Wednesday, June 10, 2009

The Tethers, Carrie Etter

Over the next few weeks, I'm planning to write something (not reviews per se, but reading notes, ditherings, connections, fascinating facts) about some of the magnificent poetry that has accumulated in Delirium's Library, including a pile of Just One Book books from the Save Salt campaign. After reading (and proofing) lots of prose non-fiction, it's amazing to be reading poetry again -- like climbing a glacier! Difficult sometimes, but the view (and the delicious fresh air) is so worth it.

First up is actually the newest, bought only last night at its London launch: Carrie Etter's The Tethers (Seren, 2009). With its teasing and tangential glimpses of London, it was the perfect read for the Tube-stricken bus ride home. Etter's poems - short, dense, unfurling - remind me of Virginia Woolf's love of the crystalline and curious moment in which we catch ourselves thinking (and feeling) ourselves into being. Familiar objects, locations, shades of sky act exactly as "tethers" for the speaker, in poems that often drift upwards like a crane shot -- as in "Crowd of One," from the cracked egg to the ceiling.

"Over the Thames," one of my favourite poems from Etter's reading set, is precisely about this mood of suspension (which can hover, as in Woolf, over a crowd and create minutely- and generously-observed social comedy, as in "The Review" and "Indian Summer"):
there is no universal
for what keeps us aloft, but O
I cherish it.
Cherishing in turn buttresses the suspended eye as it takes in everything. In its attentive and wily work with language, such cherishing also creates the details that "tether" the (this) reader, poetic interpellations that are partial and blushingly private: words like "Cassandraic" ("Citizenship"); the reference to Hungerford Bridge (my favourite Thames crossing) in the wonderfully Roni Horn-esque "Collecting the Ridges" (no accident: Horn's Thames photo series collects poetic "ridges" from Eliot, Conrad, Poe, Dickinson and others).

Despite the book's titular reference to rooting and binding, these poems are full of water and its flux: not only the Thames, but the paper boats of "The Daughters of Prospero." In remarking the constancy of water, Etter overturns Catullus' cliché: that the words of women should be written on water, because both are untethered and trustless. Like "Millais' Ophelia" (another fine observational poem), Etter knows the weight of water, its bound composition. In "The Bonds", where the poem's title resonates through multiple discourses from chemistry to "the -ologies of more elusive chemistries", water reflects back history's constancy in mutability, coded through language's adaptable clarity, words like water's surface revealing hidden treasures in their depths. Findings rich and strange arrive with each re-reading.

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