The Shooting Gallery, Carrie Etter
Verve Poetry Press, 2020 £7.50
Youth devastated by violence
The first half of Carrie Etter’s pamphlet of prose poems is inspired by the surrealist drawings of Toyen, a Czech artist. The resulting themes explore childhood, with its strange isolation when subverting adult expectations, alongside the destructive power of war-time violence. Metaphors juxtapose childhood objects with dismembered birds and broken buildings.
Through writing in response to Toyen, Etter began to see how closely she associated youth and violence with her own home country (the USA), most notably through high school and university shootings. Consequently, the second half of the pamphlet consists of prose poems about real events in the US, including a shooting in Etter’s home town.
As with Toyen’s drawings, every poem bears the same title: ‘The Shooting Gallery’. In the second section, there’s also a by-line with the name of the particular institution and date of event. This creates a disturbing barrage effect, almost like gunfire.
The use of prose poetry works well for such a difficult and emotive subject. The poet’s language is incredibly spare, recording events of specific detail. For example::
Each segment of land
has a single specimen: steel chains; a backpack spilling
textbooks; a Glock 19; the corpse of a teenager.
[‘The Shooting Gallery, Virginia Tech, 2007’]
There’s no need to direct the reader on how to respond. I was particularly moved by the second Virginia Tech poem which took on a slightly more surrealist slant, describing how the named lecturer is now in heaven, not being asked about ‘his experience of the Holocaust or about the university shooting, but about his work in aeroelasticity’. It ends with the following lines (these are part of a fully justified prose-poem paragraph:
He often pauses as he
answers, smiling broadly, and glances over his shoulder, where
out of the windows his students still climb.
Overall, this is a powerful, assured work with a taut, controlled tone. Etter’s use of concrete imagery conjures each campus and its terrible event in the mind’s eye. I could vividly picture each group of parents huddled together waiting for news.
The impact words can have
This pamphlet stores narratives in prose poetry form. It’s split into two sections, the first inspired by the surreal paintings of the Czech artist Toyen, the second by American school shootings. Each piece is a bullet, bearing the blended imagery of childhood and violence.
The intensity of the combination rocks the reader back and forth within the crisp lines. There’s a sense of loss and isolation in the Toyen-based work. Disappearing children, silent birds, hurling balls, barbed wire and lost childhood infuse the imagery.
‘The Shooting Galley V11’ sharply expresses these sensations. Targets in the gallery are painted on a board:
a dog’s open mouth, panting or barking. On another, a gagged
woman, struggling to look away.
The second section, ‘The United States, 1999–’, extends the theme to cover recent events at several schools and further-education colleges. Bouquets, personal items, favourite things, candles, a corpse in its bloodiness — all transport the reader into absence and rituals of grief. Real becomes surreal. We feel the despair and pointless waste in this litany, enhanced by the malleable form.
In ‘The Shooting Gallery, Sante Fe High School, Texas, 2018’ there’s a devastating line which typifies the power of these poems:
At the back, in a large supple closet, teenagers hide as they hear
the shooter sing, ‘Another one bites the dust’, as they hear
footsteps just before the bullets.
By including their names, the work pays homage to every student lost.
I was a little nervous of the prose-poetry form before reading this. Now, I appreciate how meshing imagery with fact in a limited number of sentences can pack a punch. These are powerful laments, verging on political protest. Repeated twists and turns full of surprise. They will stay with me for a long time.