Things to be
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
I assume as I blink away negatives, until
I notice a young man
And here is the opening of one of the 'Catechisms' (with no full stops),
Where have you been?
Pressed agains the
Where have you been?
I slept the sleep of the
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
They are not coming when
They are around, I see
on the tip of the tongue
but that's where it
There is an awe that
falls on language.
Perhaps the time is not
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
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