Before flipping through and selecting a single poem in Emily Corwin’s new Tenderling, readers are struck by the text’s cover, an array of sharply mottled, kaleidoscopic, but no less formed and fantastical images. Sarah Shields’ illustrations contrasted over a faux beige linen background are marked by deep, bright reds and touches of blacks in flowers and handprints, disjointed bodies and disembodied heads. Serving as an enticing allure into Corwin’s work, these images and this color-scheme, perhaps a homage to Lewis Carroll’s Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, are woven into the sometimes playful, sometimes serious, but consistently and deeply suggestive and associative verse therein. Given the connotative nature of the title, it’s little wonder that Tenderling sets the tone for and no doubt speaks to the imaginative nostalgic child in us all as we journey through Corwin’s poems. But these are not our grandma’s (or grandpa’s) poems, or fairy tales, for that matter—no, these poems are allusive, reframed and reimagined tendrils of fairy tales, bursts of post/postmodern notions of love and femininity/ism, ajared positions and margins, liminal and defined spaces that deconstruct dominant ideologies and how “girls,” language, and disrupting narrative reclaim those positions and agencies. But these poems are resonantly personal too, and sufficiently elusive to keep us ever-chasing and trying to make and hold meaning. Corwin doesn’t let her readers off that easy, for these poems sing and sing again, need to be heard, read aloud, followed through strand by strand as each intelligently threads its way through our own experiences.
Corwin’s first poem “hex” is the spell that unlocks the complexity of language and images in Tenderling. Each “if” in “hex” weaves through thick reminiscences of nursery rhymes and myth that remind us of the terrors and excitement of narrative and storytelling. “hex” highlights Corwin’s adept use of language as she reconfigures and makes parallel the fantasy-like allusions to current political and social contexts. Corwin’s speaker is not passive; instead her speaker takes charge, creates spaces to move, bend and break the boundaries that pen her in. Corwin’s confident I conveys a self-assured agency, her verbs active and fierce and reflect her play of language and meaning through “bury,” “melts,” and “glides,” and lines like “if I am made a stone, if I / nightmare, … ” But, it’s the active “bolting” in the last line that captures our attention coupled with that “if.” Here the speaker seems in charge, in command, casting the spell, taking control of a meta-narrative that usually if conveniently portrays girls and women in unflattering, subservient roles that reinforces rather than challenges current dogma. What satisfies too is the opportunity Corwin offers readers to play by reading each if-line of “hex” pulled out and coupled with the final line—”bolting on every ground.” For example, “if I go underwood … bolting on every ground” and “if I am brave … bolting on every ground” continue to reveal both Corwin’s skill with language and verse, but too her ability to recast and redefine the narrative and create open spaces for her readers.
If Corwin’s “hex” is an opening spell of transformation into ideas of our past and current political and cultural battlegrounds then her poems “girl/creature” and “girl/costume” use of the forward slash is a wand to conjure notions of ownership, individuality, and paradox. Here, Corwin offers a compelling interplay between girl and creature / costume exploring both spaces of and/or that an effective use of the forward slash produces. Again, Corwin weaves Tenderling’s motifs of nature, fairy tale, and an emerging self-reflective /reflexive position throughout each of these poems. “girl/creature” reflects a similar independent streak of many of her poem’s speakers and moves through an ominous, pervasive darkness “from the bad thing lurking” with a hurried call to “awake girl” and get home before this girl is swallowed by that impending darkness. Corwin holds us to specific words and phrasing— “before the day’s dark girl with a head start”—and asks us to rest and think instead of reading hastily through each word and idea. Readers are prompted to wonder and question the girl and the creature: Who is the girl? The creature? Are they the same? And, how does paradox work here and why does it matter? Following the seemingly inescapable double bind that “girl/creature” offers, “girl/costume” highlights an either/or dichotomy by referencing the gendered markers of girlhood that seem to reinforce rather challenge those socially constructed spaces, but Corwin is again gently relentless in her poetic’s pursuit to be unapologetically both. While that first line of “girl/costume” sews in this girl in a rough crinoline dress, the girl seems tempted to accept her place by the “girly” toy stuffs and hairbrush and ribbons that surrounds her in this attic space. Corwin eludes here, though, with “girl” as a person or “girl” as a dress form (or a doll), a reflection of how girls and women have been objectified into a dress/toy-thing. The point, however, is that whatever readers imagine this girl/costume to be, Corwin forces us to question our own privileged beliefs about paradigms, power, and predictable endings that even as the candles are “shivering,” they are “lighted” nonetheless.
