Imagined Sons: Carrie Etter, Seren
Discussing the topic of lyric poetry on an Arvon course last year, I heard someone say that all lyric is about the absence of the loved one.
True or not, I found this idea an arresting and fruitful proposition. Milton and Tennyson have been eloquent on this theme; then there were Thomas Hardy’s astonishing 1912 poems about his deceased and estranged wife Emma. Christopher Reid, Penelope Shuttle, Douglas Dunn, Peter Porter and many more have worked with elegies.
Carrie Etter’s latest collection adds to this nourishing literature of loss, not in this case a death but the giving up in the 1980s of her new-born baby for adoption. The poems do not go into the circumstances, but they do examine a series of contemporary meetings with young men – some real, some dreamed - who could just possibly be her missing and missed son.
The structure of the book is 38 short texts in prose that describe these “meetings”. Interleaved in these texts are 10 catechisms – short answers to persistent questions: How do you let him go? What do you remember?
Describing this structure, it occurs to me that this could be a set-up for a rather repetitive volume of poetry, where in each piece the narrator meets young men roughly the same age as her son would be but who turn out not to be him. The sadness inherent in that idea needs also to have dramatic interest.
Except that it does not read like that at all. It reads like an odyssey – a hero(ine) on a journey who is constantly distracted and diverted by adventures. The adventures are very different, rather puzzling. They flicker between the banal and the magical. What reveals itself as the book progresses is a panorama of contemporary masculinity. I make no excuses for that statement. The poems constantly seem to ask: Who are these young men? They are violent, erotic, elusive; they mumble about the songs they wrote; they lead a hotel guest mechanically to a check-in desk; they cross-dress; they look too young to be flying the airplane they are flying; they make a heap of leaves and run up to it and jump on it then do it again. (Do young men actually behave like that? Yes, I’m afraid so).
Let me quote the first of the ‘Birthmother’s Catechisms’. The five-times repeated question, “How did you let him go?”, is met in turn with different one-line answers:
With black ink and legalese
It’d be another year before I could vote
With altruism, tears and self-loathing
A nurse brought pills for drying up breast milk
Who hangs a birdhouse from a sapling?
The persistence of the questions elicits a separate and individual answer at each iteration. The whole story is there in the gaps between the answers. And who but a mother would recall the need for pills to dry up the breast milk?
The numbered ‘Imagined Sons’ episodes that form the bulk of the book are in the form of prose poetry and Etter has written interestingly about the prose poem as a form in Poetry Review, that it in some way imitates the “proseyness” of the novel or the memoir and then switches into a different idiom, or more often comes to an abrupt halt, leaving you hanging in mid-air. Etter’s prose poems do not have line endings as such, but they do have really effective endings. Etter keeps this work dynamic, unpredictable and, most important, elliptical.