Unexplained Fevers

Jeannine Hall Gailey
New Binary Press
68 pp.

I love the world Jeannine Hall Gailey’s poems inhabit. Even though this world is recognizable, even though we’ve heard these tales before, with each of her books, Gailey revisits and re-envisions the fairy tales we know. She always makes it new, which isn’t an easy task.

Gailey breathes new life into the women we recognize, these princesses in distress. In these poems, feared most is not that the prince will never arrive, but that these women may never find their voices, that they will always be muted by sleep, objects only: “They murmur over red lips, white skin, // ebony hair. A teen dream. Being the pretty one / can be so tiring” (“Snow White Dreams”). In another poem about Snow White, we get a glimpse of the real person: “But really, if you could get me out / of your looking glass, you could see / the real me: the hermit-crab, the snail inside its opaque shell” (“I Like the Quiet: Snow White”).

Even when they are sleeping, these women are not submissive. They are determined and strong, and search for their own voices. Returning to “I Like the Quiet: Snow White,” the speaker wants out of the dream and desires finding her own voice:
            Not a party princess, not ready to embrace
            the noisy handsome prince just yet; give me a little
            time to myself. I just might dream up a new ending,
            a new soul. A sister wise as I am beautiful.

                                                                    She might even
            talk me down from this glass ledge,
            this solitude of sleep, might shake me til the apple
            drops from my mouth and I finally find my tongue.

When the knight rescues her, she is not what he imagined. She is woman—she is “feral,” and “she reminds him / of some forest creature gone astray,” “a creature with a beautiful song and sharp claws” (“The Knight Wonders What, Exactly, He Rescued”).

It’s evident, through the beast the woman becomes, that she inhabits a dark world. In the poem, “I Forgot to Tell You the Most Important Part,” the speaker states “Cinderella’s shoe came off at midnight because it hurt, / and Red Riding Hood’s real story involves cannibalism / and a striptease.” There are secrets in a woman’s world: “Long bangs hide / a multitude of sins. Ask your grandmother / about the herbs she used to swallow while pregnant.” The speaker mentions that before they were black, the butterflies of the forest were white, “and the forest was more ominous / before the smokestacks.” There is a dark undercurrent to this world, but that dimness and its knowledge keeps women alive: “it’s one part fashion advice and two parts survivalist.”

A woman may become the forest; she may become this darkness she pursued in order to stay alive. In “The Secret Life of the Forest,” she becomes a tree: “The forest sways above me, my arms become branches.” There are birds in her hair and wolves at her ankles. Children become lost in the woods, “swallowed by thickets.” Because no one else will, she looks out for herself: “I know the red dusk, / the teeth and claws of darkness.” She learns the landscape of where she must live.

In this dark world, female characters are burdened with leading the way and teaching us how to navigate the forest when we’re faced with it. “So many stories end with murder, / the piling up of bodies. One girl with a glass key. / She must find the way for all of us” (“Words, Eggs, and Other Enchantments”). But even these characters have trouble navigating the world and want an easy way out. In the poem “At the End,” the speaker states we all want someone to tell us what’s next: “Groggily, we turn to the narrator for direction: / after all, all our lives we’ve been posing / for someone or other.” But nothing comes easy. We “try to make our exits graceful.” Our mothers tell us, “Try not to expect too much magic.”

There is little “magic” in Gailey’s poems. We are faced with mute women and the dark realities of the forest. The characters we recognize become real women wanting to speak, real women faced with the dark undercurrent of life that keeps them alive, real women wanting to be navigated through their days, not realizing they can “flee [their] fates.”  

--Julie Brooks Barbour

Julie Brooks Barbour is the author of Small Chimes ( Aldrich Press, 2014) and two chapbooks: Earth Lust (forthcoming from Finishing Line Press, 2014) and Come To Me and Drink (Finishing Line Press, 2012). Her poems have appeared in Waccamaw, diode, storySouth, Prime Number Magazine, The Rumpus, Midwestern Gothic, Blue Lyra Review, and Verse Daily. She is co-editor of the journal Border Crossing and an Associate Poetry Editor at Connotation Press: An Online Artifact. She teaches composition and creative writing at Lake Superior State University.

Also by Julie Brooks Barbour:

Review of A Face to Meet the Faces: An Anthology of Contemporary Persona Poetry

Review of Fire on Her Tongue: An Anthology of Contemporary Women's Poetry 

Review of Hagar Before the Occupation / Hagar After the Occupation

Review of She Returns to the Floating World by Jeannine Hall Gailey