Imagined Sons by Carrie Etter (Seren Books – March 2014)
As the title says this is not a book concerned with expressing factual circumstances but it is focusing on the big ‘what if’ and it does so in a deeply engaging manner. To what extent our so-called reality is constructed by our own obsessions, ungrounded fears or imagined implications may vary, but we all do it. Psychologists have made it their business to point out that such irrational associations are hindering us from seeing our lives for what they actually are but it is also true that it is these nagging, speculative preoccupations characterise us and ultimately make us who we are.
Dealing with difficult issues of the past is the brave theme of Imagined Sons. It is a deeply moving collection of prose poetry about a woman’s fixation with her lost son. It is made apparent that she gave the boy up when she was only seventeen and years later she is still hoping for a chance encounter; a mysterious meeting under unexpected circumstances. Without actively looking for her son, she thinks to recognise glimpses of him in strangers who fit a certain profile, but of course it always remains an unconfirmed possibility. Could her son be the young man at a supermarket till or is he a Big Issue seller on Hungerford Bridge? Could he be a receptionist in the La Quinta Inn or perhaps a fellow shopper in the Oxfam store in Drury Lane? Moreover, how would he perceive her? Who would his friends be? These speculations are never melodramatic but colourful, multifaceted and even playful. They are also haunting as well as troubling as she relives, again and again, the postponed distress of the past.
Here is an example in full:
Imagined Son 8: The Businessman
My son gazes from the skyscraper’s twenty-third floor, his waxy hair set in rigorous waves. When he sighs, he checks to see if anyone hears him, but does not think to look below. Downward the sigh drifts like first snow, to melt at the touch, so I stand with my head thrown back and my mouth open, to catch it if I can.
Strictly speaking this collection is entirely made up of two interlinking yet formally different poetry sequences: 10 ‘Birthmother’s Catechism’ poems and 38 poems of ‘Imagined Sons’. Each sequence is written in a very different style: The ‘Birthmother’s Catechism’ poems are soul-searching, self- interrogations while the ‘Imagined Sons’ poems offer narrative-based episodes which make full use of prose devices, including the direct speech. The two approaches interweave in regular intervals, much like the prayer patterns on a rosary.
I cannot verify whether the association with the rosary is intended or if it is just my own interpretation, but either way, a great deal of focus, thought and skill has gone into the making of these poems, allowing all sorts of echoes and connections to take place. This open approach in the writing makes this work so stunning because it addresses the reader intuitively and seductively invites him or her to partake.
Although at first read these poems seem almost simple and unassuming it soon becomes clear that they are anything but plain. Each word is carefully chosen yet, given that this is prose poetry, the priority lies not primarily on rhythm or rhyme, as perhaps in more traditional poetry, but on achieving the ultimate impact. The emotional intensity of the limbo between hope and disappointment renders these poems unforgettable. The images conjured are a balancing act between the mundane and the utterly bizarre and the notion of the uncanny is never far.
Moreover, these poems resonate so strongly because content and form are cleverly and perfectly suited to one another. To paraphrase Aristotle, poetry is all about the search for ‘likeness’ and about pointing out a connection between two elements that might or might not be related to one another. Poetry itself aims to highlight, if not create, a speculative relationship between two different entities e.g. ‘may I compare thee to a summer’s day’. In Imagined Sons this act of comparing is manifest both in form and content, as the protagonist is constantly on the lookout to find a ‘likeness’ between herself and her son, between her inner image of him and a perfect stranger. Also, the similes of each poem are aptly chosen.
These speculations are of course also a sign of an ongoing creative drive, painful as it may be, to match up some loose ends of a life. And maybe that is why these poems are so urgent and why they touch a nerve.
Carrie Etter is anything but a new name in the poetry world. She has written a number of memorable poetry collections so far, notably The Tethers (Seren, 2009) and Divining for Starters (Shearsman, 2011). Arguably, this is prose poetry at its very best.