Under the guise of its quotidian title, The Weather in Normal is all the more blistering when it reveals its true nature: abnormality is its nucleus, and the climate its concern.
Carrie Etter’s fourth poetry collection is a resounding call to arms, urging us to wake up to the fact that the world’s increasingly extreme weather is indeed far from normal. The cover photograph – a singular bolt of lightning against a purple puddled prairie – was taken in central Illinois, where Etter grew up. The image is at once personal, simple and bruising, forecasting the danger that lurks within. In this way, it swiftly symbolises the entire collection.
Focusing the lens on her small town, Normal, the poet zeros in first on familial loss – before zooming out in the second chapter to reflect on home and chasms in a broader sense. The final third is opened wide: climate change, extinction and casualties on a global scale. It’s a clever progression; the idea of bereavement and vulnerability expands from the private to the public, rendering the ending note all the more impactful.
Etter writes intimately in the opening chapter about her parents’ fragility, despite her youthful assumption that they were “unbreakable”. In one poem, ‘My Father and the Blizzard’, she flicks back and forth between describing her father’s critical illness and regurgitating passages from a 2007 article on a blizzard that paralysed Illinois. The implication is that the extreme weather endangered him in a very real way. Early on “the doctor phoned in snow rising in drifts around his house”, then the poem ends on a cliffhanger: “coma a weatherless world”. In this chapter we learn also of her father’s layoff and her mother’s eventual death – contrary to a child’s expectation, parents are by no means invincible. (And nor, we’ll see, is the planet.)
The poet’s sly humour lightens all this dark subject matter a little. She blames the weather for her mother’s aches and pains: “Winter, I tell you. Fucking winter.” It’s not long before the poet’s constant references to temperature, storms and seasons grow more obviously significant. This is no mundane weather small-talk. Even the early mentions of personal crises drift deliberately between affinity and anonymity – in the poem above, she uses “the man” when referring to her father, signalling it could be anyone’s dad in further harm’s way due to the blizzard. Meanwhile the poet’s initial complacency regarding her mother might extend, in hindsight, to that felt by most people towards Mother Earth. The severity of climate change can only truly hit home when it imperils those closest to us.
On this note, cropping up relentlessly in the collection is the small, slightly archaic word “amid”. To me, it brought to the fore the fact that change in climate has come from us and will come for us without exception. We’re all in it together, as it were. Our culpability is starkest when Etter writes “am animal amid animals – | and I annihilate. I, the world’s curse.” We gradually see man-made contrivances (roads, helicopters) crumble against the supremacy of the weather:
snow and more snow until the roads
are no longer roads
and a helicopter – with such snow, such winds –
cannot deliver the heart
Etter writes bluntly and effectively of tornadoes terrorising children and floods destroying crops. The vast gaps she leaves between many lines and verses emphasises the sense of the unknown and the atmosphere of loss.
Even her town, Normal, will grow unrecognisable. Etter has already observed her father grow smaller, now it’s our world that will shrink and implode due to its overwhelming growth and development. The irony of this is not lost on readers. Unsurprisingly the poet sometimes seems to yearn for a return to the past – in ‘Artifact’ she writes: “There’s no downloading such elaborate intricacy.” We can’t turn to technology to patch up the world, she implies. In the same chapter, she dreamily floats back to Arcadia, allowing herself to conjure up a bucolic existence of idylls and meadows.
But in the last third, Etter’s anger is more palpable, direct; she punches, cries, spits. She mourns the Karner Blue butterfly, and emphasises the irrationality of losing such beautiful species in her poem ‘Because’. The reasons given for its dwindling numbers are meaningless, and her poems’ structures turn more and more erratic. Etter again leaks fact into the poetry, tearing into a White House fact sheet about the effects of climate change on her own region.
Local cicadas both open and close the collection. They appear in the first poem, ‘Night Ode’, with squalls that breach the quiet “torpid” night. In the final poem the cicadas are seen again embedded in the body of Illinois – a brief flashback to the “normal”, perhaps, after pages and pages of deterioration? Time and time again, Etter refuses to end her poems with a full stop; could it be in hope that the world’s fate is not yet sealed? In any case, we need more voices like Etter’s
The Weather in Normal by Carrie Etter is available now from Seren.