Book Review

Jeri McCormick, Marrowbone of Memory: Ireland’s Great Famine, Salmon Poetry, 2013

by Kathleen Serley

As Americans, we are drawn to our immigrant ancestry. Some of us trace our ancestors back seven or eight generations to dukes, knights and vagrants, fascinated by this connection to our past. I admit to falling under the genealogy spell, tracing my grandfather’s grandfather to a farm in Norway. According to records meticulously kept in the Norwegian farm books, I learned that this great-great grandfather had been “ a good farmer.” I am amazed by the sense of pride I felt.

Jeri McCormick in Marrowbone of Memory Ireland’s Great Famine writes of the circumstances that compelled her Irish in-laws to emigrate to America. The poems are heartfelt and worthy examples of an accomplished poet’s craft; they also comprise an interesting history of the time. Along with stories passed down within her family, McCormick draws on research for the subjects of her poems and includes a list of sources at the end of the collection.

The title poem introduces the collection:

Marrowbone of Memory

Recalled or unrecalled, memory is embedded
in the way we love, hope, believe...
it will not disappear.

—Peter Quinn

Ring-marked, like the core of a tree, we carry
inside us the truths of our lives—the pain, the joy,
the all that we’ve known—encased,

indelibly traces, into calcareous bone.
But memory’s etchings waver, veer, collide;
grow scrambled with the porousness of time.

When free at last to contemplate the past,
we tend to bypass its heartbreaks,
thought we k now they belong. We call up

instead the bright scenes, comfort-hued,
the fresher engravings of ‘now,’ setting our sights
on a future limned by fortune’s light.
But the deeper mind refuses to revise its epic,
clings with dire logic to what-has-been,
even the unwanted. And so a sorrow burrows,

clinch-digs in the dark, marrow-gnaws,
waits for the slow acceptance
that will someday dredge a naming.

At first reading, I am impressed with the number of strong verbs such as traced, waver, veer, collide, grow scrambled, clings, burrows, clinch-digs, gnaws and dredge. A poem is carried on the strength of its verbs, and McCormick has honed the verb craft to perfection.

A second reading gives me time to think about memory—our immigrant memory. Based on the epigraph attributed to Peter Quinn, the poem explores the significance of memory to our daily lives. “Ring-marked, like the core of a tree, we carry inside us the truths of our lives,” and “indelibly traced, into calcareous bone” are vivid images expressing the power of memory.

The remaining poems in the collection are divided into four sections. In the first section McCormick graphically established the conditions of hunger. Starvation: Three Stages is an example:

First comes the clamorous stage, say the experts.
The victim seeks food vigorously wherever
it might be__

The second stage slows the starver to pale passivity,
to a standing-about in reverie, to a mute
distraction like gazing all day out a window;

Finally, the body lowers its upright stance, the spine bends
inward, curving downward. ....
.........................The unfed is grave-ready.

In the second section, she includes poems that trace the conflict between Irish peasants and landed gentry. In Lament of an Irish Landlord, McCormick begins with a description of the farmer’s inability to pay the rent and builds to the tragic climax:

Recourse is lawful.
Landowners have their rights--sacred,
undoubted, indefeasible--set forth

by the House of Lords, spelled out
in the Bill of Ejectment: REMOVAL, it says.
Take down doors, burn roof thatch,
dismantle walls, lead away livestock.

Remove the offenders.
And though it assaults the very soul,
bemoans the Major, summon the militia.

To preserve an honoured tradition,
what other means can there be?
How else can we save the island’s proud estates
from the blight of insolvency?

The third section includes poems with haunting imagery of death. In Bindings, 1847, McCormick writes of a mother joining her young daughter in death:

Through tears I call up your beginnings,
tiny rider in my belly, feeding on the bond
of better times, our bodies sweetly joined

as you tipped your way toward arrival,
wee swimmer on a life cord. I carried you
into this world; I carry you out.

Bound by a braid of thatch—our final tie—
you ride my back, cold cheek at my shoulder.
We stumble graveward,
hunched and tethered once more.

In The Fever the lament comes from a wife burying her husband:

...I dug a hole
in the sod alongside the pallet, rolled my love
into it; into it, my smoldering soul.

A poem has limited time and space to make its impact. McCormick must understand this because she succeeds in “speaking volumes” with images of “We stumble graveward” and “my smoldering soul.”

In the fourth section, McCormick explores the Irish diaspora as immigrants leave for Australia and America seeking security in a new world. In You Can Look Now, the last poem in the collection, she describes the Ireland they left and the one their descendants return to visit:

the sky spreads it ragged shawl
dins the stars, smothers sleep
darkens the luck of this island
where black potatoes and white bones
haunt stories, pile up
like glacier-pushed rocks
along the banks of time.

Acknowledging that there is “Sun after rain, light after shadow,” she admonishes historians to “bring out the dark parts, the bright, tell us the story now; tell us the whole of it.”

Historical accounts are important, but it is the images we remember. In Marrowbone of Memory Jeri McCormick gives us those images in abundance, deepening our understanding of the Irish emigration and impressing us with the significance of memories in our lives.

A lifelong resident of Wisconsin, Kathleen Serley enjoys all of our seasons: spring gardening, summer beach combing, fall hiking and winter snow shoeing. She teaches English.