Suck on the Marrow
by Camille Dungy
Red Hen Press, $18.95, 88 pp.
Following six main characters in the early to mid 1800’s, Camille Dungy’s Suck on the Marrowconstructs slave narratives whose poems are widely varied, vivid, and formally accessible. Note that accessible does not mean easy; there is nothing easy about this collection, though many of the poems are beautiful in the mouth and on the page. Rather, the forms these poems take serve to clarify the characters’ experiences as highly nuanced and dynamic. They are flesh and blood, telling stories we may not have considered since reading Frederick Douglass—if we considered the flesh-and-blood man even then. In contrast to such moving texts of time-tested rhetoric and witness, Suck on the Marrow whittles language and experience down to, well, the bone. And we feel it in ours; reading these poems, we are implicated in the events both as actors and silent witnesses, as the poem’s four sections cycle us through the horrible restrictions of slavery and prostitution, as well as the restrictions of love and knowledge.
The first section follows Joseph Freeman, a free black just trapped in Philadelphia and sold in Virginia to Doctor Jackson to work his farm. In “You are not the one Melinda sings her underbreath song to please,” the speaker functions as Joseph’s free self, reminding his newly-enslaved self that he is “not the one whose back heat/ and resting weight that pew’s wood will curve and cup itself to welcome,” just as he is not the man who once listened to his wife speak of a cameo,
her lips, a closed purse when she pronounced the m, opened for you
on the e, wider on the o—strung on velvet. You wrapped a band
around her neck, kisses, ending where the cameo would fall,
at the hollow, that perfect frame.
Dungy’s beautiful language and the speaker’s firm tone are heartbreaking for us as readers, who are locked, with Joseph, in their lovely trance, knowing nothing of what lies ahead.
Such suspension of knowledge, or action, becomes more violent as this book progresses. “Conditions of the Sale” tells us what a young woman, Dinah, remembers of the death of her mother, whom Jackson had taken as his lover:
…The cooper never built a barrel
so brutal as the one that Lena died in, nails jutting toward the core to test her corporeality.
What crime had Jackson attributed to her mother that day he gathered all the hands
to witness the breathing, beating-hearted Lena packed into the studded barrel
and rolled an acre down a hill? Dinah didn’t know. But she did know
less than a week later Jackson started seeing Lena walking all around
the property. Miss Amy saw her too. She understood the haunting was Lena
finally finding a body to possess. While Dinah served the table, her skin looking delicious
as morning cream, or while she was bent to sweep the floor in Jackson’s room, Lena was busy
crowding the father’s features out of the daughter’s face.
The form here makes us complicit in Jackson’s act: the long, grisly lines are measured, spaced out, giving us time to consider what’s happening, time to act (as if any of us—readers or watchers—could), time to feel the horror of the situation, and its repercussions.
There are moments of reprieve from such horrors; many of the poems here deal with much less terrifying moments of witness and containment, such as “The Truly Inhumane Act, or Kindness” which explores how a young woman on the farm feels with her new lover:
And even now, barely a sleepthought
away from how Shad called her name to sound like settling down
in her was his left foot following his right foot into the craft
that would harbor him, Molly understands it is only his body
he needed to save and saving it, for her, had nothing to do with grace.
There will be nothing but hurt for days unless she reaches over
and, to the knots beside his spine, applies the plushpress of her thumbs
and soothing him that way grants some relief.
Though captivating, Molly’s moment of recognition is so syntactically complex that we must actively engage to understand what Molly understands. And even then, we’re unclear on who will be hurt—is the hurt Shad’s aching body from his day’s work? Might Shad slip as he metaphorically steps into the boat if Molly doesn’t reach out? Or is the hurt how Molly would feel if she did not now touch this man whose needs she’s seen so clearly? Then there’s the title—what is inhumane about the kindness between them? That juxtaposition casts Molly and Shad’s relationship in an ultimately destructive light, one we work to reconcile with the poem’s quiet, lovely imagery. These poems are troubling not because of what they describe, but because they don’t tell us how to read them or their characters. And the disjoint attracts us; the disjoint makes these narratives real.
The need to reconcile finds more formal expression in poems like “Code,” which incorporates text advertising the sale of a servant:
Miss Amy wants me down to the market and see if I can’t find fish for sale. Two
bushels to be delivered, but the driver’s sick today. Miss hates to waste house servants
on errands, but we’ll need the fish come dinner.
While the speaker neutralizes the text by incorporating it into her own mundane words, she also betrays how integral such texts are in her experience and language. This dynamic hybridity again calls for us to actively construct while helplessly witnessing the speaker’s position.
Such wrenching tension between reader and text argues that witnessing can be an act of support as well as guilty complicity. Suck on the Marrow insists we remember that real humans surround us, that the language of bigotry is the same language we might use to describe an errand. Such a reminder is vital sustenance in today’s increasingly polarized world, and Camille Dungy beckons us to this realization with beautiful, clear, bone-breaking writing.