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Steve Whitaker
Literary Editor
@stevewh16944270
12:00 AM 10th June 2024
arts

Haunts And Apparitions: Grief’s Alphabet By Carrie Etter; Fantastic Voyage By Amanda Dalton

 
There is a point at which Carrie Etter and Amanda Dalton’s poems melt into seamless authenticity. A recognition of the importance of grieving that renders elegy ever-current, Etter, throughout her new collection, and Dalton in the moving central diptych,Notes on Water, help us, in an obscurely tangential way, to understand why Shakespeare’s Tragedies gaze always on the present whilst his Comedies seem to remain time-locked. For the broad, multi-angled and complex landscape of loss is witheringly prosecuted by Etter and Dalton, in an all-consuming, overwhelming negation of extraneous considerations that most resembles the depressing focus of Lear or Macbeth as they peer into the void.

In contemplative ebb, Dalton’s formal composure breaks as surely as the Matthew Arnold of ‘Dover Beach’; her words fragment, unequal to the task of transfiguring bereavement. Towards the end of this, by turns harrowing, by turns cathartic, long poem, the one half of ‘Notes on Water’ that deals with the loss of her partner is subsumed beneath the deluge of water whose terrible effects were felt in real time in the Calder Valley floods. And if resolution cannot be proffered, a window is opened on the nature of mental suffering and the dissolution of self in the catacombs of grief:

‘She dreams of strangers talking to her,
but she can’t hear what they say,
dreams of shrouded cityscapes and faces
lost in fog, dreams she’s almost blind
and swimming, in a fractured pool
in the bowels of an abandoned building.’

There is a sense in which the waters are closing over the narrator here, pulling her away, in grief, from material reality. And beyond the metaphor lies the eroded subaqueous urban terrain of the Hebden Bridge deluge, that featured so irrepressibly in Clare Shaw’s haunting collection on the theme of love, loss and a kind of redemption, Flood.

Water is pervasive, indigent; in the words of Michael Stipe, ‘reckless’. And highly serviceable as a figure for shrouding memory. Carrie Etter is also drawn to its blandishments. Nosing through a sensory garden, her deliciously languid poem ‘The Long Summer’ finds an image of the long-deceased mother figure, for whom the book is a panegyric, amongst the metaphorical reeds; that narrator, and reader, are similarly seduced encourages reproduction of the poem in full:

‘Come July,
roses, lavender, sweet pea-
tipsy I go
on colour, on perfume,

till brought to a pause
at a pool of silence, memory-
your face
floats up.

Come your birthday,
I wade in.

Etter’s unusual use of syntax – ‘tipsy I go / on colour, on perfume’ – confers on this succinct poem a synaesthesial immediacy, redolent of Keats’ drowsed narcosis. The conceit is well-worn across this fine collection: unexpected syntactical reversals, abrupt line endings that invest a thought with a kaleidoscope of suggestion, a panoply of extraordinary forms – all are gathered in the service of a necessary passage, for if the poems are complete, the process of grieving is work-in-progress. Divided into sections that both encounter grief in the aftermath of death, and measure its effects in the downdraft of the present, Grief’s Alphabet is a lexicon of not forgetting, informed by thirteen years of bereavement, a lifetime of hindsight, and an unwillingness to open clenched fingers. And if, in places, the pain is transfigured into beauty, it is in the open-ended poems of detached reflection that we find moments of doubt, tantalisingly (dis)articulated in Etter’s end-stopped inner thought:

‘I cannot stop. Is it too late
to become a better daughter?
Yes, it is too late. Still I.’ (‘The Modie Box’)

The interstitial silence following may be filled with tears, or it may prelude a continuing apostrophic dialogue, yet enough words are given to describe a state of mind, to complete the poem. In either case, an inability to frame further words is made conspicuous in their absence, and if the elision, the hesitancy, resembles Hopkins at his most joyously confounded, then the difference is one only of mood and tone; it recurs throughout the collection and the respective hiatuses open a world of suggestion.

Etter’s childhood adoption and the vibrant dynamic of her subsequent relationship with her new mother and father narrows the semantic gap between lived experience and poetic reinterpretation, for, apropos of my earlier comment about the clarifying power of Shakespearean Tragedy, little room is left for doubt. Defusing the minefield of psychological ramifications, Etter completes a circle, finding unity in the heartening warmth of a family photograph in four strong iambic beats – ‘From either side, the three are one’ (‘An Adoption in 360°’), or assimilating the indivisibility of blood and non-heredity in unrelated siblings…

‘as the PE teacher muttered, You Etter girls-
I can’t tell you apart.
’ (‘The Lauras’)

The striving for oneness is refracted through the prism of sensory memory: the luscious fruit of a shared melon in ‘Canteloupe’ and the isolate flame of a cardinal bird against the backdrop of snow in the exquisite prose-poem ‘Homing' trace a natural process of bonding, within the narrator’s compass of individuality: ‘I was like that red cardinal on the white lawn, easy in brightness, except I was two: we’.

