Tuesday, May 22, 2007



Becoming the Villainess by Jeannine Hall Gailey
(Steel Toe Books, 2006)

As I grow older, I continue to discover advantages to having the kind of liberal arts education that I received as an undergraduate. One of my purest pleasures is reading literature and understanding the allusions to other artistic works. Jeannine Hall Gailey's book, Becoming the Villainess (Steel Toe Books), is full of pleasures for the reader who likes to discover these types of allusions.

My favorite poems in this collection are the ones where Gailey gives a new, modern twist to fairy tales and myths. For example, "Cinderella at the Car Dealership," presents Cinderella buying a car, the prince as the salesman who presents her "One shiny coach after another." I love the image of the coach as a car that might be purchased: "One driven by mice, / another made of pumpkin. / (Environmentally sound)." "Persephone Thinks of Leaving the Suburbs" presents a homesick Persephone, trying to adjust to an alien land: "Even the weeds here are sickly. / Lavender, rosemary--the scents seem diluted, bluer / now than during my visits home."

I read poetry hoping that it will transform me on some basic level, that after reading a poem, I won't ever look at the subject matter in quite the same way again. Gailey is a master of this kind of poems. From here on out, I won't read the Cinderella story again without thinking of her pumpkin coach as environmentally sound. Her poem, "Little Cinder," offers this gem: "You used to believe in angels. / Now you believe in the makeover"; likewise, "The Changeling," starts: "I went to bed a secretary / but woke up a wolf, / clothes in shreds on the floor." Her poem, "The Snow Queen Explains," like many other poems in this collection, explores the reasons why humans, particularly women, might embrace their shadow selves or turn towards evil (at least evil as patriarchal society defines the term). The Snow Queen reminds us, "Hey, I didn't start out like this." Her journey begins: "It started with sparkle-- / one broken splinter in my foot, another in my finger." Every line of this poem glitters with icy surfaces and smooth sounds.

In some poems, Gailey fuses elements from both mythology and fairy tale. In "When Red Becomes the Wolf," Gailey references both Little Red Riding Hood and Persephone, and in the end, brings new insight to both: Little Red Riding Hood as Botany student, Persephone, too, a sort of Botany student. How easy it is in modern life to become what we fear, I thought, as I read the ending of the poem, where it's clear that Little Red Riding Hood is not as innocent as we've been led to believe.

Many of Gailey's poetic insights are deeply profound. In "Job Requirements: A Supervillain's Advice," Gailey points out the connections between modern life and the elements that transform people into supervillains. Perhaps it's environmental: "Grow up near a secret nuclear testing site. / Think Hanford, Washington. Oak Ridge, / Tennessee. North and South Dakota / are riddled with them." Perhaps it's the family: "Your father--is he / an eccentric scientist of some sort? Did you / show early signs of a 'supergenius' IQ?" The poem is in turns funny and sad, but in the end, the poem punches us with the knowledge of how evil affects us all: "In the end you are the reason we see the picture;/ we mistrust the tedium of a string of sunny days. / We like to watch things crumble."

Gailey uses similar techniques in her delightful poem, "Okay, Ophelia." Gailey ties the Ophelia story to ravaged coral reefs as the speaker implores Ophelia to shape up: "You can be graceful, not like a ballerina, / like a hedge of coral, built up and eaten and worn down / yet alive, carving the rhythms of the sea." I like this juxtaposition of one of Shakespeare's most famous literary victims with environmental destruction, and I really appreciate the way that Gailey manages to do this, while still maintaining a whisper of hope that we can survive all the degradation that life may deliver.

Some literate readers of far-flung literature may protest that some of these ideas have been done before. The poem, "Remembering Philomel," links the Philomel myth with a male babysitter who abuses his six year old female charge and with a Professor of Creative Writing who encourages a writer to delve more deeply into painful material. I found the connections intriguing, but the idea of Philomel as the archetype for sexually abused women is not new. With the title referencing Philomel, I suspected the emotional terrain that the poem would cover, and at first, I resisted, thinking that I couldn't possibly stand another presentation of sexual violation, no matter how artful. While the poem will never be my favorite in the collection, with several readings, I can appreciate its sad, elegaic beauty and masterful weavings of several narrative strands.

Not all of these poems allude to mythology, fairy tales, and classic literature, but most of them do. Gailey also refers to comic books and video games, and even when I wasn't familiar with the works in question, I devoured the poems anyway. That experience leads me to speculate that the same will be true for readers who don't always remember the classical allusions present in most of the poems. In addition, Gailey provides four pages of detailed notes at the end of the book that enrich the reader's understanding of the poems.

Every time I have picked up this book in the past six weeks since it came to my house, I've found something new and wondrous in the poems that I've read. Becoming the Villainess is Jeannine Hall Gailey's first book length collection, and I look forward to seeing what she will do next.


Kristin Berkey-Abbott earned a Ph.D. in British Literature from the University of South Carolina. Currently, she teaches English and Creative Writing at the Art Institute of Ft. Lauderdale. She has published in many journals and was one of the top ten finalists in the National Looking Glass Poetry Chapbook Competition. Pudding House Publications published her chapbook, Whistling Past the Graveyard, in 2004.


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