Reviews of Becoming the Villainess
Diner, Volume 6, 2006,
Jeannine Hall Gailey's Becoming the Villainess is a book full
of voices - Persephone's, Wonder Woman's, The Femme Fatale's, and the
Villainess' among them. The book is arranged thoughtfully, divided into
five sections that gather momentum through its persona poems and
ultimately speaks as a whole.
Gailey's poems sing with startling, concrete images: radioactive
snow, a jeweled robotic bird, shoe-crushed wildflowers, the buzzing
electronic landscape, and plastic starfish. She has a keen eye for
description and often her poems engage our other senses as well, as she
does here in "Breathing in the Asthma Capital:"
In Knoxville two miles
from Oak Ridge
I grew up with a yard of lilacs...
despite stray dogs,
stray cars jackknifed into lawns...
the lilacs press their
cool and faded
to my fingertips
cigarettes and smells of tar...
lilac branches climb
above asparagus, moss, strawberry leaves
they rise like watery flames out of red clay..."
She skillfully disarms us with her dark humor, as in these lines from
always get their
in the very first scene.
A femme fatale can't also be
a loving wife and
So she becomes a workaholic
to get over Steve, Jeff, or Lance..."
and then goes to hit us with hard and heartbreaking truths:
Everyone loves the dead
girl after she's dead...
a line from the book's powerful ending poem, "The Dead Girl Speaks."
On the surface many of these poems are entertaining and charming, but
they are also much more. Her poems encompass the perils of beauty; the
terrible outcome of being feminine culled from myths, fairy tales, film
noir, and pop culture; yet Gailey does not leave us without hope. Within
those same tales there exists a woman we can aspire to become: "If we're
lucky, we might become the villainess..."
The villainesses, the femme fatales, the avenging goddesses, the
female comic book superheroes all have one thing in common-they are
overtly female, yet as the apt lines from "Keep Your Eye on the
Swallow," remind us:
This is not what you
wanted to see:
a woman unkempt, blood from throat to fingertips.
You don't want to see
my hands on the knife
their sordid work.
blue robes, the jeweled reminders...
Perhaps it is time we look.
Midwest Book Review, July 2006
Becoming the Villainess is the debut collection of free-verse
poetry by journalist Jeannine Hall Gailey. Addressing the archetypes of
myth, from modern pop culture to Ovid to Grimm's fairy tales, Gailey
weaves words expressing the hearts of shunned, reviled, justly and
unjustly treated villainesses and female victims of fable. A dramatic,
moving collection; each poem has a gripping personal story to tell.
"Daphne, Older": Peel back my skin: / reveal hard fibers, bite marks, //
scars from wind and rain. / Life is pain - I won't tell you // any
different. Just that sometimes, / avoiding what you fear // isn't the
answer. See? All these years / my branches sang with birds // and my
leaves drank sunlight- / I haven't missed much. // My heartwood hardens
slowly / over time - first, to the music, then, to the light."
Rattle, Winter 2006, Natasha Kochicheril Moni
In Becoming the Villainess, Jeannine Hall Gailey unveils her
ability to transform the mythical, the superhero, pop culture, and
tragedy into poetry with purpose. Reminiscent of Kim Addonizio's
Divorcee series in tone, but with a pace cleverly matched to its topic,
Gailey has given us 80 pages of literary entertainment in her first
Divided into sections, "Origins," "Superpower," "Character Arc,"
"Dark Phoenix, Rising," and "The Final Frame," Becoming the Villainess
provides the reader context in which to read each groupings of poems.
Lines range from the vivid "I miss Sicily:/ the blood oranges and olive
groves,/ sunshine and seaweed." in "Persephone Thinks of Leaving the
Suburbs," to the directive "Beware your face,/ your limbs, your walk.../
Beware of swans./ They will lift you/ but you will fall..." from "Leda's
Mother Warns Her."