What also makes these poems fulfilling is the movement of each, Corwin’s command of shifting paces at which they move the reader, the sound and syllable. Poems like “morose” and “hurting to ask you” consistently offer a paradox of new and old, hiding and emerging. From “morose,” words like “splinters” and “swallowed” contrast with “softest tendril” while sonically moving us toward those soft “Ss” in “someone” and the repeated “sometimes. / sometimes” with just enough light “under maples and gloom” toward “sweetness crawling out” show this emerging, but powerful independence. Again, Corwin creates a kind of contrasting effect that gives rise to questions of how these two positions can be true and occupy the same space. Corwin’s “hurting to ask you” addresses a “you,” underscores an ever-present theme of self-reflection and self-reflexivity, offers readers multiple entry points to answer the questions throughout the poem, and touches the right amount of sentimentality and longing without overdoing it. As in many of the poems in this collection, Corwin never closes her readers off to the light at the end of the dark-forested path that is a powerful metaphor wending its way throughout Tenderling. These two poems feel more immediate and personal, cut and cut a little deeper like the sharp thorns and brambles littered throughout this text. In Corwin’s penultimate poem, “tenderling,” she merges innocence and experience while skillfully arranging and rearranging our perception of meaning through language an image. It’s worth citing the first stanza because of the kind of atmosphere that Corwin creates through confessionals and mediates throughout each subsequent stanza:
in a bad goodnight, in a good stove blackening,
I am a girl of pony hair—a bagful of ribbon. when
I dress the wounds, when I dress myself with figs
and coffee berries, and I get very emotional about
you. I care so very much, I just want to know you
are good and alive—here at day break, broken.
Yet, it’s Corwin’s skillful play with arrangement and sound in the final stanza that ultimately contrasts and highlights her word play from the first stanza and typifies her deft paradox:
too much, I am a baby deer for skinning—girl hurting in the
corn, pony hair and ribbons. forget the rhubarb, the branch dark
and oaken. forget my emotion—caring too much for your ugly
door. I dress in figs, the stove blackens to coals, and love that
you are, once darling, in the worst goodbye, I am a girl—
alive, at day breaking open.
And Corwin’s last poem “trellis” continues to maintain each overarching theme of Tenderling and a sense of paradox, illustrates an ever-shifting independence where a she calls the shots, where the speaker has the will to challenge body placement to the margins of “stale” and the “cupboard” and in foreboding “tea leaves” despite owning a self-reflective honesty where that “girl ripened” is ready, mature, and developed despite the “dead gardens” around her.
Gurlesque, feminist, post/post-postmodern? Tenderling doesn’t need or warrant easy labels. The beauty and effectiveness of this work doesn’t shine through mere labels, but instead through Corwin’s careful and astute language as it extends far beyond what we were told as children, for Corwin’s text uplifts as much as it reminds us that these places of identity and grand-narratives are still thorns in our sides that can be removed by our own hand.
Tenderling, by Emily Corwin. Santa Fe, New Mexico: Stalking Horse Press, February 2018. 68 pages. $13.99, paper.
Dameion Wagner lives and works in Columbus, Ohio. His work has appeared in Columbus Creative Cooperative’s first poetry anthology, The Ides of March, Shot Glass Journal, Crab Creek Review, Ohio Poetry Association’s Common Threads, and is forthcoming in The Gordian Review and Glass: A Journal of Poetry.