” is echoed in the sound of “wait.”)
The music and color turn the deliberate prose of the poem into poetry; but it is the compression of time that makes the poem soar. We fly from the high style of Julia and Walter in 1945 to the lives that had made their style possible, to Julia’s affair, and then forward to 1960, when the speaker is fifteen and visits Julia in Chicago. The motion of time is echoed in the train rides, the car trips, the men going out to play golf, the bottle being stirred with cream, the “gentleman’s” hand “gently shaking my rump.”
I love the double-shifting at the poem’s end — the shock that Julia had a wart, and the second shock that she wore it with “unforgettable style.” The poem has convinced us of already of Julia’s style, so we believe in the double-shift-shock at the end, and we believe in the beauties set side by side, the blond Marilyn and the dark Julia.
What touches me is this: that we know Marilyn is unforgettable is commonplace, that Derricotte has matched Marilyn and raised the ante with making Julia also “unforgettable.”
This poem reads easily, all of its arts making the way smooth, like the track on which the train rides. While I enjoy the oceanic challenge of some complex poems (Eliot more than Stevens), I also enjoy the challenge the writer takes on when she tries to be as clear as the water in a lake. Some topics deserve that effort.
I also like the warmth of it, the feel of family, of ritual, and of coming of age being a part of continuity — the “steamy women” in the kitchen telling stories. I like the women’s physicality — that Julia “slaps the flour” on the chicken, that the porter gently shakes the fifteen year old’s girl’s backside.
Reading her makes me want to order that Kindle, so I don’t have to wait to read more. I notice in the Poetry foundation article that she has published five books of poetry and a journal. I’m interested in a poet that also is willing to write essays. I’d like to see how she does it and what she has to say.
I know there’s more to the way this poem works, but I do enjoy the way the poem has stayed in my memory in the couple of weeks since I first read it. I like it for itself, but I also like it because it suggests to me a way to be 70 (Derricotte is about 72). I like that. If you’re older, you have a yen to tell stories to leave behind. If you are an unpracticed writer, however, you can get lost in your own story. This short, clear, musical, vivid, surprising poem provides a model for putting a lid on what you write. This seems obvious, after you’ve read the poem. I like the energy I feel after I’ve read the poem. Also, I love the Munro aspect of the poem’s personality: it’s original, beautiful, and difficult at the same time.