call it blood memory for I am the only
one left to identify by name the ancestors
So begins the first poem, "The Family Album," in Colleen McElroy's new collection, and hence the book's title. Dedicated to her mother, Ruth Celeste Johnson, who died in 2012, the book is a "wreath of memories"; Blood Memory recovers — indeed, like a photo album — the stories and personalities of McElroy's forebears, back to her grandparents in the Reconstruction era. Her grandfather, Perry Lee, moved the family out of Mississippi, the plantations of their past — his wife Anna Belle, her sister Ethel and troubled brother Roman, along with his twin brother Jackson
north and when they cross the Natchez River
she looked back only once as Perry Lee held her
they followed the underground escape route
until they reached that crook in the Mississippi
there he cradled her in the steamboat's bow and
later when they settled on earned land my grandfather
bought a shelf of leather bound books and a roll top desk
my grandmother brought the old ways cooking from scratch
his push against her pull like they had all the time in the world ("Les Anciens")
The collection is divided into two parts. Part One more or less covers McElroy's grandparents' lives and their generation and offspring, and the poems often sound folkloric. Sections of the nine-part poem "Badlands," for instance, begin, "the story goes" and "word came..." The poem, "A Sounding in the Woods," which centers on her grandfather Perry Lee and his twin brother Jackson begins, "the way the family told it...."
Part Two focuses on McElroy, an only child, amid her extended family. Born in the 1930's, during the Great Depression, McElroy was very close to her grandma, Anna Belle. McElroy always called her "Mama" and her grandfather "Papa." Her relationship with her Shakespeare–quoting mother was problematic in the way that relationships of mothers and daughters often are. Each section is prefaced with a page of black and white photographs of the various relatives.
McElroy paints vivid pictures of her ancestors, like her grandfather's twin brother Jackson, "a horse thief," her mother always insisted; the elegant Son, "a high yella man" at whom
even women whistled when he passed
so pretty he could have been a changeling ("Gandy Dancer")
There's Roman, a mysterious man who seems to have gone off the rails, a recluse who died a sad, lonely death; Dora Emma who ran a "house of ill repute" and adored luxury; McElroy's birth father, Purcia Purcell, who ran out on the family; McElroy's aunts and other female elders — Claudia, Jennie, Viola, Maud. The poem, "All That They Were" begins
in the photo album Papa's daughters
sport a century of profiles they inherited
fighting the world they fight themselves.
Each of the following seven stanzas ends with some variation of the line, "the world they fought to fight themselves," giving us an image of high-spirited females organizing and adapting to their world, which is not only ruled by whites but run by men in general, who are essentially feckless and unreliable. The women roll with the punches. As Aunt Jennie later comments in "Learning to Love Bessie Smith" from Part Two,
baby, men come on like busses
another be along by and by
In the final poem of the first part, McElroy has come back to the Saint Louis of her youth where all these people thrived. She does not recognize anything she remembers
what was once a vacant lot or two now knits
even the best blocks of front porch houses
postwar cottages have collapsed upon themselves
tenements shuttered like blind giants
The poems in Part Two focus on McElroy's life and the strains in her relationship with her mother. This gives us a sense, perhaps, of why she felt the need to write this book, the urgency, as her seventies gave way to her eighties. As she writes in the very first poem, "The Family Album":
I am the only one left of the women
who sat around grandmother's oak table
and wove the stories of who and where
who knows the half of it and when
I am the answer to the question
my mother's sisters swallowed:
What will you do with that child?
Elsewhere, in "Home remedies for Children," she notes "my battles generational / no sibling rivalry at all." An only child. The poem "Tongue Tied" ends
Whenever I entered a room the women stopped talking family
child bite your tongue.
Notable among the people of her childhood is Uncle Brother, the youngest sibling and only brother of McElroy's mother, something of a spoiled prince.
my mother said when I was born
Mama told Uncle Brother his sister
had given birth to a baby girl
Uncle Brother asked if he could
have another helping of chicken
that's how it was between us
he the prince and me the mouse
in the corner squeak squeaking
with my crayons and books ("Did You Ever Have the Feeling")
"I cursed him because my mother loved him / better than me," she writes later in the poem. Uncle brother is always following her around with his white gloves, inspecting her cleaning, finding fault, he not particularly contributing to the family upkeep in any way.
McElroy did feel close to her grandmother, whom she called Mama, slept with her in the four-poster after Papa died.
There are also lovely poems about Aunt Claudia and her children, the daughters Anna Mae and Modestine, her oldest son James who joined the St. Louis police force after serving in the army, the troubles he has with the white cops.
Toward the end of this part — the end of the book — McElroy describes the attenuated relations with her mother as she has moved out and on in the world. "Did I Know You Back Then" (even the title tugs at your emotions) contains the lines:
when I came home on a stopover
along a transoceanic route my mother
cooked a box lunch of chicken feet
and rice old style with the toes sticking'
up like baby fingers escaping the mire
something for the plane she said
like your granma used to make
pressing the foil wrapped dish in my hand
as if it were the final link to family
The final poem, "Blood Lines," ends with the stanza:
now run along home
bed already unmade under warm quilts
in the mirror your mother's face startles you
There is much to admire in Blood Memory, from the general impulse to preserve a family against the onslaught of time to the details of this particular African-American family in the twentieth century heartland, to McElroy's style, at once spare (most lines are lower case and feel like a mind thinking without punctuation) and dense with incident and observation. I've personally recommended this collection to more than a few friends who are similarly trying to capture the long view of their particular family history and genealogical pattern.