Before diving into the book proper, a point to say that I very much appreciate that Emily Corwin’s debut full-length collection comes in at 64 pages. That’s not because I wanted to speed through Corwin’s gurlesque world, but because in general, contemporary poetry collections seem to be overstuffed with work, pushing their page counts into the 100s. I understand this is necessary for some work, but much of the time it just seems too much.
1. Many of the poems in tenderling follow the exploits of “girl,” who from poem to poem walks into a parallel universe’s fairy tales. It is through the changing scenery in the poems that Corwin’s interest in the gurlesque becomes apparent.
2. Gurlesque: “The Gurlesque describes an emerging field of female artists now in their 20s, 30s, and early 40s who, taking a page from the burlesque, perform their femininity in a campy or overtly mocking way. Their work assaults the norms of acceptable female behavior by irreverently deploying gender stereotypes to subversive ends.” – Lara Glenum, co-editor of Gurlesque: the new grrly, grotesque, burlesque poetics
3. The opening poem of the book, “hex,” subtly lays the groundwork for what follows:
if I go under wood, a girl darkling for curse, for
meat white, for thistle and sting. if I am brave. if I
bury all my dead parts. if the house melts over my
bread slice. if strawberry, if the hunter’s knife
glides in and out. if I am made a stone, if I
nightmare, bolting on every ground.
4. And like “hex,” a majority of the poems in tenderling seldom go half a page in length. Corwin has a surgical precision in her language and is able to conjure so much, she doesn’t need the extra space.
5. Of course that’s not to say that she doesn’t use the length of the page. “pretty pretty princess vs. the underworld,” a nine-page poem that appears halfway through the book, shows that Corwin also knows how to use space to add something extra to her already haunted poems.
6. A snippet from section four of “pretty pretty princess vs. the underworld,” which mimics a trail of breadcrumbs to follow:
7. Part of the “comfort” of a fairy tale is that it’s fantastical beyond believably. But there are instances in tenderling where those fairy tale elements fall away and Corwin lets us peek in on some very striking instances.
8. For example, in “slasher”: “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 / grasses. at dusk, I climb inside a beaded purse, to get safe” (1-3).
9. “anxiety disorder” also sheds the fairy tale with harrowing results:
[…] I writhe like a half-dead carcass, clicking my mouthparts,
obsessed, apprehensive that everybody hates me, hated me, will
hate me in the imminent future. what I do best is worry—
silent and injured, a succubus on my abdomen glutting itself (9-12).
10. Unfortunately for the speaker, the fairy tale of tenderling does not have a happy ending. “I am not as good as I believed,” she says (5). But this seems less about the character of the speaker and what an other / others have convinced her to believe. The only other person present is “my tall handsome” and he meets no grisly end. And so while Corwin leans into the gurlesque in these poems, there’s a connection to reality: even in fairy tales, the world is patriarchal.
11. Corwin’s debut is rich in the world it builds, from its pulsing scenery alive with nature, to its speaker’s inner life rife with emotion. Her poems are a bubbling witches brew of fairy tales, gurlesque, and the tools of a masterful poet to create a book that you’ll want to reread the second you finish it. tenderling is an invitation to go down the rabbit hole that this reader suggests you accept.