Things to be grateful for


Imagined Sons, Carrie Etter (60pp, 9.99, Seren)
Beyond the Drift. New & Selected Poems
, David Scott
(256pp, 12, Bloodaxe)


David Scott is a retired Anglican priest, while Carrie Etter is a younger generation performer and 'creative writing' academic, and if you want a look and a listen in generations of cultural change, these two books tell it well, both are personally open and accomplished.
                 
They mark a profound shift, though. Although the loss of a child has been the subject of poetry long since, Carrie Etter's ritualised self-questioning, having at the age of seventeen given up a child for adoption, is confessional in a quite new way, I think. In the form of thirty-eight mostly single page sectioned prose poems, she hurts herself - one might say pleases, too, but hurts mostly, it seems - in speculation about finding him and about his life in the 'now' of the writing.
                 
Some of these 'Imagined Sons' sections are interspersed with 'Birthmother Catechisms', in columns of one-liners, the whole relentless. Born in Illinois, she lived for thirteen years in California, before coming to Britain; the settings and her language reflect this, with scenes, as one might call them, also elsewhere. Here is 'Imagined Sons 22: Prague',

   I stand on cobbled stones with a hundred other tourists, all
   looking up, some readying cameras, as we wait for the astro-
   nomical clock to strike.

   On the hour, the procession of the twelve apostles across its face
   begins. The wooden figures jerk one way then another as they
   move on a mechanism invisible from here.

   Under the sound of the bell, there's a frenzy of clicks, beeps and
   whirrs as the cameras go, and a flash stuns me. Somebody's got theirs
   turned the wrong way round
, I assume as I blink away negatives, until
   I notice a young man running away.

And here is the opening of one of the 'Catechisms' (with no full stops),

   Where have you been?

   Pressed agains the nursery glass

   Where have you been?

   I slept the sleep of the dead

I confess to some unease about this whole published undertaking. It seems right, I think, for me to say so, as I have no doubt about the power of it; it would be too easy to say it is a example of doing one's therapy in public, and one might also wonder what makes a prose poem - and I reply to myself on both counts that the book is a remarkable document. Whether it might be a healing document for other mothers who gave up a child for adoption, I can't know. Imagining myself to be much younger than I am, if I was the child, and now the man, given away, I would like so to be found.


Not least of my self-understanding is to confess how easy it is for me to re-open the pages of David Scott's 'Beyond the drift', selected from  his 'A quiet gathering' (1984), finding him somewhere between R.S.Thomas and Geoffrey Hill, while more straightforward and calmer than either. I know his business: as well as being a man of the cloth he's a man of the village and of the open sky.
                 
He is, now retired, in the tradition of the meditating poet and of self-examination. His forms are relaxed, taking the strain of his working life in good air. All the way through from George Herbert to such a poet now, the rigour of discovery, self-discovery not least, holds sway; it is a version more widely of Englishness: I hear in the opening of his 'The awe that falls on language', one of his more recent poems, an echo of W.S.Graham,

   Words are hiding somewhere inaccessible.
   They are not coming when I call.
   They are around, I see them hovering
   on the tip of the tongue
   but that's where it stays, shut.
   There is an awe that falls on language.
   Perhaps the time is not yet right;
   like Zechariah waiting for his new born son
   for whom he had no words.
   God took his time to present the child,
   for for the bell and tongue to be unstrung.

Not W.S.Graham as the poem develops, but as with other meditating poets, Graham included, there seems often an engagement with the day to day 'real' without explicitly saying so. The final poem in the book, 'The fly and the prayer', encapsulates well the gentle Anglican mode of 'how it is for us', translatable surely into the secular moment apart,

   It is nothing much, but when you
   have settled into prayer, found the space
   early, the house asleep, and you are
   all set to welcome the Almighty, and a fly
   from nowhere begins to flit, and then
   sets off an irregular buzzer: do you
   say 'amen' and give up,
   or incorporate it?

That there is in the culture such a book of a life's work is something to be grateful for. Carrie Etter very differently lights a new way.

   David Hart 2014