Book Review

Erin Rodoni’s And If the Woods Carry You shimmers with a mythos equal parts wondrous and perilous. The woods these poems wander teem with not only elves and mythic white deer but also with monsters, some of them wearing human faces. Like most fairytales, this collection has the power to enchant readers with its beauty and imagination while offering a kind of practical wisdom. Unlike most fairytales, the lines between good and evil are tenuous, and nothing comes neatly packaged in a happily-ever-after. Rather, each poem operates through an intuition at once associative and informed by the present moment, cutting a circuitous path that takes us from memory to fable, from motherhood to childhood, from the personal to the universal, all without feeling the need to arrive at a predetermined destination. As Rodoni cautions in early pages, “the fairy tale, still / open on my lap, is not a map.”

The opening poem of the collection, “Lullaby with Fireflies and Rising Seas,” exemplifies this meandering ethos:

Because the dark

of childhood is mythed
and monstered, but my dark

mind glints off every surface
sharp enough to slit. Tonight,

ice sheets slide like seals
into the sea and in Nice,

parents hurl their children out
of the truck’s path. Their only

prayer, a heartbeat’s worth
of please. Maybe, like me,

the only god you can conceive
is a kind of wakefulness.

For Rodoni, it is only natural that climate catastrophe and human calamity should appear in nearly the same breath. The crisis is the same—a crisis of survival. In this piece, and in the collection as a whole, questions of how to mother in the face of ecological emergency are not only present but integral to the poetry’s logic. The fact that these questions surface in the context of a lullaby renders them particularly poignant. While lullabies are recognized primarily as a sleep aid for small children, Rodoni’s is anything but soothing. Rather than gesturing towards the simplistic repetition that characterizes most lullabies, “Lullaby with Fireflies and Rising Seas” subverts its form, its development akin to the anxiety-fueled contemplations that keep many of us awake at night. “Glints off every surface sharp enough to slit” indeed.

And yet, one of the collection’s most impressive feats is its ability to examine deeply existential issues without surrendering to despair. After “Lullaby,” many of the poems in And If the Woods Carry You grapple with the possibility of future ecological disaster and human extinction, but always resist the urge to oversimplify, to point fingers, to offer false hope. At times, this looks like exploring some of the more controversial dialogues that appear around climate change. In “Parable of the Bull,” the speaker imagines what an elective annihilation of the human race might look like: “Perhaps a sterilizing drug is administered at birth. / Or an aerosol dispersed via satellite / across the earth.” She imagines how the last generation of babies born would “go viral,” how the trees would “charge through the cities,” reclaiming their old territories. She imagines a reversal of Genesis, one in which Eve is the last woman on earth, beholden to no man, witness to the Eden springing up in the absence of her ancestors. Reminiscent of Rousseau’s “return to nature” ideology, “Parable of the Bull” acts as a kind of fairytale of worst-case scenario.

However, I do not believe that by holding space for this hypothetical, Rodoni is advocating for mass extinction; her poetry simply refuses to shy away from the full range of emotions and perspectives inherent to living in the era of climate change. Several of the collection’s other poems trouble the Edenic narrative played out in “Parable of the Bull.” For instance, in “The poem begins with us surviving,” the poet’s voice emerges as a mother “trying not to submit to the thicket of panic” as her daughter’s body fails without the blood transfusions it needs. Here, in the absence of modern medicine, the mother dreams of magic, of a “life-for-life trade” administered by witches, of a wolf sacrifice, of recitations to turn “blood serpentine.” Alas, the spell cannot hold. As Rodoni writes, “the poem always ends / with the princess white as snow.” In contrast to the strangely peaceful transition to a post-human world depicted in “Parable,” “The poem begins with us surviving” realizes the loss inseparable from apocalyptic potentialities.

But And If the Woods Carry You cannot be summarized in its orientation to the future. Many of its poems are concerned with documenting the past. The collection rustles with the forests of childhood, invoking memories of swimming, tree climbing, and cliff jumping. In particular, the series of “Time Capsule” poems scattered throughout the collection gesture toward the archival, bridging the gaps between past, present, and future. Each condenses memories into a personal mythology, one that offers the poem as a space of multiplicity and preservation:

I want the poem to hold everything the way my body holds
the whole and holy of me. The way the body holds both

bile duct and silver snaps of synapse. The way the brain holds both
reptile and godglow, both fight or flight and dreams

of flying.

While the poem is just as chaotic and improbable as a human body, it is not bound by mortality and, like a capsule, presents the potential to transcend time and open a space in which we can be in communion across generations. And in that communion there is hope that, despite the uncertainty of the future, beauty persists—in the trees, in the “soft soft soft of rain,” in the love we hold for one another. Even here, in Rodoni’s words, there is beauty: a tender lyricism that sings each poem into being. If these are the fairy tales of the future, then maybe it is not too late to remake our relationship to the earth. Maybe there is still time to live in and with the forest’s enchantment.

About the Reviewer

Laura Roth is an emerging poet from Albuquerque, New Mexico. As of now, she is a rising second year MFA candidate in poetry at CSU, an editorial assistant for Colorado Review, and a composition instructor. Most recently, her work has appeared in Passengers Journal and been selected as a finalist for the 2021 Porch Prize. She will attend the Aspen Summer Words Writers Conference this summer.