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The Weather in Normal

Carrie Etter
ISBN-13: 
9781781724590
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.

REVIEWS

Review by Steven Waling, WriteOutLoud

Tuesday, February 12, 2019

 

Carrie Etter is one of the few writers who, when I hear she has a new book coming out, I get all excited about because I know it’s not going to disappoint. Her last book, Imagined Sons, was a series of prose poems about what the son she gave up for adoption might be like. It was inventive, innovative and also full of deep feelings and very moving. Those two ideas – inventive and moving – don’t always go together, but in this new book, she once again writes poems that are both full of feeling and that create new spaces in the brain.

This time she combines the themes of grief at the death of parents and climate change, weaving them together with a kind of urgent resolve. They’re set largely in the Illinois town of Normal, where she grew up; her evocation of the prairie landscape beautifully and microscopically exact:

 

Sometimes I explain home           as a list

a cardinal’s flash of red          against snow

the prairie’s flatness       green stalks rising

a milkweed pod     its fit in the palm

      fat and taut with tufted seeds

 

The poem, ‘My Father and the Blizzard’, details her father slipping into a coma as a blizzard sweeps through the state. Its final two lines bring the weather and her father together in a kind of sad embrace:

 

     whiteout conditions         drifting snow

coma       a weatherless world

 

I hope this review can replicate the spaces in her poems, because they open up the poems and make them breathe, leaving space for the reader to put their own thoughts and experiences.

The major poem in this collection is probably ‘Scar’ which describes the devastating effects of climate change on the Illinois landscape, but it’s often the shorter poems like ‘Karner Blue’ (about a butterfly heading toward extinction) that have the more immediate impact.

The book also contains a handful of her spare and often emotive prose poems. ‘Fatherhood’ is about her father’s interest in the weather forecast. Her formal command of free verse is also impressive. It feels as if each word counts, but this is not an austere collection; it has a richness about it that is deep and dark and, despite the grief in the poems, somehow remains very positive.

This is – in the best sense of the word – a lovely collection of poems, and one I shall be returning to again and again.

Review by Sophie Baggott, Wales Arts Review

Wednesday, January 30, 2019

 

Under the guise of its quotidian title, The Weather in Normal is all the more blistering when it reveals its true nature: abnormality is its nucleus, and the climate its concern.

Carrie Etter’s fourth poetry collection is a resounding call to arms, urging us to wake up to the fact that the world’s increasingly extreme weather is indeed far from normal. The cover photograph – a singular bolt of lightning against a purple puddled prairie – was taken in central Illinois, where Etter grew up. The image is at once personal, simple and bruising, forecasting the danger that lurks within. In this way, it swiftly symbolises the entire collection.

Focusing the lens on her small town, Normal, the poet zeros in first on familial loss – before zooming out in the second chapter to reflect on home and chasms in a broader sense. The final third is opened wide: climate change, extinction and casualties on a global scale. It’s a clever progression; the idea of bereavement and vulnerability expands from the private to the public, rendering the ending note all the more impactful.

Etter writes intimately in the opening chapter about her parents’ fragility, despite her youthful assumption that they were “unbreakable”. In one poem, ‘My Father and the Blizzard’, she flicks back and forth between describing her father’s critical illness and regurgitating passages from a 2007 article on a blizzard that paralysed Illinois. The implication is that the extreme weather endangered him in a very real way. Early on “the doctor phoned in   snow rising in drifts   around his house”, then the poem ends on a cliffhanger: “coma   a weatherless world”. In this chapter we learn also of her father’s layoff and her mother’s eventual death – contrary to a child’s expectation, parents are by no means invincible. (And nor, we’ll see, is the planet.)

The poet’s sly humour lightens all this dark subject matter a little. She blames the weather for her mother’s aches and pains: “Winter, I tell you. Fucking winter.” It’s not long before the poet’s constant references to temperature, storms and seasons grow more obviously significant. This is no mundane weather small-talk. Even the early mentions of personal crises drift deliberately between affinity and anonymity – in the poem above, she uses “the man” when referring to her father, signalling it could be anyone’s dad in further harm’s way due to the blizzard. Meanwhile the poet’s initial complacency regarding her mother might extend, in hindsight, to that felt by most people towards Mother Earth. The severity of climate change can only truly hit home when it imperils those closest to us.

On this note, cropping up relentlessly in the collection is the small, slightly archaic word “amid”. To me, it brought to the fore the fact that change in climate has come from us and will come for us without exception. We’re all in it together, as it were. Our culpability is starkest when Etter writes “am animal amid animals – | and I annihilate. I, the world’s curse.” We gradually see man-made contrivances (roads, helicopters) crumble against the supremacy of the weather:

 

snow and more snow until the roads

            are no longer roads

 

and a helicopter – with such snow, such winds –

            cannot deliver the heart

                                   

                                                            in time

 

Etter writes bluntly and effectively of tornadoes terrorising children and floods destroying crops. The vast gaps she leaves between many lines and verses emphasises the sense of the unknown and the atmosphere of loss.

Even her town, Normal, will grow unrecognisable. Etter has already observed her father grow smaller, now it’s our world that will shrink and implode due to its overwhelming growth and development. The irony of this is not lost on readers. Unsurprisingly the poet sometimes seems to yearn for a return to the past – in ‘Artifact’ she writes: “There’s no downloading such elaborate intricacy.” We can’t turn to technology to patch up the world, she implies. In the same chapter, she dreamily floats back to Arcadia, allowing herself to conjure up a bucolic existence of idylls and meadows. 

But in the last third, Etter’s anger is more palpable, direct; she punches, cries, spits. She mourns the Karner Blue butterfly, and emphasises the irrationality of losing such beautiful species in her poem ‘Because’. The reasons given for its dwindling numbers are meaningless, and her poems’ structures turn more and more erratic. Etter again leaks fact into the poetry, tearing into a White House fact sheet about the effects of climate change on her own region.

Local cicadas both open and close the collection. They appear in the first poem, ‘Night Ode’, with squalls that breach the quiet “torpid” night. In the final poem the cicadas are seen again embedded in the body of Illinois – a brief flashback to the “normal”, perhaps, after pages and pages of deterioration? Time and time again, Etter refuses to end her poems with a full stop; could it be in hope that the world’s fate is not yet sealed? In any case, we need more voices like Etter’s.

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


                                                               before

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:

                                                                                          tornado
                                                                                          drought
                                                                                          flood
                                                                                          heat wave
                                                                                          blizzard
     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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