Erin Rodoni’s And If the Woods Carry You enthralls from the start and maintains the intensity of its revelations throughout. These are poems for a world whose woods are on fire, a significant contribution to the literature grappling with our looming climate catastrophe. Rodoni’s particular genius is her powerful use of European fairy tale tropes to frame and explore frighteningly modern issues. Above all, her use of fairy tale themes puts family—her own family—squarely at the heart of her work, rendering global dangers comprehensible and intimate for us as she and her daughters enter the dangerous woods of Faerie together.
The opening lines of “Lullabies With Fireflies And Rising Seas,” the first poem in And If the Woods Carry You, provide the book’s title and set the tone:
And if the woods carry you into their deep
and tangled. If the woods claim you
elf or sprite and spirit you
from me. Tell me your first fireflies
were enough, the lawn they candled
to enchantment. Because the dark
of childhood is mythed
and monstered, but my dark
mind glints off every surface
sharp enough to slit.
Rodoni is unflinching in identifying the dangers, and ferocious, unstinting, in her response: the overwhelming, unfathomable love of a parent for a child, the ceaseless vigilance to prevent harm set against the inevitability that harm may come. While she offers hope and healing, she helps us see that most solutions to large risks involve suffering and the potential of loss—there aren’t “fairy tale endings,” least of all in the fairy tales told around wood-fires, the stories before they were codified by Perrault and The Brothers Grimm and commercialized by Disney. Far from it, the woods are a terrifying maze, often pathless altogether: “And the fairy tale, still / open on my lap, is not a map.”
Rodoni is not musing in the abstract, but reporting on very real fears and dangers, whether these are global environmental crises or intensely personal threats to health. She makes us feel raw panic in the marrow, and she translates generalized existential dread into a very specific individual fate, for example, in “The Poem Begins With Us Surviving”:
… But I can’t get past the damn blood
my daughter needs transfused into her veins.
… In the shadow of an everafter,
the desperate parent submits to the terms
of the witch. The life-for-life trade, for
mercy, for magic. The poem bewitches.
I could pierce my own artery and not pass out.
Fairy tales are bloody, gruesome, visceral; Rodoni’s poems use sanguinary motifs to score her stories into our minds. For instance, “Time Capsule: The Fallow Deer” features her father as huntsman, slaughtering a buck: “… belly split sternum to pelvis, my father cutting him down into pieces we could swallow.” Hunger and devouring, central to the fairy tale, feature in many of the poems, including that of and by parasites and scavengers: “ticks balloon with blood, / and fleas rise like ghosts from drying / hides …” (“Huntress”); “When Eve falls, a rapture // of insects shrouded her body” (“Parable of the Bull VII. Eve, Alone”).
Rodoni’s poems not only use fairy tale imagery, their language is of Faerie—mixed with the modern to dazzling effect. Her language is very much her own, while sharing affinities with that of (among others) Sarah Lindsay, Alice Oswald, Seamus Heaney, Ted Hughes, Geoffrey Hill, Annie Dillard. She is especially adept at juxtaposing fairy tale words—blood, bone, wood, horn, ash—with utterly modern ones such as butane, synapse, bioluminescent, glacial. Doing so mutually illuminates and augments the meaning of different layers of language. For example, against the iambic beat of core vocabulary from Old English, she may artfully set a more opulent, later addition (here in “Time Capsule: The Cross Beside The Creek”):
The blackberries are red
and hard. The creek is flat,
the breeze. A hushed calligraphy
She crafts many compound-words, some of them kennings, on a level with Gerald Manley Hopkins (or the ancient scops and skalds): “the starcut wilds,” “flintstrike of foot,” “the shadow-lace of leaves,” “to be woodbound,” “white as vapor-bone,” “songcharmed beasts,” “the leafstrung lute” (think for instance of Hopkins’ “Though worlds of wanwood leafmeal lie”). As the best poets do, Rodoni also makes words feel fresh that we use heedlessly in daily speech. For example, she deploys everyday compounds alongside her own coinages, thereby reminding us that “grownups,” “rearview,” “feverpitch,” “childproof,” “runoff” and so on were themselves once new. Likewise, she repurposes parts of speech, helping us reimagine the possibilities of language. I keep musing over the opening lines above, the woods’ “deep and tangled,” sometimes inserting various nouns after these as adjectives, and sometimes making “tangled” a noun in its own right, elevating it to “The Tangled” beside “The Deep.”
A short review cannot do full justice to the powerful imagery and searing implications of And If the Woods Carry You. A longer review would examine her use of the distich, with its overtones of Psalms and Proverbs, and of the elegiac in classical Greek and Roman verse. A longer review would also delve into the numerous insights Rodoni subtly interleaves through the collection, for instance: “They are learning to be merciful / doesn’t mean to be good, only powerful / enough to choose” (“Caesura”), or “Beware, I mosaic facts to slant / faith into something tangible” (“Microchimerism: A Proof”).Worth a review of its own is the collection’s centerpiece, the eight-poem cycle “The Parable of the Bull,” with a ninth poem (“Last Unicorns”) as coda, based on Peter Beagle’s iconic novel The Last Unicorn. It is enough to say that Rodoni here gives us a master-class in preemptive elegy, admonition and the sublime nature of parental love—and reminds us all of our shared fiduciary duty as stewards of the World-Tree.
P.S. A shout-out to Southern Indiana Review Press for giving Rodoni’s work such a handsome production, with gorgeous cover art by Chie Yoshii (cover design by Zach Weigand) on heavy stock, and good interior lay-out.
And If the Woods Carry You, by Erin Rodoni. Evansville, Indiana: Southern Indiana Review Press, December 2021. 80 pages. $16.00, paper.
Daniel A. Rabuzzi has had two novels, five short stories, and ten poems published since 2006 (see danielarabuzzi.com). He lived eight years in Norway, Germany and France. He has degrees in the study of folklore and mythology, international relations, and early modern European history. He lives in New York City with his artistic partner & spouse, the woodcarver Deborah A. Mills (deborahmillswoodcarving.com), and the requisite cat.