‘Genetics‘ by Sinéad Morrissey is a six stanza poem that is made up of sets of three lines, or tercets. The poem remains consistent until the last stanza which is made up of four lines, also known as a quatrain. The tercets make use of repetition and line structure. The poet has chosen to repeat end words in a number of lines to give reference to the circular path of future history that the poem alludes to.
Summary of Genetics
The poem begins with the speaker describing how her fingers resemble those of her father and her palms resemble her mother’s. This is a fact that is deeply important to the speaker. It is this connection that allows her to feel that she is still a part of a cohesive family.
These parts of her hands keep her family together even after they have split up. Her parents are no longer together, there is a lot of physical and emotional distance between them, but she keeps them connected through a “marriage” of fingers and palms. The speaker even goes so far as to create a marriage ceremony of sorts amongst all her fingers and her palms. Through this act, she is hoping to solidity their marital connection and family bonds.
The poem concludes with the speaker considering a future child she could have with her partner and the history that will then be in that child’s hands. She is ready to embark on this future, even though her own parents were unsuccessful.
You can read the full poem here.
Analysis of Genetics
My father’s in my fingers, but my mother’s in my palms.
I know my parents made me by my hands.
The speaker of this piece tells her narrative in the first person. She makes use of the pronouns, “I” and “me,” while describing “My father” and “my mother.” It is very likely that this piece is being told from the poet’s perspective but as there is no clear evidence that this must be the case, this analysis will refer to the “speaker” of the poem as the main voice.
The speaker begins by describing the composition and make up of her hands. She is looking down at her own two hands and seeing in them parts of her mother and father. She sees her father, “in [her] fingers,” and her mother, “in [her] palms.” The speaker is perhaps both projecting her connection to her family members into her physical features while also recognizing similarities between their extremities.
She can recognize her mother’s and father’s hands when she sees her own. This is not something that makes her feel uneasy, it’s something that she relishes. She holds up her hands and looks,
…at them with pleasure—
She is able to understand that her parents, “made” her by her hands. The speaker is referring to the capacity of one’s hands to create. She has been created in their image.
They may have been repelled to separate lands,
but in me they touch where fingers link to palms.
In the second stanza, she goes on to describe the fact that her mother and father were not always together. A lot of the time they were in,
To separate hemispheres,
They were both physically and emotionally separate from one another. She does not seem to be distressed over this fact, but accepting that this is just the way that things have always been.
She fully understands that her mother and father,
May sleep with other lovers,
She is comforted by the fact that they are connected by their presence in her own hands. They are together, “where fingers link to palms.”
With nothing left of their togetherness but friends
at least I know their marriage by my hands.
In the third stanza, she continues to describe the state of her parent’s relationship. There is not much left of it. There is no real relationship to speak of. The only things that remain are,
Who quarry for their image by a river,
Her parents are still cordial, they are “friends” but that friendship is based on continually changing imagery. It is like looking at oneself in a river, nothing is solid or stable. Their meaning to one another keeps changing.
Even this unhealthy connection does not depress the speaker, she is still comforted by the fact that they remain married “by [her] hands.” No matter how far her parents drift from one another, they stay connected through her own body.
I shape a chapel where a steeple stands.
my father’s by my fingers, my mother’s by my palms
In the next two stanzas, the speaker takes her readers through a marriage ceremony that she reenacts through the movements of her hands. This act of attempting to reconcile her parents leads one to believe that perhaps she is not as accepting of her own situation as it seemed at the out-start. She feels a need to craft a new narrative for her family.
She creates a “chapel” with her own hands and places her father and her mother together.
demure before a priest reciting psalms.
I re-enact their wedding with my hands.
Her parents remain there, “before a priest” who is “reciting psalms.” Her body is going to act as,
…their marriage register.
It is on, and though her body, that her parents are rejoined.
So take me with you, take up the skin’s demands
We know our parents make us by our hands.
In the final stanza and only quatrain of the piece, the speaker directs her narrative to her partner. She is asking that she be allowed to go with, and stay with, her significant other and be part of the “mirroring in bodies of the future.” She knows what happened with her parent’s relationship but is ready to embark on one that will intertwine their own fingers in another body.
She is looking into the possible future with her partner and the child they might have. This is a new role for her as she takes the place of her parents and imagines the hands of her future child.
About Sinéad Morrissey
Sinéad Morrissey was born in Portadown, County Armagh, Northern Ireland in 1972. She attended university in Dublin where she earned a BA and PhD. Throughout her prolific career she has published five collections of poetry, one of which, Parallax, won the TS Eliot prize and was nominated for a National Book Critics Circle award.
She has been the recipient of a number of other awards such as the Patrick Kavanagh Poetry Award and the Irish Times Poetry Now Award.
She currently teaches creative writing at Queen’s University in Belfast.