The Weather in Normal

Carrie Etter
Publication Date: 
Monday, October 1, 2018
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Poetry Book Society Recommendation, Winter 2018

‘It’s well-nigh impossible to convey with quotation how Etter’s use of language, form, restraint and space combine to such impressive effect.’ – Stride magazine

Carrie Etter’s fourth poetry collection focuses on her hometown of Normal, Illinois, in the American Midwest.  The Weather in Normal is not a set of straightforward memories but a slowly shifting entity, like a moving storm.  The book opens with ‘Night Ode’, a poem set on a single street at night, the protagonist walking and feeling the oppressive summer heat, the humming of cicadas and the various ages she has walked the same road: “sixteen, nineteen, twenty-four, thirty-seven…”. This introduces us to the main themes of memory and recollection, of mature reflections on youthful experiences, of multiple, shifting perspectives.

The first of the book’s three arcs explores the family’s relationship to the weather and place, from the father’s obsession with the weather, to the brutal effects of the winters on the family, resulting in broken bones, the recognition of poverty, and the father’s paralysis. Yet the relationship to place also includes its appreciation. Etter offers us a vivid impression of the American prairie with its cornfields extending to the horizon. She muses on the various meanings of ‘Prairie’ and understands a landscape can haunt the imagination the way the past haunts the present.

The second arc explores the effect of the loss of the family home in the long poem ‘Afterlife.’ The house is a place of memory and of dream, an upbringing in a house crowded with sisters and then with her sisters’ children: “once three sat atop/ the upright piano/ playing the keys/ with their feet”. What is it to return, in imagination, to the house in which her father died? Can one ultimately relinquish one’s childhood home to its new owners?

The book’s final arc concerns the effects of climate change in Illinois, in part through the long poem, ‘Scar’, chronicling these effects—the greater occurrence of extreme weather, the loss of species, etc. – as well as human responsibility for them. Just as The Weather in Normal begin with music in ‘Night Ode’, so it ends with ‘And Now for a Kind of Song,’ a eulogistic poem relishing the poet’s relationship to Illinois.


Review by Martin Stannard, Stride Magazine

Sunday, December 9, 2018

Normal, Illinois is Carrie Etter’s hometown, as well as being quite a gift for a poet to use in a brilliant title. But brilliant titles are one thing; to live up to them is quite another. Fortunately, Etter is more than up to it. On the other hand, I have to admit to a probably fairly irrational but nevertheless strong lack of interest in poems about the death of parents, and poems of that kind comprise Part I of this collection. However, there is a big “however” about to happen —

However, Etter is a fine poet, and leaves the typical and ordinary “dead parent” poem languishing way behind in the distance. While the seven poems of Part I are about the loss of parents, the poems are so delicately and restrainedly achieved that my prejudice is easily forgotten:

   Primary streets in Bloomington and Normal were nearly the only roads open 
   as plow crews had trouble keeping up with the falling and blowing snow.

   at last the doctor                and the man, now in intensive care

         whiteout conditions                  drifting snow        

   coma                a weatherless world

                   (from “My Father and the Blizzard”)

That “weatherless world” is stunning, especially since it follows upon a prose poem telling how the poet’s father was obsessed with, and talked endlessly about, the weather. Not only that, what is to come as the book progresses is a lot of weather. 

Part II of the book moves on a little in time. The parents are gone, and replaced by absence. Indeed, one complete page is given over to the following, from the poem “Afterlife”:

   consider the absences


Etter’s use of space in this collection is superb. Where many allegedly innovative poets seem to use the empty white of the page mainly to show how innovative they are, Etter uses space effectively not only to suggest absence but also to introduce the wide open spaces and life on the plains of Illinois:

   so Illinoisians were never raised           for hills

   prairie         the horizon the very                         edge of the world

                                                      (from “Prairie”)

And it’s in Part II that the natural world (also known as the environment) begins to be blended into the flow of the book as, for example, in the poem “Trying to Say”, which I quote in full, because why the hell not:

   Sometimes I explain home           as a list:
   a cardinal’s flash of red            against snow
   the prairie’s flatness     green stalks rising
                  fat and taut with tufted seeds

   Sometimes I explain home        by the way I speak
   a surely brightening face          and the most banal
   recollections                 urgently offered

   Sometimes I explain home      by drawing out the syllables
               Ill        lih            noy        
    and reclining          in the breadth           the breath of it

The poems of this section, while concentrating upon domestic absences, subtly incorporate the outside world, until with new people living in the old family home it’s not only parents that are absent but also the poplars that were there in childhood, the backdrop to the poet’s family around the wooden picnic table. 

All this is leading toward Part III, where the environment and climate change are brought to the fore in the long poem “Scar”, with the predictions of The White House’s “Fact Sheet: What Climate Change Means for Illinois and the Midwest”, i.e.

