REVIEW | Magnolia Canopy Otherworld by Erin Carlyle
We have all heard of places like it. Or, maybe we have even lived there. That place “near a swamp where girls are caught / face down, muck deep, and motherless.” This is just one location Erin Carlyle takes her readers in her new book, Magnolia Canopy Otherworld (Driftwood Press). Carlyle’s debut full-length poetry collection is a captivating exploration of femininity, death, nature, family, wealth and addiction.
Her work captures a modern snapshot of the American South (specifically Alabama and Kentucky). The images of nature are complicated by trash stuck on skirts, raw, plucked chicken skin, and white pills. Magnolia Canopy Otherworld is a book that will have readers thinking about the places they have called home, and questioning what it really means. How would we be different if we were born somewhere else? What if we hadn’t moved during childhood?
Carlyle is a poet who knows her craft. Magnolia Canopy Otherworld is divided into three sections. Though there are some prose poems in this collection, most of the poems are lineated. Carlyle has a penchant for couplets. Poems like “My Cannibal, ”“The Afterlife of Women,” and others rely heavily on the use of two-line stanzas. The book begins with the speaker reflecting on a drive with parents and siblings, and several poems focus on childhood. Carlyle takes her readers on a realistic, gritty journey and shows us what it looks like to be a female growing up in the modern South.
In the poem “Rabbit Diptych” the speaker asks: “Do you see my ex-husbands / asleep in the bushes outside my apartment?” The locations in Magnolia Canopy Otherworld rarely feel safe. At times, the readers catch a glimpse of the beauty blended with the decay.
One of the central poems in this collection is “The Animal,” in which Carlyle writes:
"The Animal walks
on the hot sidewalk barefoot.
It wears a sundress
with straps that tie into bows
on each shoulder, and it steps
over branches that have fallen
to the road. A stick pierces
through the meat of the Animal's
foot, and it yells out for someone
else’s mother to help it...”
There are other moments in the collection similar to this, where safety is not sought in family members, perhaps because it cannot be. At times, the speaker in Magnolia Canopy Otherworld compares their own life to others. In the poem “Girl, Dirt, and Wall” the speaker measures their life experience against photographer Francesca Woodman’s:
“You are only nineteen living / in Italy. When I was nineteen, I lived with a man, // did his dishes, and I have never been / to Italy.”
Woodman’s photography seems to mirror the speakers' view of their surroundings. It is easy to imagine the events Carlyle details unfolding in black and white, slightly out of focus.
Carlyle’s direct voice and ability to connect with her reader is admirable. In the 10-page poem “Sunken” Carlyle writes: “Jenny, I remember when we talked about rich girls, and how we wanted something good like them.” While not everything Carlyle writes about is meant to make her readers feel "good" there are sweet and simplistic moments of humans trying in this collection: A father buying his daughter the wrong shade of foundation, a blue Christmas dress worn to a play, and a grandmother’s decision to become sober (despite resistance from her family).
Many poems in Carlyle’s debut book radiate. Her pieces “Doctor Shopping Ghost Story,” “Girls Who Ride Horses,'' and “Franklin, Kentucky 1995” all contribute something unique and needed to the poetry world. The issues of addiction and loss are at the center of this collection. Even if readers do not have personal memories or experience connected to these issues, Carlyle seamlessly translates what it feels like to live through these challenges.
Carlyle shows us a world where people “swim through crushed beer cans, / and picnic trash” then “come / out human again” despite the pollution. The flaws examined in her book are primarily man-made, the result of human error. Carlyle is sharply aware of the imperfections in the places and people we call home, and how these imperfections make us.
Magnolia Canopy Otherworld is available for purchase here.
Erin Carlyle is a poet whose work is rooted in the American South. As a child she lived in Alabama along the Chattahoochee River, and at twelve she moved with her family to the cave
country of South Central Kentucky. She holds a MFA in poetry from Bowling Green State
University and currently lives with her husband and cat in Sacramento, California.
Taylor Fedorchak is a third-year MFA candidate at New Mexico State University, where she teaches and is Managing Editor of Puerto del Sol. Her poetry is published or forthcoming in Sugar House Review, Bluestem Magazine, The Shore, decomP, Glass: A Journal of Poetry, and elsewhere.