When the stories we tell about ourselves crack, the breakage is bewildering and painful, even when the results seem happy to outsiders. One of these radical revisions has happened to you or to someone you love: the good-enough partnership is revealed as a long con; the driven hero gives up on the goal mid-quest; a door that had always seemed locked turns out to have been open all along. Jeannine Hall Gailey's third poetry collection, Unexplained Fevers, focuses on such moments of narrative crisis. Sometimes the crisis is romantic: what comes after the fairy-tale marriage plot resolves? This is a compelling but familiar question, the basis of a long feminist literary tradition (see Rachel Blau DuPlessis's Writing Beyond the Ending for one discussion of this narrative strategy). The dark forest at the very heart of Gailey's rich and urgent book, though, isn’t disappointment in life after the knightly rescue. It's what happens when the princess becomes seriously ill and, stranded within or without a diagnosis, she struggles towards some new story, a plot twist that will make sense of her suffering.
Unexplained Fevers deploys a wide range of fantastic elements. Gailey's heroines hail from Grimm, Perrault, the book of Genesis, Greek myth, nursery rhymes, One Thousand and One Nights, film, and the comics. Fairy tales involving confinement and escape are especially salient. Some entries in the table of contents encapsulate the witty juxtapositions driving Gailey's verse: "Sleeping Beauty Has an MRI," "Red Riding Hood at the Car Dealer." What could be more relentlessly real than a hospital or a dealership? And yet for Gailey, reality and fantasy always interpenetrate, or perhaps constitute dubious distinctions in the first place. These poems are speculative fictions in trope and reference but perhaps most deeply in their estranged perspective into twenty-first-century medicine.
As the book's title implies, Gailey is preoccupied with the art and science of medical diagnosis, a cognitive process in which a practitioner identifies and interprets symptoms. Transforming scraps of data into a story can alleviate pain and promote healing, but a useful diagnosis often begins with false starts, ill-fitting narratives, and long spans of uncertainty. In the light-handed poem "Fingernails," Gailey dramatizes this process in three scenes. First a palm-reader, then a doctor, and finally a manicurist examine the speaker. Their revelations are both true and profoundly insufficient: "a grave illness hangs" over her future; "white spots reveal anemia,/ ridges hormone trouble or malnutrition"; and for the beautician, those unusual nails are "delicate, feminine" (p. 22). An important suggestion here (and elsewhere in the book, such as in "A True Princess Bruises") is that conventional femininity is rooted in weakness, even disease, and that this association can debilitate women. A secondary point, artfully implicit, is how fantastic literature parallels and occasionally converges with storytelling practices that claim the weight of scientific authority. All three diagnoses have their uses, and Gailey doesn't grant the medical narrative any special status.
Fairy tale revisions have to render familiar tales freshly strange. Angela Carter and Anne Sexton, for example, explore the sexual initiations encoded in bedtime stories, so we can't ever hear "Rapunzel" or "Red Riding Hood" the same way again. One of the most profound surprises of Gailey's project is her revelation that tales of illness and injury are latent in all kinds of folk traditions. Long confinements in overgrown castles, being peered at through the sides of a crystal casket—such passive paralysis resonates strikingly with the isolation and constant testing a contemporary patient might endure. In other poems, a deft inversion makes new sense of a frightening situation. For instance, in "Risking Our Lives," Hansel and Gretel are devoured not by a witch but "by the same inherited disease,/ eating our bones/ from the inside out" (p. 10). The peril is horribly different, horribly the same.
Unexplained Fevers also renews these tales at the level of image. Gailey's poems bristle with arguments about gender, love, and illness, but they are poems foremost, dense with surprising metaphors. One of my favorites, "Snow White Considers April at the Medical Center, Again," begins, "It's these apple blossoms, their sinister white buzz" (p. 62). The opening of T. S. Eliot's "The Waste Land" is probably the most famous poetic exploration of spring's dark side, but many human beings have suffered the irony of grief or fear during the season's wildest profusion. Gailey writes in this book and elsewhere about infertility in the midst of spring's rude abundance—as she asks in "Other People's Children," "what kind of flower doesn't reproduce?" (p. 46). However, in "Snow White Considers April at the Medical Center, Again," the nature of the speaker's loss isn't clear, or is more pervasive and insidious: "what fight can't I lose/ against the fists of these flowers?" (p. 62). All April's fertile delicacy becomes weaponized: the apple blossoms' color itself seems to buzz with vibrancy, but so do the sharp pollinators lurking among petals. After the title, the poem doesn't contain elements or references that betray realism's codes. There is simply a sense that all spring's daffodils and butterflies are weirdly ominous emissaries from an essentially mysterious universe.
