Unexplained Fevers
Jeannine Hall Gailey
New Binary Press
ISBN: 978-0-9574661-2-8

Reviewer: Alice Osborn

          Reading the opening poems in Jeannine Hall Gailey’s new collection Unexplained Fevers, the reader is immediately struck with a sense of dread. What we’ve been led to believe as children—or as the princesses in Gailey’s poems—is all false. You’re not promised good health or fertility, a stable marriage, or lifelong happiness. And even if you’re able to present a hale appearance, there’s a good chance you’re dying a slow death internally. This collection explores the unsettled and unsettling areas of existential gray while offering no simple answers or clear pronouncements.

          The use of fairy tales and fantasy to explore social ills and cultural norms is a prominent part of the current American zeitgeist. Think Game of Thrones, Once Upon a Time, and Grimm. As a culture, we’re drawn to these TV shows as they explore a tangible and accessible evil while also providing us with the opportunity to direct a collective animus towards the character who intends to undermine our hero. But what is evil? Is the Devil real, or does he simply dwell inside all of us, speaking literally and/or psychologically? If goodness exists, the theory goes, so too must darkness? These are the themes that Gailey explores.

          Illness and disease are the common link in most of these poems. In “Risking Our Lives,” Gretel suffers from a fever and wishes that life could be simple again, as it was when she and Hansel faced the witch, a common enemy they could see, rather than one that remains hidden and lies in wait. She implies that Hansel will also suffer from this same disease, saying “I’d run into a thousand burning woods to save you,/but now, I find my help can’t reach you….”

          In the very universal poem, “Things I Learned in Waiting Rooms,” the poet contemplates illness, implying that no amount of faith can prevent the inevitable:

That we are finite—that even the young
grow religious when facing the dimmed light,
drawing pictures of smiling Jesus figures,
haloes of yellow crayon.
That we are not gods,
though we may sail ahead of our bodies,
smiling, as if we were.

          Then Gailey turns to roses and apples—the objects of beauty and destruction in Snow White and Sleeping Beauty. The princess is lured by the tantalizing object and subsequently trapped via an evil spell. But what if the evil influence didn’t originate entirely in the external? What if beauty inherently contains evil, perhaps in the form of desire?

          In “Snow Bees, Again,” Gailey pairs life and death by transforming the color white, along with its traditional implications of innocence, into an image of funeral lilies. What we thought was true doesn’t live up to the hype and what we thought was safe turns out to be poison.

A girl hands out roses and red apples in the snow.
Dark as blood. She sips the poison and dreams of the flowers
her father planted in the yard that never quite lived up to
expectations of roses somehow. He took picture after picture
and hung them in the house, the skeletons and petals
of imperfect roses. Roses and apples grow
from the same family. The poison of apples hidden
within the seed, the poison of roses hidden in the thorn.

          Gailey infuses irresistible energy into her lines, placing her princesses in modern settings, as in “Sleeping Beauty Has an MRI,” “The Mermaid Loses Her Voice,” and “Red Riding Hood at the Car Dealer.” In the latter poem, Red turns the tables on the Wolf, who is the car salesman, Red now remade as the charismatic customer prepared to make a large down payment.

She tugged at the neckline of her red sweater,

Is that the best you can do? she asked, batting
her car keys. I’m leaving on a road trip

to Grandma’s, wanna come with? The wolf
senses danger, despite the daisy appliqués on her purse.

          (I see an opportunity here for a series of Red Riding Hood poems in which Red’s buying a new house and finds numerous ways to con the seller and mortgage lender as well as drive her realtor mad.)

          Red Riding Hood’s grandma gives her a fabulous litany of advice in “I Forgot to Tell You The Most Important Part…,” starting with “Without this knowledge, you’ll never make it.”

                                               …No surprises; we’ve lied
about having it all. It’s either the piano or the pit viper.
Cinderella’s shoe came off at midnight because it hurt,
and Red Riding Hood’s real story involves cannibalism
and a striptease….

          What Grandma left out is covered in “Advice Left Between the Pages of Grimms’ Fairy Tales,” ensuring that our princesses know to “Forget the sword and magic stone,/forget enhancements and focus on the profit margin,/the hard line. Read the subtext.”

          Amid her bold images, Gailey often underscores the same themes repeatedly, making frequent use of apples, glass coffins, and thorns, such that some of the poems end up sounding a bit like ones we’ve read before. Although she works hard to avoid the cliché of “every rose has its thorn,” this proverb/image still emerges. Gailey leaves her princesses in limbo and refrains from offering any simple conclusions, perhaps engagingly so, but the poems might have benefited had the narratives occasionally been taken a step further: what if the princesses’ upsets and losses served as initiations in some way, perhaps equipping them with insights and even abilities to assist others along the so-called Hero’s Journey?

          Whatever the occasional weaknesses or redundancies in Unexplained Fevers, Gailey’s readers can easily identify with her fairy tale characters: ordinary young women thrust into life and death situations, unprepared to handle the traumas they face. Losing their innocence, they may—we can hope—at some point regain it. In Unexplained Fevers, these young women see their world through a dark lens, in the colors of a gritty reality. And isn’t this usually the case? After all, the happiness that can follow heartbreak is typically a gift that comes with age.

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