Throughout Becoming the Villainess, Gailey's voice remains
strong, returning to the vernacular congruent with her background of
growing up in the South, demonstrated in these lines from "The Snow
Queen Explains:" "Hey, I didn't start out like this./ I enjoyed corned
beef sandwiches,/ good vodka...the only snow/ I'd seen was the shedding
Gailey favors the narrative, each poem a story recounted with flair.
She doesn't veer from difficult matters; in fact, her work exhibits it,
visiting violence so often it earns its title with passion and often a
dark sense of humor. And yet, Gailey manages a deft act with the
inclusion of what one might assume are more personal poems such as "With
You Rubbing My Feet," "She Complains About the Mockingbird," and
"Happily Ever After." the tenderness of these poems surprises,
functioning as breath in an otherwise intense collection.
In a time when poetry has become polarized-narrative or lyrical,
accessible or academic, serious or comedic--it is refreshing to read
poetry that flirts with the spaces in between. Jeannine Hall Gailey's
work does just this; she has released a body of poetry that is at once
mature and thrilling, humorous and intense, appealing to audiences of
poets and non-poets alike.
Ever since “Through the Looking Glass” appeared in RHINO 2005, we
have admired Jeannine Hall Gailey’s luminous persona poems that
introduce us to worlds both dangerously fantastic and dangerously
familiar. Whether “Playing Softball With Persephone” or listening as
“The Snow Queen Explains,” this collection invites readers to slip into
another skin, and from skin to skin as the pages of the book introduce
us to a cast of fascinating personae. Becoming the Villainess
contains some of the most remarkable poem titles gracing pages these
days, and the table of contents reads like a poem in itself. This
stunning debut is guaranteed to engage readers of many appetites.
While some poets might limit their audience by including characters as
diverse as Leda, Philomel, and Wonder Woman, the poems in this book
witness the universal, as even the legendary Ophelia is told to, “Stop
crouching in shadows, chewing your hair.” Many of the characters in
Becoming the Villainess are archetypal, yet in the world of the book
they are as real as a next-door neighbor, and far more interesting.
Gailey provides several pages of helpful notes that will be appreciated
by the students lucky enough to find Becoming the Villainess on a
course syllabus, or the reader who wants to learn more about a
Becoming the Villainess merges pop culture and classical myth,
which are not polar opposites in the universe of swarming Catholic
school girls and monsters that speak. One might think that the realm of
the fantastic would leave little room for readers to identify personally
with the poems, but that is far from the truth here. Instead we see
reflections of ourselves in every tight line, every turn that may lead
to danger or revelation. The RHINO editors look forward to what is on
the horizon for this innovative poet, and wonder what personae she will
introduce us to next.
Fickle Muses, October 2006,
I was reading the
American Poetry Journal
over a cup of coffee when I came across Jeannine Hall Gailey for the
first time. “The Conversation” caught my attention from its opening
line: “I am an avenging goddess, she said, severely.”
I loved the contrast between the
avenging goddess’ blustering evasion of present emotion, “I eat men like
you for breakfast,” and her lover’s persistence in avoiding the
inevitable by turning everything to the moment’s pleasure, “I could make
you French toast instead.” Gailey’s wit makes the loss of parting at
once more bearable and more poignant.
It is a rare thing to find a poem
that makes me laugh while evoking serious emotion, but not rare in
“Becoming the Villainess” (Steel Toe Books, 2006), with many poems
characterized by a sorrowing playfulness reminiscent of Elizabeth
Bishop’s “One Art.”
In her debut poetry collection,
Gailey recreates myths from Persephone to Buffy the Vampire Slayer,
examining the victim/villain casting of mythic women with wit, grace and
She writes with the lyric beauty of
poems meant to be heard, like the alliteration of these lines from
“Procne and Philomel, at the End”:
“a nest of trinkets grew
around my son’s tiny grave,
a blue blanket, pink peonies
with blooms curling like infant feet.”
