Oystercatcher Press, 2009   £4.00Sphinx eight striper

Reviewed by Marcia Menter, Rob A Mackenzie and Helena Nelson

Marcia Menter:
I was predisposed to dislike this pamphlet because 1) it consists of prose poems, which I distrust, and 2) it’s about a mother mourning a child given up for adoption, an absolute minefield of a topic. I braced myself for sloppy explosions of sentiment, but instead found myself guided through a graceful, unsentimental (yet deeply felt) liturgy of loss. I say ‘liturgy’ because there are several poems in the form of catechisms, because the collection reads like a ceremony, and because there’s a feeling of absolution at the end.

About those prose poems: they really are poems, each one an imagined encounter with a son now “old enough to vote, too young to drink”—as the narrator herself was when she gave birth. The encounters are surreal, dreamlike. She follows him through endless stairways in a Texas motel, hears the Southern drawl of his voice on her car radio, or finds herself a passenger on a turbulence-tossed plane he’s piloting. (“Your life in someone else’s hands, someone not really grown up yet,” he tells her—or is he talking about her younger self?)

In one poem, he’s a delivery man (get it?) who shows up at her flat in Bradford on Avon. Since Etter is an American poet now living in that very town (I found this out online, since there’s no bio in the pamphlet), one is led to believe that she’s telling her own story here. Certainly the emotions ring true; and every meticulously chosen image adds a different kind of resonance. We know how she feels, in dozens of ways. She gets a little wordy in spots, but mostly practises an admirable steely restraint.

Is it awful of me to hope the story is true, and that Etter really did give up a child? She’s an emotionally talented poet who could, perhaps, have imagined all this. But I don’t want to think she did.

Rob A Mackenzie:
This pamphlet is mainly a collection of prose poems: twelve ‘Imagined Sons’ in which a thematic unity develops around loss of memory, expectation or identity, interspersed by four poems titled ‘A Birthmother’s Catechism’, which take the form of answers to a repeated question. The word ‘catechism’ summons a world of religious ritual, although these ones aren’t tied to a system of belief. They have a liturgical quality, more universal than a private relationship between mother and son. From birth, motherhood becomes the locus of letting go, which connects to nature, the mind, and personal/national tragedy:

.......What is the anniversary of loss?

.......Where the swan’s nest had been, widely scattered branches
.......and some crumpled beer cans

.......What is the anniversary of loss?

.......Sometimes the melancholy arrives before the remembering.


.......What is the anniversary of loss?

.......Some believe it is impossible to spend too much on
.......the memorial

..............[ ‘A Birthmother’s Catechism (September 11, 1986)’]

The answers may be oblique. Together, they add up to something, even if singular truth remains elusive. The events of 9/11 are alluded to only in poems dated five years before and after, but the questions posed by mingling notions of private and public loss give this 16-poem pamphlet an emotional range that many full collections get nowhere near.

The prose poems are narratives about ‘imagined sons’; the title suggesting loss can take the form of unfulfilled desire. Characters often seem to be chasing their tails. ‘Imagined Sons 2: Seed Corn’ has a son plucking ears from cornstalks. The mother follows him unseen. The son eventually suspects another human presence “once lost and now, possibly retrievable. That’s what he senses as he increases his pace and at last breaks into a run, always gaining on a memory he can’t quite catch.”

This image, accurately and painfully, enacts the human experience of trying to retrieve shrouded memories, and such a chase features in several poems with only an illusion of definitive progress. When a mother considers something as basic as “taking up knitting, so I could busy my hands and eyes as needed,” we’re told that “instead I have become nondescript, the murky darkness of dishwater” (‘Imagined Sons 5: The Courthouse’). Personal identity is in flux, never coherent. Recurrently, characters fail to recognise one another, despite having an obvious past relationship. On rare occasions when someone finds what they want, like the mother in ‘Imagined Sons 11: The Baker’ who wants to buy a loaf, it’s as though the desire didn’t belong purely to her in the first place. Before she asks, the man at the counter offers a loaf to her, “his awkward posture belying some uneasiness as he says, ‘This is it, right? This is what you wanted?’”

What impresses me is how complex ideas have been made so enjoyable to read. The narratives are fluent, intriguing, somewhat surreal, and often humorous. They seem simple, yet strange, and are deeply affecting. They mine the deep pit of memory and expectation, and are haunted by what they don’t know, what isn’t said, what remains lost or unfathomable.


Helena Nelson:
I have a son of my own. The voice behind this sequence has lost hers. She starts with ‘A Birthmother’s Catechism’ (September 11, 1986). Here is the last section of that poem:

.......What is the anniversary of loss?

.......Sometimes the melancholy arrives before the remembering.

 

.......What is the anniversary of loss?

.......Some believe it is impossible to spent too much on

.......the memorial.

.......What is the anniversary of loss?

.......When I say sometimes the melancholy comes first, I know

.......the body has its own memory.

 

.......What is the anniversary of loss?

.......The wishbone snapped, and I clung to the smaller piece

My son was born in 1982, so hers would have been four years younger than mine. Mine grew up with me, more or less and he is now 27. Hers, it becomes apparent, was adopted shortly after birth.

I make the comparison with my own son because it partly explains how closely I related to the poems in this pamphlet, and the intense sense of loss that makes them both beautiful and painful to read.

How do you react if you lose your baby—but you know he’s alive somewhere? You imagine what he might be like.  You go about and see young men of the approximate age your own son would be, and you imagine they might be him. So here we have twelve ‘imagined sons’ and three catechisms. The questions that drive everything are: What is the anniversary of loss? When will you let him go? How did you let him go? and What day is today?

The son and ‘the sun’, on his twentieth birthday, the twentieth anniversary of his absence, make it “too bright to see” outside.

I have no idea whether this pamphlet has been generated from personal experience. It became personal to me when I was reading it. ‘Imagined Sons 3’ seems to me to be a dream, and I feel as though it’s a dream I’ve had myself. (I am aware that this is an inappropriate way to review a poetry pamphlet. No matter.) This is my dream in Carrie Etter’s pamphlet: my son is surfing and I am watching. “I’ve been here for years.” There’s another woman sitting near me, “a tall woman in a cream-coloured suit”. I am small. I point out my son to her as he glides in on a wave. This is what happens:

.......“He’s mine,” she retorted. She pulled out my pointing arm as easily as if it were a mannequin’s and cast it into the water. She ran into the ocean and .......swam towards him. Knocking his surfboard aside, she slid under his feet and floated to the surface: hair the dark red of a nectarine pit, lips fixed in .......a victorious smirk. All the while my pointing arm drifts slowly, surely toward him – and toward her.

This is a moving collection of texts: some are prosy and some are lyrical. It is not like anything else I have ever read:

.......How did you let him go?

.......Who hangs a birdhouse from a sapling?

How that hurts!