In her newest poetry collection, Unexplained Fevers, Jeannine Hall Gailey returns to the fairy tale world — a world where Sleeping Beauty has an insomniac twin, where women turn into birds, where Red Riding Hood tries to flirt her way into a bargain at a car dealership.
From the very first poem, we know that we are going to read a collection where traditional stories are broken into pieces. In “Once Upon Time” an unnamed narrator starts her tale: “Once upon a time he left me. I left him. It was winter, the white sun is what I remember most. When he called, I cut my hair. When I swayed, he swore. I wore a white dress and promised. He promised me. We chopped wood and parsley.” The narrator goes on to explain that “Once upon a time we broke our crowns. The tumbling came after” and that “we paid in gold and heartache. We stood there in the winter sunlight, white as ghosts. It was the end of the road. It didn’t have a fairy tale ending. We couldn’t keep our stories straight. It wasn’t as they had told us.”
And it seems that indeed, in this collection, nothing is “as they had told us.” In some poems, we hear the parts of stories left out of our favorite stories. For instance, in “Rapunzel, After” the story explains, “When he left, he took/with him the long rope of her hair/and her memories. There were scratches/on his face. Someone said later/it was thorns, briars grown over the tower.” In another poem, “A True Princess Bruises” we read about the injuries left by a pea: ”blood pooled on thigh and stomach, the white back/marred with thumbprints.” Still, in other poems, the narrators want to set the story straight. In “The Mermaid Loses Her Voice,” for example, the narrator begins her tale by clarifying the truth: “I don’t know what they told you, but it wasn’t for love.”
This is Gailey’s third collection, and in many ways, she is returning to the stories she started in her first book, Becoming the Villainess. Indeed, her poetic heroines have grown stronger through the years. Where there once was hesitancy with her narrators, there is now more self-assurance. Her female characters don’t pretend to be perfect — they only want to be human.