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|Becoming the Villainess|
Jeannine Hall Gailey
Steel Toe Books
ISBN Number: 0974326437
Reviewer: James Owens
Jeannine Hall Gailey´s Becoming the Villainess remembers a truth that some books tend to forget: poetry can be fun without sacrificing serious intent or importance. Gailey´s poems about pop culture characters such as Wonder Woman, Tomb Raider heroine Lara Croft, and Buffy the Vampire Slayer seem imbued with their creator´s honest joy in the dramatic gestures and campy minutiae of comic books´ resolutely un-politically-correct vision of the world, and her readers get to share in that joy. Other poems look closely, and overall more soberly, at folktales and Greek myth. The casual bookstore browser might not expect to find this range of topics brought together, but this book is less interested in distinctions between high and low culture than in continuities that render the distinctions irrelevant. Gailey reminds us that both the heroines of classical myth and modern comic book or video game icons originate in the need, often subversive, to find female archetypes of power.
Power, though desirable, is not an unambiguous good, and Gailey rejects any one-sided view. Power isolates its possessor, and violence in the name of righteousness is still violence. Wonder Woman, in “Wonder Woman Dreams of the Amazon," says
I miss my mother, Hippolyta.
In my dreams she wraps me tightly
again in the American flag,
warning me, cling to your bracelets,
your magic lasso. Don´t be a fool for men.
She´s always lecturing me, telling me
not to leave her. Sometimes she changes
into a doe, and I see my father
shooting her, her blood. Sometimes,
in these dreams, it is me who shoots her.
The sense of loss that lurks beneath these lines provides a counterpoint to the poem´s pleasure in its paraphernalia–golden bracelets, magic lasso, invisible jet, “daily transformation/from prim kitten-bowed suit to bustier//with red-white-and-blue stars." Wonder Woman´s version of empowerment leaves her cut off from mother, father, and most of what the people she protects might call “normal life." This is, these poems suggest, the common predicament of the super-heroine.
The theme is continued in “The Slayer Asks for Time Off," a poem that shows Gailey´s deft hand with pacing, lineation, and the shading of persona with sardonic irony.
It´s hard enough just trying to pick out
the miniskirt that matches my platform jellies
but as you know the cute-as-a-button cheerleader
must also answer to the darkest demons....
Just once I´d like to take the night off, maybe
be the damsel in distress, instead of always,
always, wearing the armor and carrying the flag.
A series of poems on the Greek myth of Philomel and Procne runs throughout the book, connecting and supporting all the poems like a line of vertebrae. In the myth, the young Philomel is raped by her sister Procne´s husband, Tereus, who cuts out her tongue to keep her from telling anyone what has happened. But Philomel weaves her story into a tapestry. When Procne sees the tapestry, she kills Itylus, her own and Tereus´s son, and feeds him to his father in revenge. In the end, the gods transform all three into birds–Philomel into a nightingale, Procne into a swallow, Tereus into a sea hawk–though Gailey notes the questionable nature of the gods´ gifts, reminding us in “Remembering Philomel" that they are “not saved–changed, it´s not the same thing" and in “Philomel´s Rape" that “This conversion was not of your choosing,//and the somewhat tenuous ‘gift,´ your song,/not as healing as you hoped."
Becoming the Villainess is filled with intelligent poems that reject absolutes, approving the empowerment that comes through revenge against Philomel´s attacker but never denying the undertow of loss and regret. Procne discusses the aftermath in “Procne and Philomel, at the End."
No one noticed me
as a nest of trinkets grew
around my son´s tiny grave,
a blue blanket, pink peonies
with blooms curling like infant feet.
Only nightmares pursue me,
sometimes my son´s blood on my hands,
I can´t understand my own voice,
my husband stares at me like I am nothing
but an animal....
When lightning strikes, the smell
like blood still in my mouth when I try
to sing Itylus I lost I lost
The attempted song dissolves at the end into an inarticulable cry of pain, eloquent most clearly in the silence that follows it, and which the closing lines point to through their absence of punctuation.
For all of these poems´ evident intelligence and wit, Gailey´s attention does occasionally lag. “Female Comic Book Superheroes"
are always fighting evil in a thong,
pulsing techno soundtrack in the background
as their tiny ankles thwack
against the bulk of male thugs.
The verbal knottiness and consonantal rhythm of these opening lines provide a richness of sensory reference. A moment later, though, the poem tells us that the female superheroes “pout when tortured, but always escape just in time,/still impeccable in lip gloss and pointy-toed boots,/to rescue male partners, love interests, or fathers." The real poetry of the beginning has relaxed into linguistic inertness, the language of advertising copy and afternoon talk shows–which would be fine if, for example, it served some ironic purpose, but it does not.
Fortunately, such lapses into banality are few and seldom sustained. Even “Female Comic Book Superheroes" finds its feet again before the end: “See her perfect three-point landing on top of that chariot,/riding the silver moon into the horizon,/city crumbling around her heels."
Not all of the poems in Becoming the Villainess are set in the postmodern, media-saturated realm where myth meets Buffy, but even when Gailey writes about personal history, her voice is suffused with the same tough sensibility, undercut with the same wistful understanding of loss. “In Knoxville two miles from Oak Ridge/I grew up with a yard of lilacs" (“Breathing in the Asthma Capital"), she tells us, and goes on to celebrate the tenacity and beauty of the lilacs in an environment full of threats. By the poem´s end, it is the poet´s sure handling of sound and pacing–the magic of r´s and lineation that turns “radioactive" into “radiant," for example–that suggests she shares more than location with the flowers.
despite seasons of radioactive snow
despite spring shedding its wreckage
on rotting house frames, gravel roads
on overturned crates of mangoes on I-75
the lilacs go on burning
and thick against a grey May sky
Becoming the Villainess is an accomplished first book that should appeal to a wide audience. Like much good poetry, it is, in the end, about unity, reminding us all–male and female, villain or villainess–how our own lives are inhabited and enriched by the myths and stories that have made us who we are.