Magnolia Canopy Otherworld, by Erin Carlyle. Tampa, Florida: Driftwood Press, December 2020. 82 pages. $14.99, paper
Carlyle’s full-length poetry collection is as full and rich of naturalistic and surreal imagery as its title suggests. The book is a haunting exploration and a portrait of what it means to grow up as a girl and woman in the forgotten South. Here, characters shuffle in and out of drug clinics, go down to the river, search for and sometimes find temporary solace, though danger is never far behind. In the collection, Carlyle gets at the root of the otherness of childhood, the strangeness of our own bodies, of growing up not only a stranger to others, but to yourself. Carlyle examines and confronts the feralness of youth, putting the feelings of the prey and the intentions of the predator on full display, our baser instincts laid bare for us to examine, to wonder, just how different are we from other four legged companions on this planet?
I’m a fiction writer, so I am trying to resist the urge to narrativize the poems in Magnolia Canopy Otherworld, suppressing my intrinsic desire to trace a plot. Instead, while reading and rereading, I tried to pay closer attention to the symmetries or repetitions and in doing so, found a rich and cohesive body of work. There is the character referred to as the animal who is introduced about a third of the way through the book, in the poem “The Animal,” and functions as an avatar for a young girl coming of age. In this poem we see the animal get her period and get abused. She is treated like an animal, but more importantly, the poem and poems with this character reveal those who mistreat her as the cruelest and most bestial. By naming the prey the animal, dramatic irony is on full display.
The more animalistic language does not only apply to these poems either, the poem “Dressing Room,” which does not include this character, begins: “Salt cures the meat, and rubbing / makes it tender. I never forget/to examine the fresh animal kill / of my body.” This vision of detachment, of the otherness of self permeates all three sections of the collection.
But even these more surreal or imagistic poems are rooted in a realism, a sensory realness. Some poems are more placed in this than others. For example, “Franklin, Kentucky 1995” begins: “My grandma is in her living room in polyester / dress suit. She fills green glass bowls with full- / shelled nuts while my brothers and I watch / music videos on her console television. / Beside me my middle brother opens and closes / the corkscrew on his swiss army knife.” But then we are startled from the matter-of-fact, prose-like details as the literal and metaphorical fog rolls in: “The fog erases [momma’s] pink shag runner, and the closet door / it’s coming for us. It covers the T.V., spreads/up the walls and over the wood paneling.” The poem ends with the fog rolling them all over. Even in the poems’ more surreal or fantastical moments, like with the fog, Carlyle finds time and space for important details: the wood paneling, the pink shag runner, the details that make the moments real, make the magic work.
Something that connects all the elements and permeates each section of the book is its exploration of the body, the otherness of it. This is amplified in the poems that directly address and openly have a fascination with women murder victims and their bodies. The speaker of “True Crime” is acutely aware of this. After describing the site of a dead woman’s body that bares the title of the collection, the speaker exclaims, “We have a dead women obsession.” There is power in the word “we” in this section.
Carlyle’s collection covers a lot of terrain in eighty pages, but that is the beauty and trick of the thing, it never feels like it is juggling too much, the collection coheres and allows itself to not be pinned down, is unafraid to not just look inward, but outward, as well. An important part of this outward look is the significance of place in the collection. Rivers, the woods, the mysterious and dangerous natural world of the American South is an important character in this collection as well, often reflecting our most brutal tendencies, or ironically revealing an idyllic backdrop to people’s more base acts. Its mystery, its duality is a mirror for the events that take place on top of it.
I’d be remiss not to mention the epigraph at the beginning of the book, a quote from Dorothy Allison’s Bastard out of Carolina that reads “Family is family but even love can’t keep people from eating at each other.” This savage quote deftly sets the tone for the poems that follow, for family ties many of these poems together, but like family, sometimes those ties are not good. The most devastating poems here show a kind of care or love from parent to child in the form of the sharing of drugs or alcohol. In “My momma cuts virgin switches with her gums,” the poem ends as the doctor at the pain clinic gives the mother the pills she wants, he, “takes her money, helps her stop chewing her fingers. My momma counts all the pills, and when I feel my monthly blood, she hands me one.” The tragic intimacy of shared pills, but also the detail that the acquisition of the pills, from the young narrator’s perspective, helps momma to stop chewing her fingers makes these moments breathtaking to read. Carlyle is a master of her craft here, writing with cruel honesty and writerly precision.
Perhaps the most fascinating aspect of Carlyle’s collection is that at the center of the collection is a bursting humanness. Despite or perhaps because of all the animalistic language, and othered images of bodies, we are forced to confront our own humanity. In the characters’ portrayal as something other than human, how can we see them as anything but?
Nicholas Rys is a writer and writing instructor living in Syracuse, New York. His fiction has appeared or is forthcoming in Hobart, BULL, Lake Effect, The Antioch Review, and others. he holds an MFA in fiction from Bowling Green State University.