tenderling (Stalking Horse Press, 2018), Emily Corwin’s first full-length poetry collection, plunges us into a world of fairy tale and whimsy, stinging danger and sensual feasting, where the speaker is sometimes villain, sometimes princess, sometimes unwilling to be either. This collection is tumultuous, a rioting dreamscape of madhousery and language.
The word "tenderling" is defined as one who has been coddled, one who is weak or effeminate, a little child, or, alternately, as the budding antlers of a deer. In this collection, tenderling is all of those things: frightened, ill, needing, strong, growing, promising. The first poem of the collection, “hex,” begins with a consideration:
if I go underwood, a girl darkling for curse, for
meat white, for thistle and sting. if I am brave… if
I nightmare, bolting on every ground.
The speaker then goes on to uncover the potential outcomes for the different layers of the self, for what will happen this way or that, for how the pretty plays along with the painful. The possibilities are endless, and the reader must keep up with their comings and goings. In this world of Corwin’s making, we are upended into fantasy while also continually being reminded of our reality, as is exampled in “wooded ephemeral,” when the speakers pleads with her lover:
alone with you in a phone call, on this fallen planet,
broken meadow I make aglow like bruise--a loud
contusion. when it comes to you and & I--embracing, magnetic,
in danger--I cannot even, cannot think…
glitch, error message, a sugar. I think you are so honey,
honeycrisp as the apples in my cheeks, skin I try to make more
illumined, radiant for the party. do you like this cocktail dress?...
...don’t go away over the phone.
The above poem encapsulates a modern relationship, conducted over the phone, and makes use of vernacular, while still being bizarre enough to keep us on our toes.
Corwin’s language is honey and cherry syrup, thick and sweet. It interrogates itself, makes jokes of itself, subverts itself, always aware of its existence. In “torn,” the speaker reminds the reader that "you can’t spell slaughter without laughter," once again noting the abilities of language to speak within itself, make strange and fantastic allusions, and turn the reader around again.
Even the dark and frightening is made cute in this world, as in “bestiary” when Corwin describes the "witchy" who comes upon the speaker and her lover in their already wonderful and horrible landscape, turning the lover into frog and the speaker into a "teensy weensy" and yet leaving them to craft an odd but happy life. What is bad is never completely bad here, in this world where chiffon dresses and bogs of mud and decay are equals.
The collection is undeniably gurlesque, a subversion of gender expectations, a lush and exaggerated femininity, a glitter-coated stab. In “slasher,” the speaker describes:
a lot of me comes out: pulp, cherry syrup, clot in the skirt.
he says, it’s like a crime scene down there. I drip over the
We are reminded, again, that being a girl is often violent, bloody, unclean. This poem is poignant in its quotation of the male, an observation that has often been heard by bleeding girls and rings in the ears with its accuracy, and in its acknowledgment of the truth of the girl.
The speaker often ponders that truth, wondering whether truth is in the sparkling drinks, the pretty skin, the softness, or in the despair, the vindictive, the slips of fury. The final poem, “trellis,” has the speaker saying:
a thorn in my side-- I put it there. I ruin
my own days … I am not as good as I believed.
It seems, however, that the truth is all of it. The poems detail the macabre, mental illness, pain, the failings of the body, and showcase them with fairy tale. No one part is more than the other. Like life, this collection is ugly and beautiful at once, full of horrors and shocking wonder.
In the collection’s title piece, which falls as its penultimate poem, the speaker describes an intensity of caring and love for the unidentified you, a “once darling.” Musing on the crumbled relationship, the speaker takes the blame, saying:
too much, I am too much.
too much, I am a baby deer for skinning.
Here, the collection harks to the second definition of its title, the budding antlers of the deer. Likewise, the speaker is budding, saying:
I am a girl—
alive, at day breaking open.
This is a collection of poems that will break you open and then stitch you back up with silk and thorn.
Anna Sandy Elrod is an MFA candidate at Georgia State University, where she also teaches English Composition and Introduction to Poetry. She is the current Editor in Chief of New South and Managing Editor of Muse/A. Her work can be found in SFWP’s The Quarterly, the Santa Ana River Review, Nightjar Review, the Indianapolis Review, Bluestem, Bad Pony, Bone Bouquet, and others. She lives in Atlanta with her husband and three cats.