A recent series of poems by Jeannine Hall Gailey in the Spoon River Poetry Review is a testament to the tenacity of poetry and its poet. In her first chapbook, Female Comic Book Superheroes (Pudding House Publishing, 2005), I met Gailey as a stealthy kick-ass feminist poet. Her works were subtle but fierce, drawing character, voice, and reader into a collective sense of powerful control. Her following five books continued on this vein through recurring themes of mythology, fairy tale, feminism, science, science fiction, and the apocalypse. Through the years, I also kept up with her blog, where she shared her diagnosis of MS. But, as she first noted, back in 2013, “. . . I don’t want to define myself by this or any of the other weirdo health stuff I have. I am maybe a mutant, but I have a lot of good things in my life too.”
Poetry is definitely one of the good things Gailey has and readily shares with us. It has not lost its subtle fierceness – she is still taking names and kicking ass, but her subject now is her experience with chronic illness and medical science. The starkly sad titled “My Life Is an Accident” continues:
of DNA and radiation, a million missed chances
for death to sweep me off my feet.
Too many of this, not enough of that—
a witch’s spell for trouble. Red haired
and scarlet fevered. born with wings and a tail,
an immune system weak as a kitten and a knack
for being in the wrong weeds at the wrong time.
Gailey draws the likely parallels between her body and nature, but in ways that are beautiful, tender, and heartbreakingly cruel, as in these lines from “Signs of Spring on the Way to More Medical Testing”:
[ . . . ] I lie down again before the machines
that read my insides, technicians passive
while my blood blooms with red and blue
flashes in the mushroom-grey of my heart,
And these closing lines from “Self-Portrait as a Desert During a Superbloom”:
[ . . . ] I’ve had enough
drear and bleak and blurred images to last a lifetime,
enough tumbleweed and drought. I am a cactus flower,
a sand verbena, sunflower. I am ephemeral.
Catch me before I wilt and fade beneath your gaze.
As deeply autobiographical as these poems are, Gailey does not exclude the reader, but rather brings them along through the full weight of the emotional journey, including humor. I laughed out loud then smiled as I read “Your Body Is a Fiction”:
I wish our meat-bag bodies our heavy baggage
we drag through life were slippery as fictions
what we would change if we could
it wouldn’t be yoga it wouldn’t be chanting
I would fly I would be untethered I would dream
of a life where my vision, breath, legs
didn’t fail at the random whim
of a flair, the immune system’s
caprice. I could be a dragon or a mermaid,
some fairyworld, vampire, werewolf,
turning magical beneath the moon.
Gailey’s poems take the reader through an experience that joins the divided worlds of reality and fantasy, hard-grinding truths and what we hope and wish and dream. As downright sad as the subject of these poems can be, at the close of each, she leaves the reader more in awe with the magnificence of this world and our place in it.
Review by Denise Hill