Unexplained Fevers consists of a scattering of twisted, beautiful and melancholy poems — also modern-day retellings of fairy tales. Gailey’s poems have a melodic feel to them. There is this haunting echo to her words that tells you, “There’s something deeper in these lines. There’s something you can find here about yourself.” Her fairy tales are nothing like the Grimm fairy tales, nor anything like Disney. They taste surreal. They’re this heartbreaking mix of reality and dreams.
Gailey reshapes fairy tale characters as modern-day beings. Snow White falls into a coma after cheer practice. Sleeping Beauty has a MRI. Alice “[whispers] from the covers of cereal boxes.” Hansel and Gretel suffer from a hereditary disease. Jack and Jill are 30-year-olds whose lives and dreams slip away like pieces of paper. These are broken people with broken lives and broken souls — but they are so much realer, so much more beautiful than their polished fairy-tale counterparts.
In her collection, Gailey plunges into an important theme and raises questions about gender roles and womanhood. Fairy tales have this concept of damsels in distress who find happily-ever-endings. But these damsels are never the heroines of their own stories, never the deciders of their own fates. In the poem “She Had Unexplained Fevers,” Gailey describes the girl Snow White: “her hair ribbon was laced with poison absorbed through her scalp…girls like that they bruise easy like fruit.” And she wonders: “Why do they wish beauty? Why not safety?” This line of poetry is so powerful and it somehow etched its way into permanence in my memory.
Rebirth and choices…that’s a thing we all want. Strength. Chances in life. The power to shape our own identities. Princesses are weak. They’re gorgeous and fragile and weak — and perhaps there’s a kind of beauty in that fragility, something in that vulnerability? But there’s no choice with weakness. On her deathbed, Snow White makes a wish: “In [her] next life, she swears to herself, [she] will be a force of nature.”
We grew up with fairy tales. We grew up with princesses. We admired princesses. Admired their perfect lives and fairy tale endings. But what if the “princess” didn’t want that ending? What if she wants “a little time to [herself]”? She “might dream up a new ending, a new soul.” My favorite poem is about the tired princess. She “cuts off her long hair and moves to a far corner of the world, with salmon and heron for company.” She’s lonely in a strange and lovely way. In her new ending, she “[swims] with the seals, skin turning blue from cold…She [tells] herself stories of mermaids turning into sea foam, women who walked on legs like scissors, and swore not to kill any more of herself for her prince.”
Gailey finishes her collection with a kind of message for us. She says princesses never have the idea “to flee [their] fates.” They wait for princes or friends, “asleep in glass coffins and briar-thorned prisons.” They wait for the narrator to say something…to point them in the right direction. But we…we’re not fairy tale characters, and it’s a good thing. We can decide our fates, we can run away into different endings, and we can chose safety over beauty. Our lives are real and full of choices. In a way, our stories are so much better.
I recommend you read these poems, whoever you are, whatever age you are. They’re fun, quick to read, and maybe you’ll find a message for yourself.
***eBook provided by Netgalley in exchange for my honest review