I loved learning that New Madrid (emphasis on “mad”) is named for a seismic zone in Mississippi and Kentucky where, in 1811-12, four earthquakes struck of such magnitude that they changed the course of the Mississippi River. Great power follows the name of such a place!
While this issue isn’t about earthquakes, it is about power: the human power to survive with conscience. The focus is first on another natural disaster, and then ranges thematically to its consequences and beyond: the Great Irish Potato Famine of the 1840s and the hunger that drives us past ruin and misfortune to strength and change. Two sentences in Editor Ann Neelon’s introduction explain New Madrid’s interest in the Irish calamity: “it was not the blight but the failures in response to the blight that elevated an ecological disaster to a human catastrophe,” she says, highlighting the social-justice motivation for a number of the essays, poems, and stories here. “[Indications] are,” she says, “that another ‘great hunger’ is threatening the poor in the United States today. . . . In 2012, 14.5 percent of the U.S. population qualified as food insecure, and forty-nine million Americans lived in food-insecure households . . .” Similar grim statistics pepper Virginia Konchan’s dryly stark, or starkly dry, “Food Deserts (and Oases) of the Landscape and Mind,” in which she juxtaposes Kant’s Critique of Judgment against food-related investigative exposes, literary explorations, and policy legislation, to conclude that not only food aesthetics but also “health and wellness are marked, indelibly, by class.” Failures in response to “[the] global food shortage, malnutrition, and the Western factory farm industry affliction billions of people and animals worldwide” are as reprehensible now as the British mishandling of the potato blight a hundred and fifty years ago. This issue of New Madrid makes sure we don’t forget.
Many of the pieces cast light (bitter though it is) on the Great Hunger itself. A candid interview with T. J. English, author of Paddy Whacked and other books covering Irish-American crime, looks at “traits and trappings of The Great Hunger that Irish America still carries,” the ghosts that still haunt the posterity of Irish immigrants. Catherine Kilcoyne shows that Irish poet Patrick Kavanagh, isolated by his very insistence on authenticity, denounces, in his epic poem “The Great Hunger,” the twentieth-century Irish policies of “postponement and deferral” which caused “intellectual and imaginative starvation” as serious as the physical hunger of the previous century. Several poems—Michael Lally’s stark “Irish Oppression Poem,” John Macker’s “april dusk (after Patrick Kavanagh),” Renny Golden’s “My Great Aunt Sister Tomasita,” David Mohan’s “The Hungry Grass,”—illuminate essayist Eamonn Wall’s declaration that “[The] Famine is part of our language and part of how we understand the world. . . . [Starvation], rage, genocide, kindness, indifference, and so on, are grafted to our language. . . . Of the Famine, we must speak.” Take, for example, this excerpt from Mohan’s pome:
The fields round here are haunted.
You can’t stop still in a place
without some earth tremor’s transit....
Lovers beware lying down in long grass.
The patch you choose might consume
your kiss . . .
The Famine—literal or symbolic—still oppresses.
Other pieces range away from Ireland while they mine more deeply themes of hunger and economic injustice. Philip Garrison’s excellent “Aguas” describes the devastation wrought by an ICE raid in Tacoma, in a voice both gently ironic and furious. He loves the immigrants, hates the enforcers, wants them both to know it. Because he needs money, the narrator of Tim Fitts’s short story “Pigs” has to enact a slaughter that disgusts him, but then the people who hired his boss won’t pay up. Here the voice is too defeated to be furious. He’s just telling a disgusting story in the flat tone it deserves, which is sympathetic, nevertheless, because it’s authentically human.
Amelia Bird’s poetic “Acts of Wind” wanders between trees falling and fallen, trunks (and souls) damaged by rot and acts of man. It’s a beautiful piece—gets my nomination for Best American Essays. “Girl Cannibals of Salem County” by Catherine Carberry is a gruesomely fantastic story about hunger beyond the natural. BiLan Liao’s paintings and commentary represent the oppression of the “New China,” a political scourge as crushing as any famine.
Five concise book reviews round out this illuminative issue, whose final impression is the one T. J. English concludes with: that “the final triumph over the trauma and shame of the Famine [is] to be so secure and at peace with our . . . identities that [bearing, and then overcoming, oppression] becomes a point of connection and solidarity with, and compassion for, the family of man.”