1. Blog Review 42: Lisa Kelly Reviews ‘Imagined Sons’ by Carrie Etter

    Written by Lisa Kelly — March 30, 2015 16:28

    Carrie Etter’s Imagined Sons doesn’t have a jacket that would make me buy the book. It quotes Bernard O’Donoghue: “These are poems of the utmost importance,” while artist Paula Rego’s cover image of St Christina with a swaddled baby on her back is admittedly beautiful, but miserable. Feeling like a recalcitrant pupil having to engage with ‘heavy’ poems I probably won’t enjoy is not an ideal starting point. Flipping to the back cover, however, I am reassured by the smiling face of Etter, a widely-published American expatriate lecturing in creative writing at Bath Spa University.

    Coupling with my mixed emotions on what to expect, the collection itself deals with mixed emotions, as a birthmother meets up with the son she gave away as a teenager in a series of imagined scenarios. It includes anticipated heart-breaking moments, which never become syrupy and – surprisingly – deadpan humour.

    What is the holiday of loss?

    Two bottles of good wine

    It is telling that Etter dedicates the volume to the memory of her ‘beloved’ mother, who is named, and ‘for my son.’ This in itself has poetry, with its evocation of different kinds of loss and notions of motherhood.

    The collection’s structure is a succession of ‘Birthmother’s Catechisms’ which punctuate the 38 ‘Imagined Sons’ prose poems, where the son could be anyone from a Big Issue seller to a pilot.Clearly giving up a child is a life-changing decision; and one of the first things the reader is interested in is ‘why?’ Etter explores this in the Catechisms with their question and answer format which is neat, but perhaps a little too neat, with the implied soul-searching, Christian guilt and original sin.

    The inquisition of the self, however, relying on the interrogator’s repeated questions to elicit varying responses serve as a necessary counter-balance to the ‘Imagined Sons’ sequence. They also work within their own right and provide illuminating honesty and achingly-sad poetry.

    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

    One of the most poignant Birthmother Catechisms is dated September 11, 2006:

    What day is today?

    The sorrows have been catalogued

    What day is today?

    We observed minutes of silence for the lost

    What day is today?

    His twentieth birthday: old enough to vote, too young to drink

    Towards the end of the Catechisms, the lines become less matter-of-fact and more obviously ‘poetic’. The September 11 Catechism ends:

    What day is today?

    In the full glare of the son –

    What day is today?

    I take a table in the sun and find it too bright to see

    Such punning and, in an earlier Catechism, personification of the rain with small hands, is less effective than where Etter delivers direct answers that pierce the heart.

    The Imagined Sons poems allow Etter’s brilliant imagination to take the reader on unexpected meetings between birthmother and son, without feeling dragged. Here, her lyric talents shine; and time is cleverly manipulated as the lost son is recreated in different guises. He can be cruel – chanting, “Whore, whore, whore” at his birthmother in Reunion; or he can be patient, almost lover-like, in ‘The Woodcutter’.

    When I replace the log for a third attempt, his hands are on
    mine, showing me how to grip a handle, how to hold my
    arms, how, in an afternoon, to cut enough wood to warm us

    It doesn’t pay to list all the various encounters – but if you buy the book you will be rewarded with poetry of contrasts – lyricism and humour; the surreal and mundane; pop culture and classical mythology all vie in Imagined Sons. This is a culturally aware poet who is just as comfortable echoing Feste’s song, ‘For the rain it raineth every day’ from Twelfth Night in ‘A Birthmother’s Catechism’, as she is bringing to mind the film classic Don’t Look Now.

    The poems take us around the world, including locations such as Mexico, California, Prague and London, and are packed full of intense drama. Despite the spin, there are links running through to provide cohesion and centring; the recurring okra and mangoes in the succession of Supermarket Dreams is just one example.

    Initially, I imagined feeling desperate to reach ‘Imagined Sons 38′, but by the close, I was so engrossed with the sequence I found myself thinking of other potential encounters. In this way the poems seed their own dynamic by continuing to work on the imagination after the book is shut. That, surely, is one of the most important things poetry can do. O’Donoghue might just be right.

    Lisa Kelly
    Lisa Kelly’s pamphlet, Bloodhound, was published by Hearing Eye in 2012. She is a regular host of poetry evenings at the Torriano Meeting House, London. She is co-editor of Magma 63.

    carrie etter imagined sons

    Imagined Sons by Carrie Etter is published by Seren, 2014, £9.99.

    (to read previous Magma blog reviews, please click on the ‘reviews’ tag immediately below)

  2. Magma Competition celebratory evening at Keats House

    Written by Wes Brown at March 16, 2015 12:46

    Why not join us for a celebratory evening with Magma Competition judge and special guest Jo Shapcott at Keats House on Friday March 27th, 7-8.30pm, when the winners of the 2014/15 Magma Competition will read their prizewinning poems.

    Venue: Nightingale Room, 10 Keats Grove, Hampstead, London NW3 2RR (nearest station: Hampstead Heath Overground / ten minutes walk from Hampstead tube station)

  3. Blog Review 41: Katherine Stansfield Reviews ‘The Midlands’ by Tony Williams

    Written by Katherine Stansfield at March 6, 2015 10:13

    Tony Williams’ second collection, The Midlands, begins on a rather gloomy note, with the first line proclaiming, ‘The Midlands are crying’. But the detail of what provokes the despair makes it convincing, heartfelt and all the more pervasive:

    They cry in the carparks of aerodromes, deep in the cellars         of buildings that used to be bookshops. They cry over fences, at steam-engine rallies.         They cry over dogs and bags of granulated sugar.

  4. It says something, perhaps, about the power and mystery of Rosemary Tonks’ life (once the toast of literary 1960s Soho, turned religious recluse who repudiated all of her work) that I should have heard of her long before I read one of her poems. The image I had of her was a person who had disowned the craft of poetry but was still followed by a select band of stalwarts, initiates and rare booksellers. Until recently, I think there has been some truth in that, but Neil Astley is to be praised for all of his excavation, research and archival work in collecting together Tonks’ long out-of-print work and bringing it so accessibly to our attention in Bedouin of the London Evening: Collected Poems. My major fear before reading these poems was that Tonks’ uniquely fascinating but agonised life story would threaten to eclipse the achievement of her poems, or at least strongly influence my reaction to them. Indeed, Astley’s detailed and scrupulous introduction gives us plenty of extra biographical information whilst also retaining a hint of the enigma, but the main achievement of this collection seems to be to present a rounded sense of Tonks as an artist prior to the radical change in her life in the late 1970s and her retreat from writing and literary life. For instance, Astley reprints two of her reviews and a rare interview with Peter Orr, which shows the visionary intensity and integrity that shaped her work:

    TONKS: …”I don’t understand why poets are quite ready to pick up trivialities, but are terrified of writing of passions…I want to show people that the world is absolutely tremendous.”

  5. Call for contributions – Magma 63 on the theme of ‘Conversation’

    Written by Susannah Hart & Lisa Kelly at February 1, 2015 18:11

    ‘What is the use of a book’, thought Alice, ‘without pictures or conversation?’ Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland

    At Magma, we’ve been talking. As you know we’re having a National Conversation (about poetry) and we want you to share your poems on the theme of ‘Conversation’ with us to be published in Magma 63.

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