Suck on the Marrow’s subject, the lives of U.S. slaves between 1831-1850, is potentially fraught with poisonous emotion. Yet Camille Dungy approaches it with lyric, narrative poetry that channels the unwritten, unspoken, unexpressed daily lives– not of ciphers, caricatures, shorthand archetypes, or sentimental portraits– but of real women and men. The language is deeply her own, and at the same time collective on an experiential level:
she marked the failing of a sick buck when it died
then stowed her traveling dress beneath the carcass
in three days she’d made a stench skirt
to slow the hounds.
Dungy disappears into the work, allowing the imagined past to speak, not in justification or condemnation, but lived as present time. Dungy’s art comes from not imposing an interpretation, but trusting that the reader comes laden already, so the past needs no intercessor, only a clear voice. Her language is direct, beautiful, internal in the way unselfconscious thoughts are, and as poet she never allows herself the conceit of “speaking for.”
Suck on the Marrow is ambitious, complex, unflinching, and ultimately welcoming, so that the ugliness, the pain and suffering that can’t be avoided in this history can actually be experienced fully by a reader who is not being called to war, but as witness to human experience.
Suck on the Marrow
by Camille Dungy
(88 pages/Red Hen Press 2010)