“Becoming the Villainess” gives a
different twist to the old tale of the reclaimed mythic woman. What
makes its heroines empowering is not that they overcome their
obstacles—they often don’t—but that as much as they lose, they don’t
lose themselves. In “Persephone and the Prince Meet Over Drinks,”
Persephone expresses the power of owning our own choices, wherever they
“And so what if, at the end of this
with a ring on my finger and a castle
to boot, you find out that my prince
is prince of nothing but darkness?
I knew what I was doing.
I was prepared for a long dance with death.”
With her blend
of colloquial and lyric language, of pop culture and ancient tradition,
Gailey not only renews myth for the modern reader, but illuminates our
strengths and vulnerabilities through the lens of myth.
LitList, Summer 2007, Maya Jewell Zeller
don’t like poetry.” Those four words are something I hear all
too frequently from friends and relatives. But when Aunt Susie
says she doesn’t like poetry because it doesn’t make sense,
she’s talking about the verses she read in school—Blake,
Longfellow, Dickinson. She’s talking about classics, full of
mythic allusion and legends of the western world, full of a
vernacular she doesn’t regularly access, and a voice elevated
beyond everyday speech.
Jeannine Hall Gailey’s Becoming the Villainess is not the poetry
you read in high school. But that’s not to say it doesn’t
contain allusion. In “Little Cinder,” Gailey makes reference to
the classic story of Cinderella, bringing it into today’s
materialistic world: “You used to believe in angels. / Now you
believe in the makeover; / if you can’t get the grime off your
face / and your foot into a size six heel // who will ever
bother to notice you?” (31). Here, the religious icons are
replaced with fashion ultimatums, with questions of self-doubt
rather than hope. In poem after poem, Gailey normalizes the
fantastic, contemporizes the Gothic, and leads Persephone into
Seattle in such a casual way you wonder why it didn’t make your
Yet under the humor is a deep social critique, a study of gender
expectations, and an aching loneliness in each persona that
develops an emotional resonance that reaches the reader in a
very personal way. The characters move in and out of situations
like real people, as in “Cinderella at the Car Dealership”: “Let
me get my manager, / the prince kept saying, / while Ella
propped her tiny feet up / against the salesman’s chair” (41),
or, more pointedly, perhaps: “The Villainess // resembles your
mother, at least around the eyes—” (45). There is a familiarity
to Gailey’s characters, as if these are people we know, or even
facets of ourselves. And, as personas accumulate, the characters
repeat and blur—“even our names sound delicious: / Pandora,
Delilah, Bathsheba, Lola, Gilda” (42)—until real women and those
imagined are indistinguishable. Gailey ultimately suggests that
the prototypes offered—mother, villainess, heroine, princess,
lost girl—are not multidimensional enough to encompass a live
woman, a woman who can assume several identities at once, not
just a dual identity of citizen/superhero, but that of human
In the third to last poem, “The Slayer Asks for Time Off,”
Gailey’s speaker acknowledges her duty to perform while
simultaneously requesting a break from the typical proceedings
of her assumed function:
And don’t think it doesn’t get boring, the back flips
and the bite marks and perfectly timed execution
of one more stake through the heart. I’m tired of wiping
off my jeans, the adrenaline rush in the graveyards.
Just once I’d like to take the night off, maybe
be the damsel in distress, instead of always,
always, wearing the armor and carrying the flag. (76)
Gailey highlights the struggle any person might have with
expectations, with prescribed roles imposed from without and
within. Yet she does not leave the everyday, grounding herself
with references to pop culture alongside Greek myth, and with a
voice you might hear from the lips of Aunt Susie herself: “These
shoes are killing me” (56).
