Tuesday, August 22, 2006


by Carrie Etter

Forced to apologise
for the dirty sheets, he looks
proud in his shame.
I left that bed years ago
and have returned to collect
a forgotten book, a favourite blanket.
He knew the names of trees better
than makes of cars, but neither well.
He remembers which sister
I like least and asks
how she is doing.

First off, this poem is found in the latest issue of the British Council-sponsored New Writing series, this year’s New Writing 14. Actually, the poet Carrie Etter is American, but if you live and work in England – or anywhere among the countries under the Commonwealth - you are eligible to send your work to the New Writing project. As it is, she teaches creative writing in Bath Spa University, working there as an Associate Lecturer.

As I’m writing this I’ve completed reading through a third of NW14. No, you won’t be able to get this book in Kino or in any bookshop in KL now – I already booked a copy months back, and last I checked, last week or so, the bookshop didn’t stock it yet. How is it I’m reading it? I got a free copy from the British Council, KL, about two weeks back, as one of the first 20 winners of a little contest (Answer this and be the one of the 1st 20 people to get a free copy).

At this time, I still haven’t chosen poem to post in here. Incidentally, I’ve just finished the short story section of the book, and the next one is poems. I have quickly gone through those pages, and I stopped to read Divorce – that’s it, then, I found the poem to write about.

I really like this poem, because I’m looking for a short poem to work on, and it is actually the type or style of poem I myself would aspire to write: something not too long, with spare but telling details. Carrie doesn’t tell you what is going on in this divorce; she’s showing you.

Divorce is a short piece but is so very leaden with tension and conflict. The first three lines show a conflict of emotions here : he is ashamed and also proud of the dirty sheets. But why apologise anymore if he’s already divorced? Then, she’s saying she’s left his bed years ago. Conflict again: but why is she back after all these years, just to retrieve some “forgotten book, a favourite blanket”?

Notice the mirroring of these pair of items is foregrounded for us by the initial sounds from the “f” and “b” consonants (even if the first “f” sound is inside a non-stress syllable). Is this implying that he and she are still a pair, a couple, albeit in conflict? Or implying that she is still drawn to him, as from some force of habit? Could this paired items be symbolic of a kind of recurrence, of old habits, of some wont?: he cheated on her in their bed once, and now he is sort-of doing that again.

And what in the world is she doing being that close to his bed? The lines “He knew the names …of cars, but neither well.”: conflict – he knew, not know, these things but really he didn’t that well. Tension here: in the last three lines we can imagine him, now, goading her on by asking – probably very casually, very unaffectedly - after a sister of hers, whom she likes the least. The alliteration in “like least” tells loads about this sister. A very good guess what kind of relationship this sister had – or has - with the husband.

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Blogger Spot said...

I'm on a roll, seeing things differently. :)

This piece paints a picture of an aftermath. The man has abandoned the domestic expectation that marriage imposes on most men - the need to change the sheets regularly, make the bed etc. He no longer needs to make such compromises.

It's a symbol of freedom from the shackles of marriage yet he feels compelled to apologise to his ex-wife for his current slovenliness. But pride urges him to adopt a defiant stance while doing so..."he looks proud in his shame"

The woman's perspective - knew the names of trees better than the makes of cars seems to imply that she didn't have a high regard for him as a man during their marriage. Sounds like he was more the dreamy/academic sort?

The woman notes that he actually remembers the sister. Maybe she's surprised, maybe she'd assumed that he had been too caught up in his own dreamy/academic world (of trees?) to have listened to her bitch abt her sister. But he did.

I disagree that this poem implies that there was a relationship btwn the sister and the husband. If that were so, his deliberately (and therefore cruelly) asking abt the sister is inconsistent with the consideration that he appears to have for the ex-wife (evidenced in his contrition for the dirty bed).

Instead, I think the query is to illustrate the fact that every divorce is preceded by happier days - Times when the couple confided in each other, witnessed every aspect of each other's lives. Happier days before things fell to pieces.

The query brings back the memory of the couple's simple intimacy in those days. The wife is likely to feel stronger abt a sister she likes least than the one she likes best and in asking abt that sister, the man is likelier to get more than a "she's fine" from his ex-wife.

He might actually get a conversation going.

I like this piece. It reminds me of how I've always felt abt the emotional toll of divorce. In all the bitterness and fury, one wonders what happened to the love that once was?? How did it get so bad?

I used to be a divorce lawyer. And very often I noted that when you remove the dominant emotions - anger, hurt, bitterness - there's often a sense of ambivalence. The mind tries to make sense of how the beginning led to the ending but the heart is in too much pain to try to reconcile the two.

Quite often, people don't understand why, after the dust has settled, they find that they still care.

I think that's what we're looking at here.

10:44 AM, August 23, 2006  
Blogger Leon Wing said...

Spot, you are thinking like a lawyer here: "the need to change the sheets regularly, make the bed etc. He no longer needs to make such compromises."