These poems are most powerful when Gailey applies feverish heat not only to fairy tale structures but to the stock phrases of oral storytelling, too. The book's opener, "Once Upon a Time," is crammed with evocative misprisions: "Once upon our time we broke our crowns./ The tumbling came after" (p. 2). In "The Knight Wonders What, Exactly, He Rescued," a bewildered savior prepares dinner as possible names for his situation flicker through his brain: "a backfire, a black spire, a fear ark, a fae bicker" (p. 19). At such moments, it becomes clear why lyric poetry is exactly the right place for reexamining the failure of prose narrative. We need stories, but we also need to acknowledge how fragmentary experience can be, and how pain, especially, resists plot's orderliness. Language haunts us at some junctures without having clear explanatory force.
For the same reason—unpredictable, eerie resonance—Gailey's verse works particularly well when it tips into metrical pattern. The falling pulse of trochaic pentameter, for example, at the end of the free verse poem "She Had Unexplained Fevers," feels perfect even before one recognizes why: "this might be the wake up call she needed" (p. 4). Furthermore, free verse line breaks can be tough to orchestrate persuasively, but Gailey manages the options artfully. Her lines are typically units of breath or thought, but an occasional odd enjambment provides a twisty sense of dislocation, as in this passage from the same page: "you know girls like her always singing/ ballads about babies buried under trees." There are, however, less intensely crafted poems in the middle of the book. The gorgeously weird images in "Snow Bees, Again" are undermined for me by a few enjambments that feel neither natural nor meaningful, such as "The hives were full of/ them" (p. 35).
That's a very small quibble, though. A bigger one might be an unresolved quality to the book's larger arc. The collection's final piece, "At the End," takes up the human craving for a prognosis, a path forward. After the rescue, "groggily, we turn to the narrator for direction:/ after all, all our lives we've been posing/ for someone or other" (p. 68). Of course, future narrative developments have not been prescribed. The last line recalls maternal advice: "Try not to expect too much magic" (p. 68). This injunction could have several meanings, but among them are warnings that we have to cobble together our own stories, those tales are subject to constant rewrites, and worst of all, fairy godmothers don't always appear in a catastrophe. Gailey doesn't really tell us what happens to the princess, except that she survives the supposed ending, still full of desire.
The back cover claims that Unexplained Fevers "frees fairy tale heroines from their glass coffins and towers while simultaneously looking at the traps that contemporary women encounter—body image, drug abuse, illness—and how to find power and freedom beyond those limitations." For me, this book isn't concerned with freedom or happy outcomes, but instead offers a compelling meditation about being suspended in the middle of one's own ambiguous adventure. This is what I look for in literature: the satisfactions of story, but also help tolerating story’s inadequacy. The "unexplained" aspect of these heroines' various maladies is one of the collection's signal strengths. Gailey's Snow White, Moth Girl, and Sleeping Beauty refract contemporary human experience with a sense of optimism but also with healthy acknowledgment of life's frustrations and general untidiness. This complexity, strongly evident as well in her first two books, Becoming the Villainess (2006) and She Returns to the Floating World (2011), keeps drawing me back to Gailey's work. I don't expect her next book to be full of answers and prognoses, exactly, but I'm deeply invested in the tales she's telling. I will continue to stand nosily, curiously, right there at the edge of her poetry's glass enclosure, to see how the stories unfold from here.
Lesley Wheeler's new book, The Receptionist and Other Tales, was recently named to the Tiptree Award Honor List; her other poetry collections are Heterotopia and Heathen. She teaches at Washington and Lee University in Lexington, Virginia and blogs about poetry’s possible worlds at lesleywheeler.org.