Becoming the Villainess
by Jeannine Hall Gailey
Cover Price: $12
About Maya Jewell Zeller
Jewell Zeller grew up in the rural northwest. She has been a
high school teacher, a cross country coach, and an editor. Her
poems are forthcoming in Poet Lore
, Crab Orchard
, The MacGuffin
, The Spoon River Poetry
, Cincinnati Review
, The Southeast
, and Isotope
James Owens, The Pedestal Magazine, 29th Issue, 2006
Jeannine Hall Gailey’s Becoming the Villainess remembers a truth
that some books tend to forget: poetry can be fun without sacrificing
serious intent or importance. Gailey’s poems about pop culture
characters such as Wonder Woman, Tomb Raider heroine Lara Croft, and
Buffy the Vampire Slayer seem imbued with their creator’s honest joy in
the dramatic gestures and campy minutiae of comic books’ resolutely
un-politically-correct vision of the world, and her readers get to share
in that joy. Other poems look closely, and overall more soberly, at
folktales and Greek myth. The casual bookstore browser might not expect
to find this range of topics brought together, but this book is less
interested in distinctions between high and low culture than in
continuities that render the distinctions irrelevant. Gailey reminds us
that both the heroines of classical myth and modern comic book or video
game icons originate in the need, often subversive, to find female
archetypes of power.
Power, though desirable, is not an unambiguous good, and Gailey
rejects any one-sided view. Power isolates its possessor, and violence
in the name of righteousness is still violence. Wonder Woman, in “Wonder
Woman Dreams of the Amazon," says
I miss my mother, Hippolyta.
In my dreams she wraps me tightly
again in the American flag,
warning me, cling to your bracelets,
your magic lasso. Don’t be a fool for men.
She’s always lecturing me, telling me
not to leave her. Sometimes she changes
into a doe, and I see my father
shooting her, her blood. Sometimes,
in these dreams, it is me who shoots her.
The sense of loss that lurks beneath these lines provides a
counterpoint to the poem’s pleasure in its paraphernalia—golden
bracelets, magic lasso, invisible jet, “daily transformation/from prim
kitten-bowed suit to bustier//with red-white-and-blue stars." Wonder
Woman’s version of empowerment leaves her cut off from mother, father,
and most of what the people she protects might call “normal life." This
is, these poems suggest, the common predicament of the super-heroine.
The theme is continued in “The Slayer Asks for Time Off," a
poem that shows Gailey’s deft hand with pacing, lineation, and the
shading of persona with sardonic irony.
It’s hard enough just trying to pick out
the miniskirt that matches my platform jellies
but as you know the cute-as-a-button cheerleader
must also answer to the darkest demons....
Just once I’d like to take the night off, maybe
be the damsel in distress, instead of always,
always, wearing the armor and carrying the flag.
A series of poems on the Greek myth of Philomel and Procne
runs throughout the book, connecting and supporting all the poems like a
line of vertebrae. In the myth, the young Philomel is raped by her
sister Procne’s husband, Tereus, who cuts out her tongue to keep her
from telling anyone what has happened. But Philomel weaves her story
into a tapestry. When Procne sees the tapestry, she kills Itylus, her
own and Tereus’s son, and feeds him to his father in revenge. In the
end, the gods transform all three into birds—Philomel into a
nightingale, Procne into a swallow, Tereus into a sea hawk—though Gailey
notes the questionable nature of the gods’ gifts, reminding us in
“Remembering Philomel" that they are “not saved—changed, it’s not the
same thing" and in “Philomel’s Rape" that “This conversion was not of
your choosing,//and the somewhat tenuous ‘gift,’ your song,/not as
healing as you hoped."
Becoming the Villainess is filled with intelligent
poems that reject absolutes, approving the empowerment that comes
through revenge against Philomel’s attacker but never denying the
undertow of loss and regret. Procne discusses the aftermath in “Procne
and Philomel, at the End."
No one noticed me
as a nest of trinkets grew
around my son’s tiny grave,
a blue blanket, pink peonies
with blooms curling like infant feet.
Only nightmares pursue me,
sometimes my son’s blood on my hands,
I can’t understand my own voice,
my husband stares at me like I am nothing
but an animal....
