“The Shooting Gallery” is two sequences of prose poems. The first looks at Czech surrealist Toyen’s twelve line drawings done during the Second World War under the title “The Shooting Gallery” and the second explores school and university shootings in America in the twenty year period 1999-2019, including in the poet’s birthstate of Illinois.
“The Shooting Gallery VIII” starts with a description of Toyen’s line drawing,
“See the torsos of two young soldiers, arms roughly hacked off above the elbow, chests mounted on grooved walnut pedestals”.
The prose poem ends in a reaction,
“Look at all those walnuts scattered on the plain, a windfall reminscent of long summer days, bulging pockets, a son’s bounty.”
The opening image is a bounty of war. The closing image suggestive of peaceful summer days, harvesting walnuts, nature’s bounty. But it also echoes the opening image of spoils of war and the effects of war on both sons who returned and the families of those who didn’t return. Those left behind is a theme picked up later, with a surprise twist in, “The Shooting Gallery XII”, inspired by Toyen’s line drawing (complete poem):
“Is this the end of childhood? The castles constructed from building blocks look as though they’ve suffered an aerial bombardment, what with the missing roofs and broken towers. As for the rabbit emerging from a blasted fortress, once a girl named him. Once a girl, long gone, stroked his fur.”
The girl is gone, an ambiguity since it’s not known whether she was fatally injured or fled, her hurry forcing her to leave her pet rabbit behind. Yet he’s managed to survive, so far. The poems in the opening sequence act as quick line sketches, building an image and engaging the reader with questions concerning how to react, how to respond to the art.
The second sequence starts with one of the most famous school shootings, “The Shooting Gallery Columbine High School, Colorado, 1999” looks at a teenager’s pick up truck and ends,
“Inside the cab, over the bed, cellophane-wrapped bouquets rise amid cards, handwritten notes, a poem until all the empty space fills, until absence becomes presence, for a while.”
It’s not explicit, but it’s clear the truck belonged to one of the victims. The bouquets, cards and notes become a presence in place of his absence until the truck is collected. The focus on the aftermath encourages the focus to shift on the victims and their families and friends rather than the perpetrators who are not mentioned at all. A later poem picks up a more recent shooting, “The Shooting Gallery Normal Community High School, Illinois, 2012”,
“At first, what rattled / was the proximity, the intimacy – / gunfire only a mile from / my family home. For days I wore the knowledge / like chain mail, my torso / heavier, my shoulders / newly weighted. I Googled. I found in my town Darnall’s Gun Works & Rangers, C.I. Shooting Sports. I found photos of / the aftermath, the brawny teacher leading a column of students / away, away, / the huddled parents, waiting, the / reunions, the mother and son – / – / the son’s t-shirt: a drawing of a boy wearing his baseball cap backwards / his eye to the viewfinder / of a machine gun, its long belt of cartridge ready – / mother and son and his t-shirt – this / is where I come from.”
The poet feels the jolt of recognition: this was where she grew up. But, having moved away, she uses a search engine for clues. What strikes her is the normality of guns: shops selling them and the image on the boy’s t-shirt, even as he is reunited with his mother after another school shooting. It asks, when guns are revered, how can such events be stopped? Another poem witnesses President Obama at a press conference at another shooting. The final poem is another parking lot, “The Shooting Gallery Central Academy of Excellence, Missouri, 2019”, where
“Mylar balloons rise into a white sky: pink hearts and blue, gold and silver stars. In the place of an artist’s signature in the lower right corner, a caption: Anjanique Wright, 15.”
The skyward rise is significant. The name and age labelling one is a reminder of the loss: not only the life of the child but the loss of the adult that child could have become, the children she might have borne.
Carrie Etter’s spare prose gives readers enough guide to build a sketch of what’s being described but also enough space to read and engage with the resulting poems. Their quiet tone and lack of hectoring enable the reader to ask questions and consider the juxtaposition of youth and violence, the potential of not-yet-adulthood with the abrupt end of that potential.
Emma Lee’s The Significance of a Dress is available from Arachne Press. The link also has a trailer featuring the title poems and samples of some of the poems from the collection. It is also available as an eBook.