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

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)

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