When lightning strikes, the smell
like blood still in my mouth when I try
to sing Itylus I lost I lost
The attempted song dissolves at the end into an inarticulable
cry of pain, eloquent most clearly in the silence that follows it, and
which the closing lines point to through their absence of punctuation.
For all of these poems’ evident intelligence and wit, Gailey’s
attention does occasionally lag. “Female Comic Book Superheroes"
are always fighting evil in a thong,
pulsing techno soundtrack in the background
as their tiny ankles thwack
against the bulk of male thugs.
The verbal knottiness and consonantal rhythm of these opening
lines provide a richness of sensory reference. A moment later, though,
the poem tells us that the female superheroes “pout when tortured, but
always escape just in time,/still impeccable in lip gloss and
pointy-toed boots,/to rescue male partners, love interests, or fathers."
The real poetry of the beginning has relaxed into linguistic inertness,
the language of advertising copy and afternoon talk shows—which would be
fine if, for example, it served some ironic purpose, but it does not.
Fortunately, such lapses into banality are few and seldom
sustained. Even “Female Comic Book Superheroes" finds its feet again
before the end: “See her perfect three-point landing on top of that
chariot,/riding the silver moon into the horizon,/city crumbling around
Not all of the poems in Becoming the Villainess are set
in the postmodern, media-saturated realm where myth meets Buffy, but
even when Gailey writes about personal history, her voice is suffused
with the same tough sensibility, undercut with the same wistful
understanding of loss. “In Knoxville two miles from Oak Ridge/I grew up
with a yard of lilacs" (“Breathing in the Asthma Capital"), she tells
us, and goes on to celebrate the tenacity and beauty of the lilacs in an
environment full of threats. By the poem’s end, it is the poet’s sure
handling of sound and pacing—the magic of r’s and lineation that turns
“radioactive" into “radiant," for example—that suggests she shares more
than location with the flowers.
despite seasons of radioactive snow
despite spring shedding its wreckage
on rotting house frames, gravel roads
on overturned crates of mangoes on I-75
the lilacs go on burning
and thick against a grey May sky
Becoming the Villainess is an accomplished first book
that should appeal to a wide audience. Like much good poetry, it is, in
the end, about unity, reminding us all—male and female, villain or
villainess—how our own lives are inhabited and enriched by the myths and
stories that have made us who we are.
Galatea Resurrects, Issue 6, Kristin Berkey-Abbott
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
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
Review Revue, Vol. 4, Issue 1| April 2007,
Jeannine Hall Gailey’s Becoming the Villainess is the poetic
equivalent of a pajama party for feminists. Gossip, secrets, and advice
are exchanged, along with lots of talk about guys. The party list brings
together an eclectic, sometimes dangerous, but always exciting mix of
female characters drawn from diverse sources.
Gailey reaches into the past for most of her characters. We find
poems about Lewis Carroll’s Alice and Shakespeare’s Ophelia. We have
Snow White, Little Red Riding Hood, and Cinderella from Grimm’s fairy
tales. The richest vein is mythology, specifically Ovid’s
Metamorphoses, which gives us Leda, Daphne, Persephone, Philomel and
Procne. Into this cast of old world characters, Gailey adds a handful of
more contemporary female characters such as comic book heroines, femmes
fatales, spy girls, and even some Catholic school girls.
One of the delights of this collection is Gailey’s ability to put a
new spin on an old story. For example, "Alice in Darkness" presents a
much darker version of Carroll’s story. Alice now visits a “drug-trip
landscape” and is advised, “Pull your skirt down” and “fight your
version of Bedlam / as long as you can.” In “When Red Becomes the Wolf”
we learn that Little Red Riding Hood “never owned a red cape, / that’s
asking for trouble.” And she wasn’t walking through the woods to
Grandma’s house but was “obtaining samples for [her] botany class.” It
is no longer the wolf who is dangerous but rather the once-gentle
heroine. In “Cinderella at the Car Dealership” the beleaguered damsel of
the Grimm’s tale is presented as a tough girl driving a tough bargain
while buying a car, and the handsome prince is now a car salesman.
