Posts Tagged ‘catechism

08
Jul
19

On Carrie Etter’s Imagined Sons

A version of this review (and a better edited version) may appear in a future issue of Redactions: Poetry & Poetics.

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Carrie Etter's Imagined SonsI have not found many poems focused on the topic of adoption, and I’ve found even fewer poetry collections focused on it, but Carrie Etter’s Imagined Sons (Seren, 2014) is a worthy find. This collection contains poems from the viewpoint of a birth mother who relinquished her son when she was 17 years old. There are 38 prose poems titled “Imagined Sons” followed by a number and subtitle, such as “Imagined Sons 1: Fairy Tale” or “Imagined Sons 32: The Fifth Supermarket Dream,” and interspersed between those prose poems are 10 poems titled “Birthmother’s Catechism.”

The catechisms arrive in the form of questions and answers, which often feel like an interrogation. The interrogations seemingly make the birth mother feel tremendous guilt for relinquishing her son, who was born on September 11, 1986, which I believe is at the tail end of the Baby Scoop Era (if it ever ended). The Baby Scoop Era began shortly after World War II, and it was a systemic attempt to take babies from unwed mothers, especially young mothers, and that deliberately made the mothers feel like unworthy humans. The opening catechism addresses this when it points out how she signed a contract “With black ink and legalese” that forced her to give up her son. Most likely she, at the age of 17, had no idea what she was reading and was also too young to be signing a contract, which is another issue with the Baby Scoop Era. It’s also an issue that will appear in a later catechism in the line “When a stranger compares her mortgage to signing away her first son, I nod and cannot speak” (46). A little bit later in the opening catechism, the reader can see how she was treated when a “Nurse brought pills for drying up breast milk.” Right away, the reader not only feels the trauma of a young mother relinquishing her baby son, but the reader also sees how poorly lawyers, doctors, and nurses treated her. Much of the rest of the book is told from Etter’s point of view many years after, still coping with the day of her son’s birth.

Throughout the catechism poems, it’s not quite clear who is asking the questions. Maybe it’s the birth mother’s guild-ridden mind, but often it feels like a faceless, Kafkaesque judge and she’s on trial. And this judge is often, maybe always, triggering her PTSD. For instance, here is an excerpt from one interrogation:

     What is the anniversary of loss?

     Sometimes the melancholy arrives before the remembering. 

     . . . 

     What is the anniversary of loss? 

     When I say sometimes the melancholy comes first, I know the body has its own memory. 

     What is the anniversary of loss? 

     The wishbone snapped, and I clung to the smaller piece.   (15)

 

The judge is forcing her to explain and maybe justify her actions, and the reader can see how her pain is not only emotional but is also physical. The body, which grew the baby for nine months inside itself, remembers. It remembers the baby’s breathing, heartbeat, and hunger rhythms. The body, like the mind and heart, just can’t forget. With each catechism, the reader gains a better understanding of a birth mother in later years and early years. The reader also realizes and understands that she made the wrong wish, though against her will, and she lives with it daily. For instance, in one catechism the judge asks, “Who do you think you are?” and she responds, “A wrong answer” (21). And in another catechism, the judge asks her:

     Why haven’t you looked for him? 

     What if I found him? 

     Why haven’t you looked for him? 

     What if I found him turning away?   (31)

 

These lines show the hope and fear of the chance encounter of meeting her son, and it also parallels the main theme of the prose poems.

In the “Imagined Sons” prose poems, she often fantasizes in surreal, dreamlike scenes about chance encounters with strangers who she hopes will be her son. To complicate matters, Etter had her son in the United States, but later in her life, she ex-patriated to England, where the chances of the encounter are probably zero. And yet she imagines, she hopes, and she even recognizes familiar family features in the male strangers, such as how a stranger “has my large, dark eyes” (“Imagined Sons 4: Black and Velvet”), or “He’s reasonably handsome, with her father’s reddish hair and light eyes” (“Imagined Sons 15: The Second Supermarket Dream”). It’s as if she is so desperate to find her son that she might be imagining these familial features. To me, this is an unexpected reversal, because the adopted child who seeks their parents often wants the experience of recognizing where they come from – the joy in finding someone who looks like them. It seems birth mothers do the same. And all of this – the relinquishing, the guilt, the hope, the possible reconnection, adoption – is surreal, which may be why Etter chose to write prose poems. One can argue that the prose poem is the better container for surreal events than a lineated poem, because the prose poem can freely flow without conscious interference from the mind negotiating the tension between grammar and line breaks, or as Baudelaire says about the prose poem, so it can “adapt to the lyric movements of the soul.” In other words, it may more closely parallel the unconscious flow of thought and dreams. And these thoughts she will never let go of, as she tells her interrogator, she will let her son go when:

     A man carves my name into granite with hammer and chisel. 

     . . . 
 
     It is time, Celan said, the stone made an effort to flower.
 

I believe the reader also will not be able to let go of the birth mother’s trauma, language, and images in Carrie Etter’s Imagined Sons. //

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Etter, Carrie. Imagined Sons. Seren, 2014.

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