New Binary Press, 2013
Reviewed by Kathleen Kirk, EIL Poetry Editor
Unexplained Fevers, by Jeannine Hall Gailey, is a scary book of poems. The title hints at the danger: if the fevers are unexplained, there won’t be a way to find a cure. The fevers will remain a mystery to the doctors poking, testing, and pricking the finger and veins of the patient, and putting her in an MRI machine, and she will remain exhausted, drained of blood, chronically fatigued, and maybe even indefinitely asleep. A real dead-or-alive Sleeping Beauty.
And there’s the link: modern medical science, seeming capable of miracles, re-seen as a set of fairy tales. Alas, Sleeping Beauty sleeps on, because it’s not necessarily a good mix—science and fantasy. I mean that the book is pointing this out, not that it’s not a good mix in the book! It’s a fascinating mix in the book, and a fine mix of tales and cultures, with Jack represented as well as Jill, a knight revisited as well as various princesses and heroines. But in the medical narrative underlying many of the retold fairy tales, it’s sadly true that a girl who dreams of a cure—or a rescue—can’t always find one. It’s the charming prince of a doctor who’s given responsibility for that. And if he’s not as faithful and dedicated and driven as the hero of a fairy tale, he might not succeed. The fevers will remain unexplained.
Plus, he’s on a different path. In the story the dreaming girl remembers, the prince loved her. In the real world, love is not the doctor’s motivation. What is? Money, intellectual curiosity, the acclaim of his/her peers, a Nobel Prize, the good of humankind? Unexplained. Trapped in the glass coffins of retellings, the narrator and speaker of these poems does not always or fully enter the real world, nor the motivations of those who might help her. She’s caught in a twilight sleep or a deeper dream, as the fairy tales swirl, mix, and remix. The opening poem, perfectly titled “Once Upon a Time,” demonstrates this, ending, “We couldn’t keep our stories straight. / It wasn’t as they had told us.”
That’s a familiar truth, and the re-telling of fairy tales is a familiar and favorite device of poets—Anne Sexton, for one—and songwriters—Sara Bareilles and Paula Cole, for two. But Gailey goes past some common reasons for such retellings, which include understanding female identity in or out of the context of human history or the human subconscious, or expressing disappointment that life is not a neat narrative with a happy ending. With Unexplained Fevers, there’s the urgency of medical crisis, literal life and death stakes. This Snow White might not ever get out of her glass coffin, as she’s been poisoned by toxins still in the world, not just fed to her by a jealous witch. If the doctors don’t figure it out, she’ll be lost, yes, and so will more of our vulnerable young. And it’s not just a cure she wants, but a diagnosis. She’s after a cause, an explanation, a reason, the source.
Dangerously, observers—some of whom should really be helpful, supportive, or sympathetic—blame the poisoned one for her own fevered sleep. Or do they? This, too, may be imagined, as in “Snow White Imagines Herself,” which begins, “She is tired of being looked at under glass. / If only she could move, get up, wave her hands.” It’s a terrible and heartbreaking reminder that the patient must always be patient. There’s no way out when ill, especially when there’s no diagnosis. And here are those observers: “I can hear them. Such a pretty girl, a little naïve though, / a little nerdy, she could get better if she wanted to.”
In this poem, Snow White’s poisoned apple turns into the medical poisons fed to the ill to make their insides show up on a screen. “How willingly she ate the poison.” The doctor’s bad news: “How words stuck in her throat.” But all this, the truth of routine medical care, is still put back on the patient. She did it, so she’s being blamed for her own illness, in their minds, and, sadly, now in hers. It’s as intricate and entwined as a double helix, a strand of DNA. At the end of this poem, Snow White re-imagines herself—as fierce, as active instead of passive:
I will be a force of nature. I will be rose red,
I will be blood, I will be fists of vengeance;
I will be the magic mirror and dark wood.
Still scary, still dangerous. But it’s vengeance delivered not with the prick of a spindle, and not with a waving of hands, whether magic or call for rescue, nor even with a sword; instead, vengeance via mighty pen.
If you are entranced by Snow White, Rose Red, Sleeping Beauty, Rapunzel, the Snow Queen, the Swan Princess, Jack and Jill, and Hansel and Gretel, you’ll want to re-see these tales and characters in the context of Unexplained Fevers. And if you’d like to see other poems by Jeanine Hall Gailey here at Escape Into Life, click the first two links below. You can find the book at Amazon or New Binary Press, and another reader response review by me, of She Returns to the Floating World, Gailey’s re-seeing of Japanese fairy tales, at Galatea Resurrects, also linked below.