Magnolia Canopy Otherworld by Erin Carlyle
Driftwood Press, 2020
83 pages, $14.99
Review by Jessica Cory
Erin Carlyle’s first full-length poetry collection is part feminist manifesto, part recollection of human animality, and fully magical. Capturing the speaker’s experiences as a young child through her coming-of-age, Magnolia Canopy Otherworld does not shy away from the speaker’s trauma and discomfort. Sexual abuse, femicide, and preteen awkwardness are included in Carlyle’s poems, though not in a way that’s confessional or dramatic, simply poignant and reflective.
The connection between the speaker in many of the poems and the other women who appear in the collection’s pages is as clear as the glass ceiling they smash. “On the Horizon of Recollection” begins, “A circle of women in the creek / raise you up, their skirts a white blur / in the water—milk. This is a not a baptism, / but a call back to your life.” These women’s ability to survive amid the struggles described by the speaker (familial substance abuse, poverty, and sexism, in addition to the earlier-mentioned traumas) seem to strengthen the speaker’s own ability to thrive, to learn how “to master [her] body” (“Girl, Dirt, and Wall”).
While Carlyle’s women are certainly empowered, they are also objectified, as seen in the comparison between roadkilled dogs and murdered girls in “Sunday Drive”:
I can see down to the water, to the ice
where I know girls slip under and get fished out—
trash stuck on skirts. I know girls wait
there, but daddy drives
fast, and I see ditches along the side
of the road, and dogs, dead in winter,
dressed in leaves, their paws look
like hands. They’re women in the blur
of his driving, dancing like wet, tangled hair.
Femicide appears frequently in the pages of this collection, supporting the ecofeminist viewpoint that women and non-human animals are both subjected to oppression under the same patriarchal, capitalistic machine. Carlyle also shows her readers firsthand one form of this cishetpatriarchal oppression in “Egg Compulsion”: “but the house holds us captive / now, and our fathers told us to keep / our knees tight.” Throughout Magnolia Canopy Otherworld, it is generally the male figures who propagate sexist inequalities either directly (the murderer of the girls, who is never seen but statistically speaking, probably male; the abusive uncle) or indirectly (the father who doesn’t notice the dead dogs; the rivermen who dive for dead women, emotionless).
This relationship between non-human animals and the female body is deepened through the speaker’s identification as “The Animal,” which Carlyle elaborates on in the interview that follows the poems: “The Animal has to learn on her own. She’s not a specific animal, but she represents that primal part of the “I”… The animal has never been taught how to deal with a world that determines for her how her life is going to play out.” The poems focusing on The Animal allow for a third person perspective of the speaker’s life. At times, third person perspective in a poem can make the piece seem detached or devoid of emotion. However, Carlyle resists this trap by sharing the emotions of The Animal. For example, in “The Animal,” the speaker finds “blood on its panties” and “The Animal fears / that everyone can / smell it” and in “The Animal in Training,” “The Animal is tired and ready for bed.” By sharing the affects of The Animal, Carlyle positions both non-human animals and the collection’s female characters as resistant to the forces that continually try to silence them. Both have feelings, lived experiences, and existences that are very much real and valid despite the oppressor’s claims to the contrary.
In creating these connections between female bodies and non-human animals, Carlyle frequently uses elements of magical realism throughout her poems. Such elements are rife through the pages of the collection, though particularly the third section, and help to connect the speaker to the rest of the natural world, moving beyond animality to a sense of animacy. In the eighth stanza of the series “Sunken,” for example, the speaker addresses her friend, Jenny, who is presumably murdered, her body now “at the bottom of the river”: “I don’t blame you. I think of you now as a ripple—a stone fallen through the center.” The possibility of women and girls becoming ripples, stones, fish, opens up the empowering notion of unlimited potential. Perhaps if one can become “an Alabama shad,” one might be able to evolve beyond the trauma, betrayal, and oppression and become part of the “circle of women in the creek” heeding their call to take control over “your life.”
Bio: Jessica Cory teaches in the English Department at Western Carolina University and is a PhD student in Native American Literature at the University of North Carolina, Greensboro. She is the editor of Mountains Piled upon Mountains: Appalachian Nature Writing in the Anthropocene (WVU Press, 2019). Learn more at www.jessicascory.com