Originally from Normal, Illinois, Carrie Etter moved to southern California at 19, completing a BA in English at UCLA and MFA in creative writing at the University of California, Irvine. In 2001 she moved to England, and in 2003 she finished her PhD in English, focusing on mid-Victorian fiction, criminality and gender, for UC Irvine. She has published two collections, The Tethers (Seren, 2009) and Divining for Starters (Shearsman, 2011), with a third, Imagined Sons (Seren), forthcoming in 2014. She also editedInfinite Difference: Other Poetries by UK Women Poets (Shearsman, 2010). Since 2004 she has taught creative writing at Bath Spa University.
In my first collection, The Tethers (Seren, 2009), I was trying to transform personal experience into figurative narrative for the sake of both wider interpretation and in the hope of a more nuanced evocation of the experience. All of the following poems first appeared in The Times Literary Supplement.
If not the cheese festival, an open air concert
by the village’s has-been rockers;
if not the May Day Dance, an impromptu wine tasting
on Murphy’s return from Calais—
so I have become a global-warming adept,
an amateur meteorologist looking to,
nay beckoning extremes of heat and air,
frost and water, a day of reckoning for
everyone’s favourite mayor, whose bad poetry
has become a feature of our weekly newsletter,
a column of O’Hara-derived frivolity beside
the irregular announcement of birth or death,
rarely in tandem in a population of two hundred twelve.
I have refrained from Cassandraic warnings.
I have seen the man at his desk, giving up on Dostoevsky,
turning to plan the next amusement.
I am no god. I only want to believe in karma
in spite of the temperate spring,
in spite of his new wife
and the modesty of her pale blue shoes.
Buoys and lifeboats, inflatable vests and detachable cushions
order the map of fear with routes of survival.
Yet it is enough to find Polonius’s end plausible,
the accidents that follow negligible peccadilloes,
it is enough to see Gertrude’s change of feeling
as ordinary and therefore the more monstrous,
to know I am the one who drowns in a temperate sea
blind to the outstretched rope in the dread of its absence.
Bracken, brambles, and bindweed obscure my castle
that would otherwise gleam in the midday sun.
I hauled the rock hither. I carved it into blocks.
I studied the history of architecture before I set a stone.
Perhaps gleam exaggerates the image.
Perhaps the walls’ pallor appears a sheer white
under the encroaching summer, and the buttresses
bear few but portentous fissures.
The castle also lacks a good bed, which is to say
that once I hack through this derisive vegetation,
I will mount the highest turret and wave my arm in grand sweeps.
I may hire some extras or bribe my friends to stand below.
I may drag the miles of bindweed down the corridors,
up the stairwells, and burn, burn, burn my fortress through.
Then may the pundits come and mourn.
Then may I lie on a kind mattress and dream of bungalows.
I’ve referred to The Tethers and Divining for Starters (Shearsman, 2011) as my two first books, with The Tethers’ poems progressing generally linearly (with some leaps in logic) and Divining for Starters’ poems developing meaning by accumulation, often of fragments. In Divining—in fact, in all my poetry—I hoped the style would help the reader inhabit my experience through this acquaintance with the way my conscious mind works. “Divining for Starters (16)” first appeared in Shearsman, “Divining for Starters (67)” on the blog Gists & Piths, and “Paternal” in Bombay Gin.
Divining for Starters (16)
Out of the vernacular as the sky drains of light
The body heavy with a day’s work that gravity
What would it mean to aspire to transcendence?
The garden more lush with encroaching darkness
The slight tremble of branches, call it a knowledge
Not the self—think of consciousness as steam
Dispersal and absorption; possessive adjectives aside
There’s no knowing if willing it makes it so
Pooling again, with the drain and tremble
Something of appetite, of sensory reach
Reassumed, gravity grows lush, pooling
Divining for Starters (67)
in the suppressed gesture
of desire, if only
gazes join, more wire than bridge
soft under the chin
as if to transcend by travel
A parent a plinth. The first week he regarded hospital as hotel. So the variables include the kind of stone, its consistency, the velocity of prevailing winds. What’s purer than an infidel’s prayer? How strangely, in the second week, the swollen limbs stiffened. And the effects of climate change: milder winters, more precipitation, two, three heat waves each summer. All American, non-Jewish whites are Christian by default. Incredulous, I realise his bicycle may rust and walk it to the shed. Such an ordinary act of reverence. The pulmonologist, the neurologist, the family physician. A bed is a bed is the smallest of bedsores. Blood doesn’t come into it. Ritual, of course, is another matter. A Midwestern town of that size exhibits limited types of architecture. I’ve yet to mention the distance. Come now, to the pivot, the abscess, another end of innocence. In every shop, the woman at the till sings, “Merry Christmas,” a red turtleneck under her green jumper. I thought jumper rather than sweater, a basic equation of space and time. Midnight shuffles the cards. Translated thus, the matter became surgical, a place on the spine. Each night the bicycle breaks out to complete its usual course. A loyalty of ritual or habit. “ICU” means I see you connected to life by wire and tube. A geologist can explain the complexities of erosion. The third week comes with liner notes already becoming apocryphal. Look at this old map, where my fingers once stretched across the sea.