                                                      more heat
                                                      more pests
                                                      more disease

                                                      more extreme weather events:

                                                                                          heat wave
     O Illinois –

reminding us how the poet’s father fell ill while a blizzard raged….  but that connection between the personal and domestic and the bigger picture is so delicately understated it’s quite stunning. I should mention here that I also have a kind of negative feeling regarding poems about climate change, mainly because (a) they’re usually predictable and a bit rubbish and (b) I’m not very enthusiastic about poems that tell us what we already know. I’m not much of a fan of preaching to the converted. But this poem’s treatment of climate change overcomes my (yet another) poetry prejudice, given its eloquence and its elegant harnessing of images, from the cow “raising its gaze/ at the wind’s shift”, to what I take to be Illinois schoolchildren in the classroom who “every month…. practice/ shield[ing] their bodies against/ the possible”, and to the helicopter that “with such snow, such winds/ cannot deliver the heart/ in time”. And drought and flood, the extremes, bring together the Illinois farmer and the mother in Egypt, and “It’s a wonder we aren’t all alcoholics.” 

It’s well-nigh impossible to convey with quotation how Etter’s use of language, form, restraint and space combine to such impressive effect. I’m not in the habit of recommending poetry books as Christmas gifts – I’m quite old school, and usually go for the ill-fitting chunky sweater with a reindeer motif on the front, or just socks – but if you have literate family members or friends who actually read then this one is worth considering. There are others I could recommend too, but this is not the Review supplement of Saturday’s Guardian.

Review by Vidyan Ravinthiran, Poetry Book Society

Thursday, November 29, 2018

Sometimes, reading a poem, we’re pulled up short by one word in particular. It seems to have wandered in from elsewhere, to not really belong – until you look more closely. In ‘My Father and the Blizzard’ Carrie Etter writes touchingly of a parent’s death: “his wife sat bedside as a nurse bestowed morphine // all windows gone white”. Honours, blessings upon a marriage – these things are bestowed: to have that formal word arrive in this context catches us off guard. It ritualises the act, seeming to prolong and cherish an instance of medical care (contrasted with the brisk, brusque phrases which bookend it). The same fine attention to a single word appears in ‘Eldest’, where, seeing her father in his hospital room, the speaker tells herself: “Now you must gentle”. A verb, not an adjective. She must calm him and herself. Animals, too, can be “gentled”: this is poetry about the farming community of Normal, Illinois – weather-embattled and economically unsure – where that word “normal”, on the book’s cover, can be read two ways. Once our parents die, we must accept a new normal: Etter’s are poems of grief, but also of (new) beginnings, of false starts and true starts. Remembering her father on the CB radio – during another blizzard – she homes in once more on a single word:

I – nine? ten? – stand in the dining room’s peripheral darkness
and watch him flick dials,
switch between the emergency channel
and our usual and back again.
My father grows smaller –
can one grow – yes, he grows – smaller,
he sweats, he calls again, he begs,
he says she was going to Zayre’s, he says

“Growing” is very much of the essence. Etter writes of the stoicism of farmers confronted with drought-killed crops: “It’s a wonder,” says one, “we aren’t all alcoholics.” She also writes vividly and angrily about climate change, about disappearing butterflies for instance; her poems, experimentally arranged and disarranged, suggest – amid white space her text-fragments show like snow- surrounded cinders – the afterlife of what has been lost. Lingering echoes, of parents, vanished ecosystems: “consider the absences”.


Review by Eileen Tabios, Galatea Resurrects

Wednesday, November 14, 2018
From experience, I know the difficulty of writing about a parent’s death. There’s, therefore, a logic to taking it slant. In The Weather in Normal, Carrie Etter addresses her father’s death partly by relying on the weather. In “My Father and the Blizzard,” for example, Etter alternatively describes the weather and her father’s passage—here’s an excerpt:
Paternal love, indeed, is meticulously defined through the father’s fixation with the weather in this stellar poem:
That Etter aligns her familial concerns with climate change is a welcome shift—the latter concern at least allows for the logical presence of anger. That is, it can be senseless to feel anger at a parent’s death as we all die (and yet anger can arise as a response, even if futile); with climate change, however, anger is an appropriate response as its causes are often those under the control of humanity. Thus, Etter begins the book’s third section on climate change with


before addressing the near-decimation of the Karner blue butterfly as well as the increased rampage of “more extreme weather events: / tornado / drought / flood / heat wave / blizzard.” The latter excerpts from the poem, “Scar,” which can only end with the helpless
O Illinois—
Etter has written a poignant collection of poems, worth searching for and reading. We all should pay attention to tales coming out of the anthropocene. It takes understanding of damage to mitigate damage, and as Etter notes about the “I” of each of us: “I, the world’s curse.”
The structure of a weather-concerned Dad to climate change bespeaks an imagination that explains why I’ve unfailingly enjoyed any Carrie Etter poem I’ve read, and I am blessed also to have read her latest, The Weather in Normal.

Review by Sarah James

Sunday, November 4, 2018

The poems in Carrie Etter’s The Weather in Normal (Seren) are powerful compressions, beautifully whittled onto the page, where the white space allows each line to unfold to way more than its literal size and force. Family, place and climate change are all set in even sharper focus by the crafted space between the lines – for thought, emotion, linking – that gives each image, each word choice, each evoked emotion that much greater impact. And that’s without even touching on the narrative arcs across the collection’s three sections giving further depth and meaning!


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