The presence of several family photographs in and amongst the poems yields an overwhelming feeling of warmth, of collective contentment. And if we were inclined to infer ghosts in the shadows, Etter overturns preconception by locating melting points in the tangents and obtuse angles of relationships. If complexity remains, it is etoliated by the enduring figure of love, and re-emerges mostly in conventions of guilt. That the italicised daughter figure’s anxiety in the conflicted two-hander, ‘No, Not Norovirus’, is expressed in the first-person sharpens the axis of cool observational discourse, as though to distil the sense of helplessness that obtains when encroaching death shadows an out-of-reach landscape. Sent flowers induce desperation, and become, like Larkin’s, ‘propitiatory’ in the crushing silence that lies between: ‘Her body became all wound, no breath // Tell me she saw my name

Etter tries to resolve the vicarious pain of physical suffering and personal grieving in formal measures whose (in)tractability both reflects, and in some instances, deflects an impulse to fragmentation. If the circumscribing couplets of ‘The Body in Pain’ make of the narrator a supplicant before an inventory of bodily failure, finding use for an ‘immaculate’ liver unsullied by alcohol, then ‘The Body in Mourning’ is a discordant narrative of broken syntax, hiatus and random inventories, beneath which runs a coherent strain of harrowing physical dissipation. The body is, as it were, mourning its own decline and loss in a process of particulate dissolution, its ‘subtler flux’ tending, in Etter’s beautiful metaphor, towards ‘thin linen pinned to string // adrift or aloft’.

Amanda Dalton’s narrative retreats inward, a biological dissection inspected under a forensic microscope. Fantastic Voyage, whose title is taken from the Sixties Hollywood film of the same name, begins a rich journey of self-discovery for a protean child-figure, who flits in and out of experiences, before shape-shifting, in a later section of the book, into the sound of an echo, a feint suspicion of otherness. The ghostly presences who follow Dalton’s emotional flood in ‘Notes on Water’, around which continuity pivots, are both refractions of ‘self’ in different guises, and journeys of discovery. The reader is deracinated by the febrile strangeness of the several noetic voices but also drawn in by the surreal mystery they leave in their wake: we are distracted, if not stopped in our tracks, by suddenly illuminated fragments, like silver shards turning in water.

The opening frames of Dalton’s threaded collection revisit the exquisite excitement of the new from a child’s perspective. Conceived as a series of prose poems, ‘Look Inside!’ is a collective response to external stimuli, to the sensory pleasure of discovery, and to the acquisition of experience, for good or ill. Open-eyed, the narrator’s eroding innocence blooms with gathering rust as the process of learning yields to the insinuation of darker suggestion. The panoply of contradictory ‘voices’ are Bakhtinian in range: the child’s morbid fascination with biological evisceration is mirrored by the counterpoint of the flasher in the dark alley; the mother figure, the friend, the auntie, whose interjections are both hyperbolic and cautionary become conduits for the retelling of fables and fairy stories with a sinister or self-mortifying edge, as though to paralyse the credulous girl with fear. When not reaching for astonishingly persuasive metaphors, Dalton is brutally frank on the nature of female subjection, and inherited narratives of guilt and punishment:

‘She knows that everything’s falling out of her
mother’s insides and that this is very shameful and her mother
will surely die. And Andrea knows the shame is worse than
the dying and this is why nobody speaks of it or helps or
cries.’

And a sense of foreboding is well worked elsewhere in the later parts of this seductive collection, where the remote passages of arterial introspection turn into another kind of concealment as the hidden wraiths of our worst fears lurk in the dark woods. The unknowable narrator of ‘Nights I Squat’ is an incubus whose power becomes manifest only as a measure of our anxiety, a transference of the ‘tinnitus’ of daily dread, the creaking shed door, or the ‘owl’s occasional screech’. If the brief, confessional lines of ‘Magic’ presage a premonition of a father’s death, then they are transfigured, in the delicate articulation of metamorphosis, by the father’s ‘enchanted’ new state, whose resurgent beauty is a projection of the narrator’s love:

‘for the trembling
antennae and the wings
banded orange blues
all fluttering
the disappearing man
the man with wings
in his eyes’

Amanda Dalton’s poem charge the extraneous landscapes in which they often dwell with the electricity of subtextual inference. The fine suite of poems entitled ‘Three Hauntings’, whose notional muse is the work of artist Peter Doig, successfully overpaints the respective canvasses in patinas of personal recollection, making a palimpsest that tips a hat to the suggestive power of art whilst conferring new possibilities on the original. And if the three sestets of ‘Pelican’ yield to the narrator’s own fearful memory of a man with a shotgun whose eyes ‘seemed to say I’m not afraid to shoot’, then the child in the mind’s eye of the lush and evanescent sonnet that follows may or may not be an image of the narrator as an eight-year-old girl. The figure is as beyond reach, yet as narcotically present, as the conflicted memory that is Carrie Etter’s unwavering focus:

‘I want to climb to her, to know if that face
is smiling or in fear. I want to reach her
but I’m scared that she’s malevolent
or I might fall or she might melt away.’ (‘Girl in White with Trees’)


Grief’s Alphabet is published by Seren (2024). For more information click here.

Fantastic Voyage is published by Bloodaxe Books (2024). For more information click here.