In The Shooting Gallery, Carrie Etter uses a favourite form, the prose poem, to interrogate and illuminate the fatal attraction in a country with more guns than people. However, her way in is not outrage or despair, but to look through an artist’s eye, in a sequence of twelve ekphrastic poems, featuring images suggested by the ambiguous ‘Gallery’ in the pamphlet title. Czech artist Toyen captures, for Etter, a savage meshing of images of childhood as in: ‘think: Anne of Green Gables. Oh I / remember child-size desires, glee come easy,’ (‘Shooting Gallery II’) and images of ‘adult’ war, most luminously in the ‘torsos of two young soldiers, arms roughly hacked off…their thoughts: school and / its handwriting lessons.’ (‘Shooting Gallery VIII’) Barely more than child-soldiers then, killing and killed in a landscape of severed fish, fox and stag’s heads, an eco-genocide.

The second half is a dozen more prose poems, based on now infamous US school shootings, Columbine being the most well-known. The focus is the aftermaths. The iconography of violent, shocking child massacres, is evoked by tableaux, both incongruous and by now horribly familiar to us, of a ‘teenage boy’s brown pick-up truck’ sprouting ‘lilies, roses, carnations…balloons / tied to the fender…cellophane-wrapped bouquets rise amid cards, handwritten notes.’ The totality becomes ‘a poem until all the empty space / fills, until absence becomes presence, for a while.’ By these pathetic, rote and screened observances, do we try and retain, even resurrect, the lost ones.

This is not merely poetic observation of terrible events at distance, through the by now commonplace reiterations of on-screen, societal comment, laboured analyses and swift conclusions of non-conclusion, often followed by celebrity support, and the squalid, inevitable political side-stepping. For in the poem, ‘Normal Community High School, Illinois, 2012’, the ‘war’ comes to the poet’s hometown. ‘At first, what rattled / was the proximity, the intimacy – / gunfire / only a mile from / my family home.’ The poet wears ‘the / knowledge / like chain mail, my torso / heavier, my shoulders / newly weighted.’ The chain-mail image shines in its ambivalences, suggesting the need to feel ‘armoured’, yet also inured, against the event, but also the ineffectual nature of the armour (which won’t stop high velocity bullets). It echoes an older, more ‘chivalric’ way of death, associated with knights in armour, where there appears, however spurious, some ‘cause’ or ‘motivation’.  Perhaps we are, suggests the image, from an older era of more ‘established values’, incapable of properly processing what seems random, savage, purposeless and incomprehensible. Until the next round of handwringing and pop-psychology faux explication.

Ken Evans

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