“Holding a Stuffed Raccoon Up to the Sky”: a review of Erin Carlyle’s Magnolia Canopy Otherworld

“Holding a Stuffed Raccoon Up to the Sky”: a review of Erin Carlyle’s Magnolia Canopy Otherworld

January 14, 2021

 

Either we have gone out into the wild, or the wild has come out and into us. 

Either we are the little girl tracking down the wounded animal and retracing its steps, or we are the animal confused, retracing our own. 

Back to the first loss, back to the first hunt, back when the beginning meant becoming part of it all: we are the hunted and that is what makes us the hunter. 

In Carlyle’s stunning collection of poems, Magnolia Canopy Otherworld, we are transported to another world where the mother’s body becomes pine, where the father’s body sits silent in the driver’s seat ignoring the wind. Here is the other world where pain is alive and pain wants to bring its children in close. 

From our first encounter in “Sunday Drive,” we are in the passenger seat of cold weather and dead. We look down at the water, too, the ice and all the girls, and we see something:

on my chest—a sudden stop. We pass over 
a frozen bridge, and if I rise up in my seat,
I can see down to the water, to the ice
where I know girls slip under and get fished out—
trash stuck on skirts. 

 

Whether we see ourselves or we see our own grief, it doesn’t matter. We are baptized by the same feeling over and over: the mother’s hand on the chest reminding us that it’s cold, the father driving fast past the ditches and the dogs. 

Carlyle simultaneously takes on the wild and society and asks us to hold them up to one another, to measure the distance in between. 

No matter what bridge or what town: we all see the same girls slipping under, we all see the same man or the same country looking away and driving by.

Magnolia Canopy Otherworld does exactly what any book of poems should: it turns every pain into some kind of stuffed raccoon and it points to it: this is what it’s like to love you, echoes the “I” on page 21. 

Each poem is like picking up an old fossil somewhere in Franklin, Kentucky and carrying it to December in Alabama. Each one is its own animal and now I hold each one up to the Utah desert sky. 

Carlyle’s language is visceral and haunting, both predator and prey, demanding we come back with her to the frozen bridge, back to the cabinet where the body was once shelved. Language demanding that we, too, make sense of the violent world and a gone mother. The man lifting you up to pull Spanish moss from a branch and the circle of women in the creek watching. 

We must become the girl, but we must also become The Animal, the man, the trash stuck to skirts. If we are to take on dead things and to come out of the bear’s belly alive, we must go back to the bear’s belly and remind ourselves how we never killed a thing. 

In “An Egg Compulsion,” we are forced to reckon, are we the little girl or are we the golden egg splitting? Are we to be the mother or just another vessel of loss? If we are to take on the body of motherhood and its doubling, we must watch and listen as the body becomes muddied and confused. 


My little girl is an idea in a golden egg.
The man brings me breakfast—I eat 

her, she grows inside me. All little 
children find their host, and the trick

is now on me. I could never say no 
to the doubling process, and I split,


Carlyle’s language splits as it confesses, burns as it asks the questions we are taught not to: is this all?

We explore a new geography of home, of loss, but it’s the same old one: the battered histories of women, the silent lives lived out in southern Appalachia and killed. We travel from one violent act to another burning and asking ourselves, were we put in charge by a beautiful, suited man?

And either the beautiful, suited man is walking on the hot sidewalk barefoot or the beautiful, suited man is big Pharma yelling out for someone else’s mother to help it. In “The President Declared a Public Health Emergency,” Carlyle takes on the immense weight of Southern grief: pain, poverty, addiction, the part where the mother’s body becomes pine.

but the pain clinic is alive and it wants to bring its children 
in close. It whispers: come here, come here little one then
hands my mother her prescriptions. In devotion she sits up
sleeping—letting out her muscles. She doesn’t move—body
shrinking. My mother gladly gives up her bones. 

Poem after poem, we are consumed by another forest of loss. Yet somehow in the middle of the bodies being dragged and rolled through town, in the middle of the pain clinic and the spilled-milk, we rise up because of the stuffed raccoon, because of the moon pulling. Because of a stranger stopping to say, look, 
the roadkill. 

Carlyle has compelled us all to hold up whatever animals we need to in order to see the sky, in order to remember the pits the ancient stones made in our stomachs. 

Because it doesn’t matter whose stomach or what stone: we were already down there in the ditches with the dead dogs. We were all already down there trying to track the one creature that felt the most like love. 

 

_______________

Sarah Bates is from the Blue Ridge Mountains of Virginia. She received an MFA in Poetry from Northern Michigan University and currently teaches at Southern Utah University. Her work has appeared or is forthcoming in Boston Review, Fugue, The Seneca Review, Pidgeonholes, and Best New Poets 2017, among others. Her first chapbook, Tender, is available from Diagram New Michigan Press. 

 

Photo by Maddy Baker on Unsplash



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