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Becoming the Villainess

This book of poems by journalist Jeannine Hall Gailey caught my eye back at the beginning of the semester, and I checked it out, meaning to read it right away. But the longer it sat there on my desk, the more reluctant I was to open it. I adore mythology and fairy tales, and was concerned that perhaps Gailey would treat her subject matter in the usual, clichéd way. I kept looking at the cover, with its cheesy font and disconcertingly large areas of white space. With a cover like this, I thought, it’s probably going to be a disappointment. I wanted so badly to be surprised, delighted, and unsettled that I was afraid to even peek inside the book. I even hid it at one point to stop myself from worrying. But it’s the last week, and this was my first book, so today I read it.

Well, thank goodness. While Gailey is a tad uneven in places, there are some beautifully captivating poems that completely make up for it. She writes about Persephone and Philomel (several times…you can certainly tell where her obsessions lie), Wonder Woman, Ophelia, Melusine, and the Snow Queen, to name a few. The poems are not–as the title might suggest–all about evil stepmothers. Most are about other female characters; some are empowering, but many are not. Gailey’s poems are melancholy, triumphant, disconcerting, introspective, playful, and bittersweet. She also often contrasts these mythological and literary references with modern, hyperrealistic details. In “Little Cinder”, she creates a very different type of Cinderella, and this is especially apparent in the last two stanzas:

You deserve the palace, you think, as you signal
the pigeons to attack, approve the barrel filled with red-hot nails.
Its great hearth beckons, and the prince’s flag
rises crimson as the angry sun.

He will love you for the heat you generate,
for the flames you igite around you,
though he encase your tiny feet in glass
to keep them from scorching the ground.

And one of my very favorites, inspired by a quotation from Eliot’s The Waste Land, is called “Her Nerves”:

I surrounded myself with the safe, with the sane.
“You know there’s a history of mental illness in my family.”
I devoted myself to botany, to mazes, to the infinitesimal.
I married you to challenge my inevitable end—
my human tranquilizer.
You like my “little poems” but
I scare you when I rock myself over and over
saying I dreamed I killed you again,
I dreamed you killed me again,
and you couldn’t stop the nightmares.

You liked it when I laughed at Plath,
sketched repeating uneven branches of starfish arms.

You are afraid—not just of me,
but what I see and hear that you don’t—
the crusts of blood, slippery dirt-gorged voices.
You like it when I curse creatively,
hate it when paper piles like excrement around me.

Afraid our sloppy physicality
will tear at your maintained monastic cubes,
our “Siren Song,” our red hair flaming into points.
You name our extremities as if decayed already,
the translucent hand,
the ankle frail as a twig.

Now that I’ve finally read this book, I’ll stick it back on the shelf for the rest of you. It was worth the wait.