Thursday, October 27, 2011

Carrie Etter: The Son

pub. Oystercatcher Press

There are times when a poet who is skilled in modernist techniques and the use of abstraction in poetry feels the need, due to the circumstances of his or her life, to tackle a personal subject, or at least one that deals with emotion and with the basic humanity that is common to us all. When this happens the results can be powerful. Carrie Etter's pamphlet "The Son" represents such a moment. The poems centre around a child who appears to have been given up for adoption; a sensitive subject, and one that could, in the wrong hands, result in sentimentality. But there's no fear of that with an accomplished practitioner like Etter. The collection consists of a series of prose poems, entitled "Imagined Sons", numbered 1-12. Interspersed with the prose poems are four poems called "A Birthmother's Catechism" with a question and response format:

How did you let him go?

With black ink and legalese.

How did you let him go?

It'd be another year before I could vote.

These short responses are in a laconic American tradition; their deadpan understatement conveying much more than any overblown cry of emotion could:

How did you let him go?

Who hangs a birdhouse from a sapling?

What a great line that is: expressing self-doubt and fragility in practical, workmanlike terms. The "Imagined Sons" poems are short dream-like stories, which hit exactly the right note, as suppressed emotion resurfaces in our dreams. There's a surrealist element to these stories, with a motif of a young man, familiar, but out-of-reach, the repetition of which builds up a powerful sense of longing.

The first and last poems - both in the catechism form - link the personal loss to the public loss of the 9/11 attacks. It's a risk, but it works, due in part to the understated nature of the poems; in fact, it succeeds in universalising an experience that might otherwise be intensely personal.

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