Scar by Carrie Etter
Scar by Carrie Etter
Shearsman Books, 2016
Reviewed by Kathleen Kirk
Poet Carrie Etter is originally from Normal, Illinois, where Christopher Al-Aswad lived when he founded Escape Into Life (and where this reviewer and poetry editor lives now). Etter escaped first to California and then to England, where she works at Bath Spa University. But there is no escaping global warming, climate change, and the wild disruptions of “normal” evidenced in the extreme weather noted in Scar, a long poem presented in chapbook form with a frightening and beautiful cover depicting a tornado on the horizon.* In Scar, there is no more “normal.” It’s all extreme:
the volume’s rising:
more extreme weather events:
The poem arises from various factual reports, including the 2014 White House “Fact Sheet: What Climate Change Means for Illinois and the Midwest” and “Updating the Illinois Wildlife Action Plan: Using a vulnerability assessment to inform conservation priorities.” The latter no doubt accounts for the presence of so many animals in the poem and the speaker’s transformation into their motions:
(off-page I am
fish glide, I am
As reader and fellow witness, I am familiar with what she sees and hears: “the cicada / gnawing through summer nights” (happening now in July in my own back yard), “the cow raising its gaze / at the wind’s shift” (I grew up among farmers who were perfectly aware of animal and plant responses to and communication about the weather), “the field mouse scrabbling in grain-rich dirt” (who, in winter, came into the farmhouse where I grew up; my parents still keep a running tally of their deaths, alas, by mousetrap!). Having lived in Chicago for twenty years, I also know of the “concrete, asphalt heat islands” that Etter depicts there but did not know this actual term: “heat islands” (her italics). I do know that Chicago is teaching its responsible residents about rain gardens, to help hold the soil together around their houses and to prevent basement flooding, since the street sewer system cannot handle the torrential rains of extreme weather.
Scar feels for the farmers dealing with drought:
in Illinois, a farmer crumbles
earth between thumb and forefinger
and in Egypt, a mother counts coins, reckons
the cost of bread
setting this in its global context.
and the crops drown go to mud
“A year’s amount of rain in a month
and a half: 25 to 30 inches of rain,” one farmer said.
“It’s a wonder we aren’t all alcoholics.”
We’ve seen that around here, for sure, in recent years—not the drinking, I wouldn’t know about that!—but the extreme weather: dry season, wet season, tornadoes. In November 2013, part of a larger tornado outbreak, a tornado devastated the small town of Washington, Illinois, just northwest of Normal, and this spring a tornado damaged businesses and a trailer park in Pontiac, just up the road on I-55 (and the old Route 66). It’s happening, just as Etter and the Fact Sheet report.
What makes this extreme weather worse than what’s always plagued farmers? Well, that’s part of the ongoing debate, isn’t it, about climate change and global warming and how humans have destroyed or exacerbated Nature’s own checks and balances. And why can’t we fix this? Well, according to Naomi Klein, in This Changes Everything: Capitalism vs. the Climate, another of Etter’s source materials, well, as the subtitle tells us, capitalism. The particular kind of extreme capitalism we have today, which pushes extreme consumption, no matter the damage to the environment. As Rob Nixon, the New York Times reviewer of Klein’s book summarizes, “In democracies driven by lobbyists, donors and plutocrats, the giant polluters are going to win while the rest of us, in various degrees of passivity and complicity, will watch the planet die.” Interestingly, Nixon sees Klein as optimistic about the earth (even if, so far, we’ve gone too far) since reaction against extreme capitalism has begun and since scientists agree on the phenomenon of global warming. Already, little Davids are picking up figurative slingshots to fight “the giant polluters” so let’s get ready for the thunderous topple.
This summer I also read The Children’s Blizzard by David Laskin, about a terrible blizzard that struck the Midwest in 1888, in Nebraska and Kansas, Minnesota, and the Dakotas, killing schoolchildren as they tried to make it home. Extreme weather in Willa Cather country and Laura Ingalls Wilder times. But farming itself had made people vulnerable to the extremes, the clearing of the land. Much of the land was inhospitable to farmers from the start, many immigrant settlers misled by advertisements and the promise of free land. Was this the beginning of extreme capitalism? The book ends with prairie restoration and the return, in 2014, of Indian and buffalo populations to parts of the Great Plains.
It ends with a kind of hope.
It’s true that Nature accommodates relentless change and is a source of it, allowing change to restore balance, but not without a price when it comes to human endeavor and human comfort. Etter cites the tornado—“its scar in the earth visible // from space”— as an example of Nature’s power and takes on Nature’s voice to say “and I annihilate.” The seemingly singular female voice of the poem’s start—“at my beginning prairie / at my beginning: a town called Normal”—has grown large and terrifying, multiple, universal, carrying Mother Nature’s rage and ironic, punitive awareness, “I, the world’s curse.” How to stop her? There’s no stopping her. The damage has been done. We scarred her, giving birth to ourselves.
I don’t know if I hear in this book a recommendation. It may be all testament. Lamentation. Prophecy. It may already be too late, or it may be time to stop talking about the weather and do something. If not, “a helicopter—with such snow, such winds— / cannot deliver the heart // in time.”
*cover art copyright/credit Tokarsky, 2013