by Jessie Carty
Jeannine Hall Gailey
New Binary Press
I recently heard the poet Li-Young Lee read from his work. After he read he lead a Q & A session. In response to one question he noted that a word is an organizing principle. With that thought in mind, I noted how often I find myself pulling apart individual words, seeking their myriad connotations. I love to do so when I’m considering book reviews and interviews with poets as well. This review, therefore, will start by thinking about definitions.
Jeannine Hall Gailey’s third book of poems is titled Unexplained Fevers. Something that is unexplained is not made plain, is not comprehensible. There is a weight to that word, and before I even start reading Gailey’s book I wonder how the word will function because isn’t the act of writing a way of explanation?
The second word in the title, fevers, can mean an abnormally high body temperature and/or the disease that is associated with that condition. A fever can also be a heightened level of activity or excitement, one that could be contagious, but is often short-lived.
How will Gailey work this pairing of words to her advantage? How do they encompass what will take place in the book as a whole?
About a third of the way into the book, once prevailing themes and imagery are well established, the reader is greeted with the amazing poem “Reflections On Glass Boxes, Mirrors, And Other Enchantments.” This is a two page poem in four sections. The language of this poem is clear, but simplicity is often deceptive.
The first section of this poem has a princess in a glass box. I almost say yet another princess because this poetry collection is full of the princesses we know from myth and fairy tale, but these women are presented in a new way. The princess in this case is one, at least temporarily, who can’t physically speak. Instead, we have this poem as her voice.
In the second section, there is a call to literary tradition with a twist (which is what, I think, often what makes good writing “good”) as Gailey writes, “Ultimately the hero must go on a journey. In her case, / someone dragged her glass box behind him on a horse, / through the woods and a field and even more woods.” We’ve seen princesses’ before in glass boxes, or in towers. The princess is usually only on the move after being rescued. This is not the situation for this poem’s princess. This woman is stuck in a box, and is in the midst a sort-of escape; one that she didn’t script for herself.
It is easy to visualize this different take on a fairy tale trope. It is, if you utilize a more traditional reading of the word, explained, but Gailey turns the idea of the unexplained around. She refuses to just explain away the underlying darkness of the fairy tale as she moves into section three of the poem: “One thing you’ve got to understand about magic mirrors: / they always betray you.” I hear fire in the voice of this poem, and in the writer who created those lines. This strength, this fever, continues into the fourth and final section of the poem: “Heretic, harlot, the names for me here are all wrong, / lack imagination. My fists grow into briars, / all ready for your embrace.” This is a speaker who refuses to be a cliche, to allow her words to just mean one thing which, again, works masterfully well with the overall title of the book.
I’ve been a fan of Gailey’s work for some time, and she is a writer who wants to examine, as I wrote in a review of her last book, the female from all sides. In that collection (She Returns to the Floating World) I noted there was a focus on woman as sister, wife, mother, body. Unexpected Fevers is still concerned with many of those archetypes regarding womanhood, but I particularly note this collection’s investigation of the body, the hero, and the mother.
The body is viewed with a play on disease. There is clearly the paleness of literal illness/fevers/disease (also noting that paleness is often seen as a signal for beauty), but what of the dis-ease, the discomfort, that can come with navigating the expected roles for women as well as for their bodies as exemplified by the poem I mentioned already and its questioning of who the hero of the story is as well as other poems in the collection that seek empathy from a world that strongly questions women who are not in traditional roles, especially those who do not bear children.
Norse literature has a special word for a hyphenated compilation of two words that figuratively makes a stronger meaning than the two words alone: the kenning. I think of this with Beowulf and terms such as the whale-road which represents the sea. Perhaps unexplained fevers, although not hyphenated, is the only concrete and compound way to express to the reader the world that Gailey sees (and wants the reader to see), and is trying to understand (and yes, dear reader, she wants to move you towards understanding as well).
This short review just touches the surface of what Gailey is accomplishing and asking in this collection. I highly recommend this one, and I look forward to seeing where Gailey’s careful and crafty eye takes her next.