Imagined Sons

Carrie Etter
Publication Date: 
Saturday, March 15, 2014
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In Imagined Sons  Carrie Etter has written a book of vivid, heartbreaking poems on the experience of giving up a child for adoption. A prize-winning author, lecturer, critic and popular blogger, Etter imagines the possible destinies for the child and presents us with various scenarios from the tragic to the absurd. That the child's birthday is also Sept. 11th adds a layer of irony and pathos, 'What is the anniversary of loss?' - asks the narrator in one of the 'Birthmother's Catechism' poems. A pamphlet containing some of these poems was a Poetry Book Society Choice.


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Galatea Resurrects Review

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It’s been over two years since my mother died of cancer. I haven’t yet experienced an ebbing in the sorrow. Sometimes, I think of Mom and … it feels just like yesterday that we were … And when I talk to others whose parents have died, many say that, Yes, the feeling of loss does not go away, even decades later. Different people cope differently, of course, but that feeling of loss remains.

So, I extrapolate and conclude (perhaps wrongly but I conclude): if it’s so difficult to grapple with the loss of one’s parent who was there for most of one’s life, how much more difficult it must be for a parent to lose a young child, a baby, before memories of living together can be created.

Imagined Sons by Carrie Etter offers the experience of a birthmother who, at age 17, gave up her son for adoption. Knowing the impact of my mother’s death, I was not surprised that the birthmother would feel her loss so deeply even years after separating from her baby.

Imagined Sons 15: The Second Supermarket Dream

When I reach the cashier, I’m already five minutes late for my appointment. I rummage through the bottom of my purse for more change. ‘Sorry,’ I say. ‘Just give me a minute.’

‘Take all the time you want. You’re my last customer.’

Coins collected, I meet his gaze and shudder. He’s reasonably handsome, with his father’s reddish hair and light eyes.

‘Mango and okra—what are you making?’ he says, bemused, holding out his hand.

The silver splatters back into my purse. I extend my fingers and feel the warmth of his own before the face pales, the eyes darken, and I see a stranger, pimpled and cringing, ‘Lady?’

Imagined Sons presents prose poems haunted by the birth mother’s imagination of her son: her son as a baker, as a woodcutter, a nurse, as used car salesman, and so on. They are all as heart-wrenching as the above sample poem above. Soon, perhaps initially as a coping mechanism but now only a new source of impossibility as regards knowing her son, the birth mother imagines a son’s friend and poems related to “The Friend” are interspersed throughout her imagination of her son:

Imagined Sons 21: The Friend (Part 3)

His friend brings me a shoelace, twelve photos, two unposted letters, a worry stone, a restaurant receipt and a brown leather bomber jacket. At night I alternate between using the jacket as a pillow and as a blanket. Either way I wake to a span of years carved into grey stone—thousands, thousands of irreclaimable days.

Also interspersed throughout the “imagined sons” poems are poems developing “A BirthMother’s Catechism” where several answers are presented to the same question:

“How did you let him go?

With black ink and legalese

How did you let him go?

It’d be another year before I could vote

How did you let him go?

With altruism, tears and self-loathing

How did you let him go?

A nurse brought pills for drying up breast milk

How did you let him go?

Who hangs a birdhouse from a sapling?”

Are these poems of pure imagination? As a mere reader rather than close personal friend of the poet, I don’t know, of course. But I also discerned an authenticity from the process in that it wouldn’t surprise me if the poet incorporated real life references into her imagination. That is, when I read a poem based in Lisbon where she experienced another imagined encounter with her son, I felt as if the poet did travel there, to Lisbon (a testament to Etter’s craft). And I wondered then if all (or many) of the scenes come directly from the poet’s personal life—her supermarket, her trips to Venice Beach and Alaska, etc. What this achieves is the incorporation of time’s passage, a life unfolding—which deepens the ache of longing, and the sorrow that a life unfolds without the presence of one’s son.

I’m a Mom because I adopted. But no matter how many “success” stories exist in adoption, I feel it is simply unnatural for a child to be separated from the birthparents. The loss has been described as nothing less than a “primal wound.” Because I love my son, I would prefer to remain childless if it meant he never had to experience the sundering from his birthmother. Perhaps it’s easier if separation occurs through the parent’s death, whether from an accident, an illness or otherwise in that at least there is a known quantity to the death. But if I—and others—still feel so deeply the loss of a parent, even from natural circumstances like "old age" (while my mother had cancer, she also was nearly 80 when she died), how much more difficult for the adopted child who may or may not have closure in knowing what happened to the birth parent?

And, as this book reveals, the position of the birthmother is similarly stained. Imagined Sons is important for the birth parent’s position has not been as widely presented or discussed as the position of the adoptee or the birth parent (though this, fortunately, is changing).

But Imagined Sons is also important for showing how craft allows for the effective portrayal of a loss so expansive it could easily wriggle out of control into poetic “laxness” (for lack of a better word; I have read a lot of poems by those touched by orphanhood and/or adoption and many simply sag under the weight of the topic). In this sense, too, Etter was wise in choosing the prose poem whose form allows the suppleness required for such a fraught topic.

Here’s another example from a book that deserves to be read in its entirety—this example reveals the utter fearlessness of Carrie Etter (whose lack of timidity here honors Poetry), and how, sadly, the downside of not knowing is that one can imagine anything:

Imagined Sons 37: Night Patrols

After three rapes in four weeks, the night patrols reach an all-time high, and The Bath Chronicle reports each infinitesimal development in all caps. I begin avoiding the narrow passageways I normally prefer, but one night, after drinks, I forget, instinctively following an old route, until a hand grabs my shoulder.

I pull away with a jerk, but he’s got my elbow; now my upper arm, and when we face, we halt in mutual recognition. His jaw drops, but he does not or cannot let go, so I draw back my free arm and strike – I hit him as hard as I can.

Eileen Tabios – Galatea Resurrects

03/06/2014 - 15:36
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Sarah James Review

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Easter weekend has given me the chance to become engrossed in Carrie Etter’s Imagined Sons (Seren). These prose and question-answer poems are very moving, at the same honest/real and imaginative, startling and thought-provoking. The background narrative to the two interspersed sequences – ‘Imagined Sons’ and ‘A Birthmother’s Catechism’ – is gripping in itself. But that would not be enough alone were it not for the sheer compelling nature of the actual poems. They tread that very delicate line between what could easily become either over- or under-emotional. For me, Etter walks, indeed somersaults, this tightrope lightly as a professional acrobat. The imagery is vivid and crafted, the sounds sensuous and the collection is full of ‘catch in the throat poetry’ moments.

Sarah James

12/05/2014 - 13:31