I grant that the poem doesn't go into specifics about the reasons the sheets are dirty , and why he's ashamed. If it does that, Carrie'd be telling us then. Based on the context those lines are in, there could be more than just needing to change sheets.

And, as a lawyer you 're defending him : "Sounds like he was more the dreamy/academic sort?" - or giving him the benefit of the doubt?

I still think that any poet who brings focus to alliterative words is trying to make us think beyond those words. So, Carrie has done this so well, making me the reader think of some possible relationship between the sister and him beyond merely being in-laws.

Nevertheless, Spot, your interpretation of this poem is interesting.

2:15 PM, August 23, 2006  
Blogger madcap machinist said...

I find Spot's comments very insightful of the poet herself, while Leon's are of the poet's techniques. It would be nice to see more of Carrie Etter's work.

This is a very interesting exchange...

Thanks for pointing out the mirroring of "a forgotten book, a favourite blanket" .

The alliteration of "like least" can slow the reading of the line right down, lingering and approaching a pause. I can see how this stressing can imply a relationship between the ex-husband and the sister.

The dirty sheets; the book; the blanket; the affinity to trees but the lack of knowledge about them -- isn't there also a childish quality that the narrator sees in her ex-husband and, taking it further, in their relationship? If the poem wasn't titled "Divorce" maybe it would take very little to change the poem to allude to a lost childhood friend.

2:44 PM, August 23, 2006  
Blogger Leon Wing said...

MM, you can see something childish in the husband. You could be right, as I see him as bit of a lad.

10:02 AM, August 24, 2006  
Blogger Spot said...

you are thinking like a lawyer here: "the need to change the sheets regularly...

as a lawyer you're defending him...

You think? Really? That sure wasnt the intention. In fact I thought my whole comment was so...Hallmark-movie! :) I wonder though if I'd never mentioned my profession, would you have come to the same dismissive conclusion.

Actually I'm just stating what the poem evokes in me, MY intepretation. Certainly no need to "defend" when I never interpreted him as being attacked.

Sorry, but I neither have the technical appreciation nor literary knowledge to analyse poems in terms of sounds and breaks and alli-whatevers.

I can only tell you what response these things evoke in me.

2:17 PM, August 24, 2006  
Blogger dreamer idiot said...

Spot, there's nothing wrong with not knowing those technical bits like some of us do, as each of us approach poetry differently, and that is where things gets interesting. Some people would lean more to one interpretation than another, some bring personal insights in, some emotional, some intellectual. :)

Yes, I was actually thinking your response was so Hallmark... (Haha, what a brilliant analogy you use). For me, the poem signalled all the reasons why they broke up, especially the 'dirty' sheets of adultery - that is how I read it; not to mention, the differences between them, and a sense of coldness as well. Spot, the point you made about the speaker returning on purpose singifying some hope, lends a softer side to the poem.

7:16 PM, August 24, 2006  
Blogger dreamer idiot said...

Laddish guy? mmm... Spot sees him as the dreamy sort. Me? I think he has an air of flippancy about him.

7:19 PM, August 24, 2006  
Blogger madcap machinist said...

I would like to amend my last comment to end that it alludes to a lost innocence.

On another note, how sure can we be that the divorce is caused by adultery by either party? The 'dirty sheets', as DI pointed out, could be a clue, but is that enough?

Back to Spot's first comment, (love how you empathise with poetry, Spot. Am always looking forward to your comments), isn't it true that sometimes couples (or estranged ones, as it were) argue, just for the sake of arguing -- to be in constant interaction?

Yes, it may be that asking about the least liked sister may provoke a strong response. It might have been a calculated question; on the other hand, it might have been the only thing that he could think to ask about.

And one wonders why she dislikes that sister... could she be the dangerously flirtatious type? I have met such sisters.

And the picture the narrator paints of the ex-husband: laddish, flippant... I do not detect an overtly negative view. Perhaps she does still care.

This is a very strong, very intriguing poem. Thank you for sharing, Leon. Congrats for getting a free copy of the book!

3:52 AM, August 25, 2006  
Blogger Leon Wing said...

MM, you are being very intuitive - once again: "Perhaps she does still care." Like, why come back to him for her things, after so many years? Just to see how he is doing, etc? Perhaps?

Spot, your responses have been very interesting, and we all appreciate and can see it from your viewpoint. So, don't take this the wrong way with my responses to you. As any lawyer, he has to justify his actions with hard facts. In our case the hard facts are the technical details of the the poem. I'm not into the old school of literary critcism but into the ones who use literary stylistics founded on linguistics.

8:52 AM, August 25, 2006  
Blogger dreamer idiot said...

Hahahaha. Leon, that IS old school, and I was grounded in it too... albeit not as good as you are. :)

11:11 AM, August 25, 2006  
Anonymous Viagra Online said...

When I divorced I wrote a letter about my feelings but I never thought my ex wife would read it. After that she returned to me.

3:53 AM, August 27, 2010  

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