In “Persephone and the Prince Meet Over Drinks” Persephone hooks up
with Hades in a bar. He plies her with booze and “whispers / of
pomegranate in the bottom of the glass.” Feistier and less a victim here
than in Ovid’s tale, she asks the reader:
And so what if, at the end of this story,
with a ring on my finger and a castle
to boot, you find out that my prince
is prince of nothing but darkness?
I knew what I was doing.
I was prepared for a long dance with death.
In “Persephone’s in Seattle” the story is presented not by a
storyteller but by neighborhood gossips. Persephone is seen “dripping /
in jewelry and couture,” and hell is now the city of Seattle with its
rain and its long winters.
Gailey further updates the old stories with a number of contemporary
flourishes. Her women use Johnson’s baby wipes, play video games, watch
film noir, and read Glamour magazine. They wear Benetton
sweaters, stilettos, and pleather boots. They drive fast cars, smoke
cigarettes, play softball, and have “sex without apologizing.”
Gailey strategically weaves her characters throughout the five
sections of her book, giving it both variety and structural coherence.
We do not, for example, find all of the Philomel poems clumped together;
instead, we find them scattered from section to section. We do not move
in chronological order from oldest to most modern characters; instead,
old and new are placed side by side, providing both contrast and
thematic continuity and highlighting both what has changed and what has
remained the same. Such an arrangement undergirds the timelessness of
the feminist issues raised by the poems. Several call to mind the
question posed by Chaucer’s The Wife of Bath’s Tale, that is,
What does a woman want from a man? A number of the poems consider mother
/ daughter relationships. Others develop the age-old theme of
Certainly, one of the strengths of this collection is Gailey’s
ability to develop her themes from a variety of points of view and in
different voices. A handful of poems are in third person singular and
zero in on one woman’s story. A number are in third person plural and
provide a panoramic view of a group of females.
While the majority are persona poems, Gailey displays impressive
dexterity in her handling of the first person voice. Using first person
singular, Gailey makes us feel as if her character is speaking directly
to us, telling us her story. In other persona poems a “you” is
addressed. The speaker in “Alice in Darkness” talks directly to Alice,
chastising her, while the speaker in “Little Cinder” tells Cinderella,
“Girl, they can’t understand you.” In these poems the speaker remains
unidentified. However, in “Here There Be Monsters” the speaker
identifies herself as a mermaid and asks her auditor:
Why do you keep creating us half-human,
with bat wings, dragon scales, luminous green skin,
as if you can’t appreciate ordinary women anymore,
as if you fear what lies beneath?
In none of these poems do we sense that the speaker knows the person
to whom she is speaking, giving us a feeling of both closeness and
distance. In other poems of direct address, we get a greater sense of
intimacy as the speaker clearly bears a close relationship to the
auditor. “Leda’s Mother Warns Her” gives us the pleasurable sensation of
listening in on a very private mother and daughter conversation.
In “Remembering Philomel,” one of the collection’s most ambitious
poems, Gailey nimbly juggles three distinct voices, all first person. A
professor questions his students about the story of Philomel, asking
them to imagine what happened “from her point of view.” A female
student, the second voice, resists identifying with Philomel but cannot
help doing so as she recalls having been raped years earlier by a male
babysitter. Finally, Philomel herself speaks; she recalls being raped by
her sister’s husband. It becomes difficult for the reader to keep the
two women apart as they almost merge into the same woman, telling the
same old story of girls who’ve been betrayed by men they trusted. But
Gailey skillfully uses indentations, stanza breaks, and italics to
indicate the change from one voice to another.
