Literary reviews by Tim Love.
Warning: Rather than reviews, these are often notes in preparation for reviews that were never finished, or pleas for help with understanding pieces. See Litref Reviews - a rationale for details.

Saturday, 28 May 2011

"The Tethers" by Carrie Etter (Seren 2009)

She's widely published. Her (out of date and selective) list of published poems shows that she's had 20 poems in "PN Review", 6 in "Poetry Review", 3 in "The Rialto", 29 in "Shearsman", 5 in "Stand" and 18 in "The Times Literary Supplement" as well as many in smaller or online magazines in the UK and elsewhere. A first full collection was overdue.

I reviewed her pamphlet Yet for Poetry Nottingham and found it a struggle. She did a local reading on 23rd May, 2011 so I went along. There she described the fragmentation of "Yet" as an experiment, hoping to be able to capture experiences (in particular the erotic) in a new way. I recall her saying earlier that she doesn't think she's a difficult poet. Much of the time in "The Tethers" she isn't. It was interesting to see how her pre-poem introductions helped. She pointed out when there were multiple narratives, and the extent of these narratives' entanglement. In "The Separation" and "Americana, Station by Station" for example, the narratives (3 and 4 respectively) barely merge, whereas in some other poems they do. It was also a help to have the titles explained. Sometimes it's hard to see how they relate to the poem. The main theme only kicks in after a few stanzas, but by then listeners like me might be down quite another garden path.

I liked many of the poems on a first reading: "Seaborne", "Cult of the Eye", "Collecting the Ridges", "The Review", "The Tethers", "Siren", etc. "Four Hours from the Coast" if anything doesn't contain enough about the squalid motels, and a café

where we sip weak coffee from mismatched mugs,
name-drop our destination to assure

any listeners we're going somewhere.

Though the content's clear enough, the line/stanza breaks baffle me. The same baffling breaks are in "Pleurisy" (which appeared in the TLS and is reprinted near the end of a blog page) - 6 couplets and a final isolated line, each line between 4 and 7 syllables. In this case though, the narrative's unclear too. The first sentence is "At the question of lung capacity, the radiator pops and hisses, a fox can only be metaphor" which mysteriously spans 2.5 stanzas, but for me the mysteries don't stop there. Why "At the question"? I've heard radiators rattle and gurgle, but never pop. Which fox? Hughes' thought-fox? It's "six a.m. winter dark" so maybe an urban fox has been seen. Later "You and that hunk of metal wheeze" - the "you" (who?) is suspected of having pleurisy whose symptoms sound like the radiator's noises? The final line "I almost miss it" might refer to the previous line ("The fox is stealth" - death creeping up?) and/or to the noise of the patient, or the radiator. Or the initial question. Pass

The title poem is 35 long lines. It begins with

Hyacinth by orangutan by protozoa, you build our new earth

It's unclear what kind of building this is. The order of the life-forms is unusual too, and "protozoa" unexpectedly general. I seem to recall that hyacinth DNA was analysed early to see how it compares with human DNA, so maybe a geneticist is building a new tree of life. Or maybe it's a SimLife computer game.

the gazelle
in the British Library plaza may find the vegetation limited.
We don't know who we are without sex, and you'll compound
or mitigate the gazelle's displacement by adding a mate.

We're thinking human population: two, but others will emerge
to lead the gazelles to water, to unlock the library's doors,
to pull pints of Timothy Taylor and take down a packet of peanuts.

I don't know of any gazelle sculpture in the British Library plaza (Blake's Newton is there), so why gazelle? I can see that the theme of sex and definition is emerging. The "others" are, I suppose, those who'll break up the couple, make them drink.

As your first draft nears completion, as my hand falls on your thigh,

Another attempt to unlock the doors between the world and word

to our own naked bodies, self as both tenor and vehicle,
never wholly unmade but in constant flux with the expiring
and transpiring of cells

Though species differentiation matters, and gender (or at least sex) aids identification, the Self is hard to define. And later "The world is ever on the move" too

If I stayed this new earth you did and did not make -
but I would not, not even to allow your sigh's passage, your heart's pause.

I want to paraphrase this because it seems to me that the argument is reaching a crux. Why might the persona want the new earth delayed or halted? For the sake of the relationship I guess - the other's work of "building worlds" is getting in the way of building a relationship. Earlier in the poem the other person is told not to dread delays -

remember that we live by lacing between past and present
stronger, straighter tethers than can possibly hold.

What does this mean? Perhaps "Though we have to try to establish links (both scientific and emotional?) with the past, they won't last"? Tethers are straight when they're taut, strained, being tested. The poem ends with

The heart cannot pause. If we're not sexless children, neither are we
so innocent as we make and break, make and break each other.

The heart joins the world and self in flux. The earth that was-and-wasn't made is matched by people made and broken. We learn by structuring, breaking down those structures, structuring again. Sex isn't innocent. It can be used to manipulate make-or-break situations.

In the Q+A session afterwards she said that being in the UK gave her room - in the US whatever you do you're bound to be compared to several other writers doing the same thing. She's been in England for a decade or so. At least 5 poems mention London, the Thames in particular. "Postmarked (Ars Poetica)" seems as much about the Old Operating Theatre and London Dungeon as Mount Pleasant Sorting Office.

There were still poems I struggled with - "Soporific Red", "Hardscrabble", "The Sty", "Crowd of One" for example, whereas I'm happy with "Lecture". Parts of other poems puzzled me too - the 2nd stanza of "Over the Thames" seemed out of place, too cryptic, and "The Trapeze Artist's Dear John Letter" ends with "I love you. I'm quitting you. I live my life between/ the two meanings of cleave" which is ok in itself, but its hint of unhappy marriage makes me wonder how to interpret the trapeze artist's earlier "[I] trust hamstring and calf's steady marriage// when I hang from my knees."

She said that she doesn't use much humour in her poetry. Forms are scarce too, though "San Fernando Valley Long Song" has an AAbb/AAbb/AAbb rhyme scheme, each stanza beginning with "Man of wax, my butterfly days". Her poems, according to Rosanna Warren, are "discreetly metaphysical". I'd say go easy on the "discreetly".

With "The Bonds" we're back to restriction; it seems to be about the lightness of memories that once had a heavy physical, restraining origin (though stanza 2 sounds wordy). In the next poem, "The Honeymoon of Our Attraction", memories (again linked to water) return with renewed vigour months later. Tethers don't prevent movement entirely, they limit it, and within those limits is "the rise and fall of what we cannot moor" ('The Violet Hour').

Maybe my favourite poetry book so far this year.

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