In my third collection, Imagined Sons (Seren, 2014), I wanted to take a non-confessional approach to the confessional topic of giving my son up for adoption. I thought the poetry would not only be better for this approach, but that it would make the poems more available to the reader to experience for herself. (Sometimes I think the particulars of personal narratives can exclude rather than include the reader.)
In the book, two forms of poems interweave to produce a deepening sense of a birthmother’s consciousness: “birthmother’s catechisms”, where the same question provokes different answers over time; and “imagined sons”, prose poems in which the birthmother encounters her son once he’s come of age.
I have included a larger selection from this book as I think that’s necessary to give a more accurate impression of the whole. IS 1 and 13 first appeared in PN Review, IS 2 in Long Poem Magazine, IS 30 in The Republic of Letters, and “A Birthmother’s Catechism” in Poetry Ireland Review.
Imagined Sons 1: Fairy Tale
My son leans from the tower; his red pompadour, stiff with Aqua Net, resists the quick wind. When he sings, the notes hasten to the forest a mile south before they descend. I clamber onto my restless horse; she starts before I am secure. Almost too soon we reach the wood.
The notes are red. I pluck them like poppies.
Imagined Sons 2: Delivery
Pushing a trolley stacked with grocery crates, a delivery man follows me on the circuitous route to my flat. ‘I’m surprised you found it so easily,’ I say, ‘your first time.’
‘I’ve been here before,’ he replies.
‘So you know Bradford on Avon?’ I say, walking slowly up the slope.
‘No,’ he says, out of breath, as though the incline’s steeper, as though he’s Sisyphus. ‘I know you.’
A Birthmother’s Catechism
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
How did you let him go?
With altruism, tears, and self-loathing
How did you let him go?
A nurse brought pills for drying up breast milk
How did you let him go?
Who hangs a birdhouse from a sapling?
Imagined Sons 15: The Courthouse
I sit in the last row. When I read the notice in the paper six weeks ago, I thought about taking up knitting, so I could busy my hands and eyes as needed. Instead I have become nondescript, the murky darkness of dishwater.
You arrive in a cheap suit and handcuffs. I am the surprise witness, an unforeseen alibi, another story about who you are and how you got here. Your father will swear me in.
Imagined Sons 30: The Fifth Supermarket Dream
I lower a jar of salsa into the cart and am startled, on rising, to face a panting young man. He looks about, and when a fifty-some woman in a lavender suit appears at the end of the aisle, he pleads in a whisper, ‘Get me out of here. I can’t have her catch me again.’
I am about to say yes when a manicured hand firmly clasps my shoulder. It is the same woman; indeed there are at least a dozen of them, all with tightly bound dark hair, all closing and sure to bear him away, when I start swinging with impeccable aim.
There is a fourth book in progress, The Weather in Normal, about family, home as place, and death, and a sample of it is coming out later this year as the chapbook, Homecoming (Chicago: Dancing Girl Press). “The War’s Fourth Year” first appeared in TLS, “The Scales” in Notre Dame Review.
The War’s Fourth Year
In the beginning, I took
my sorrow by both ends,
wrung it like a dishrag,
and made wishes on the usual—
dandelions, eyelashes, stars.
Before long, I with my sisters devised
new signs: to hear the song
thrush before dawn, to drink
new milk at the fence post,
to see the year’s first calf—
we were storing up luck—
none could have enough of it.
In the next life I say not because I believe.
In the next life better skin but smaller breasts.
In the next life less elegance but more peace.
(There must be compensation in the trade.)
After two years of paralysis the cyclist
died in pain, and he was
my own father. From mourning I wanted
to emerge swinging my fists or
swinging like a kid on a tire.
Instead my right hand became a gavel
and started pounding. But judgment
never interested me like redemption
until I recognized the logic of karma
in nightmares. From dawn I followed
the trusted doctor and recited
the words of no prayer.