-Reviewed by Penny Boxall–
Homecoming opens with a train wreck. The title poem is a deftly-handled slipping of language as the accident sinks in, the tone shifting from matter-of-fact to detached curiosity. In this, we’re quickly given reason to trust Carrie Etter’s voice; she takes the subtle risks of the surefooted (there’s a wonderfully clear image early on of the engineer’s footprints gradually disappearing into the snow, his body lightening as he “approache[s] death”) . As the train shudders through the poem it is clear that the homecoming is not to be a happy one: the shattered train finally pulls in at Normal, Illinois, but it is to a home altered by experience, breathing the “last collective sigh” of the passengers’ shared experience. Someone starts laughing; but the newly isolated individuals, no longer a collective, “won’t look”. There is little of the relief of homecoming, but rather a sense of inheriting a knowledge that has always been in store. Normal has been reset.
Illinois features convincingly in these poems – its flat, corn-filled fields provide a blank horizon on which Etter places her words like “stalks in an acre of white” (“Perspective”). These small landmarks become the means by which we navigate the poet’s grief. The second half of the pamphlet aches with the loss of her father, though it keeps its perspective; while it’s aware of the “white weeks” of bereavement, at first it keeps them in its peripheries, focussing on what it can manage at the time – the “one stalk”.
Etter lays out the facts like algebra: if x, then y, she calmly reasons, though she’s always leading us to a bruising conclusion. The numbers tally life’s difficulties: the sister who lives with “her husband and / three, works thirty-five, forty a week as / a hotel maid, rises at five-thirty, sleeps at nine”; the father who has been in intensive care for twelve days, “stranded on the Styx” for two months. “The Reclamation” documents the (sometimes competitive) sisters’ limbo as they urge their father back to life, “rais[ing] [their] voices like lanterns” over the Styx, until he is theirs again: “Mine, says the speechy daughter. Mine.” Earlier, in “Birthday”, the sisters imagine trading places with each other: “I remembered, / as teenagers, saying I wanted her skin. / If I get your body, she quipped, / and we stood for minutes, considering. ”
Etter is clear-sighted from others’ perspective, acknowledging that though the hospital room in which her father lies dying is, in her absence, a place beyond the reach of time, she also defines it by her presence, imposing upon the room, and by extension her father, “pulse, / breath, voice, and the / distinct sound of otherness / in footfall” (“Paralysis”). Alongside her sisters, there is also thoughtful emotional room for her mother (in “Widow”):
‘The plateau she stands on
extends flat in all directions,
prairie without a crop.
When she looks, he is too
plainly not there.’
By imagining herself from her own into her mother’s grief, she assuages both; inviting the reader in, too, is generous. Even in introspective grief she can see it from the other side, which is what makes this pamphlet a helpful and poignant one.