While the staggering of the characters and the shifting of points of
view both reveal Gailey’s organizational skills, perhaps her most subtle
and interesting structural technique is the interweaving of a variety of
motifs. One of the most significant is the numerous references to guns
and other kinds of weapons. After all, it’s all about woman power,
turning the tables and getting even. These women are babes who bear
arms. In “A Girl and Her Gun” a young girl learns to use a weapon, first
aiming at still targets, then at moving ones. Her mother advises her “to
get / out her father’s gun” if anyone breaks into the house. “That gun
is an equalizer,” she says. “And don’t mess around. / If you’re going to
shoot, aim for the chest / and shoot to kill.”
In “Wonder Woman Dreams of the Amazon” the heroine has a magic lasso,
and in “The Slayer Asks for Time Off” a woman brandishes a “medieval
sword” which she carries in her “teddy-bear backpack.” Another woman, in
“While Reading Glamour in a Dark Age,” “grips the wrench in her
lap // like a sword.” The dangerous women in “Spy Girls” carry purses
“full of explosives.” Although there are numerous references to the
knife Tereus used to sever Philomel’s tongue to prevent her from telling
his crime, now the women arm themselves against such men. In effect,
they say, Don’t mess with us!
Not surprisingly, we also find a blood motif. In “Little Cinder”
turtledoves sing, “There’s blood within the shoe.” In “Cinderella at the
Car Dealership” Cinderella, when offered the contract, “signed her name
in blood, / and in the sky, doves scattered like vermin.” The female
avenger in “The Slayer Asks for Time Off” grows weary of wiping blood
off her jeans. Procne, in “Keep Your Eye on the Swallow,” speaks of
“blood from throat to fingertips,” the stain from having murdered her
son, and in “Procne and Philomel, at the End” she has nightmares about
her son’s blood on her hands.
Advice also recurs throughout the collection, a good deal of it from
mothers to their daughters. In “Wonder Woman Dreams of the Amazon”
Wonder Woman recalls her mother’s advice: “Don’t be a fool for men.”
Leda’s mother gives similar advice in “Leda’s Mother Warns Her”: “Beware
of swans,” she says, and “children // hatched from eggs.” And she offers
the advice we know did not get followed: “Don’t be seduced by the gods.”
Some of the advice is given woman to woman as in “Job Requirements: A
Supervillain’s Advice.” Gailey’s supervillain offers these suggestions
to the potential candidate:
Practice creative problem solving;
for example, that lipstick could be poisoned,
that spiked heel a stabbing implement.
Remember, you are on the side
of the laws of thermodynamics. Entropy
is a measure of disorder.
Chaos, destruction, death: these are your instruments.
Use them wisely.
Elsewhere advice escalates into warning. “Female Comic Book
Superheroes II: When Catholic School Girls Strike Back” recounts an
incident when a male sexual predator was attacked by a group of
uniformed school girls. The speaker ends with this vision, surely a
warning to other such men: “Imagine every girl that walks alone / down a
dark alley filled / with her own avenging angels: / feathers flying,
fury like dust cudgels.” In “Keep Your Eye on the Swallow” Procne,
reminding her listener that she has committed murder without regret,
warns, “And though I have grown soft as feathers, / you shall not lay a
hand on me.”
The act of transformation works as another important motif. The
speaker in “The Changeling” delivers this terrific line: “I went to bed
a secretary / but woke up a wolf.” In “Wonder Woman Dreams of the
Amazon” our heroine relates her troubling dreams, then says, “My daily
transformation / from prim kitten-bowed suit to bustier // with
red-white-and-blue stars / is less disturbing.” More significantly, she
becomes “everything I was born to
be, / the dreams of the mother, / the threat of the father,” in other
words, the feminist ideal: a woman who can defend herself. And, of
course, there is the transformation by the gods of Philomel and Procne
into birds, “their sudden feathered conversion.” In “The Monster Speaks:
It’s Not So Bad” a woman describes her unnatural transformation:
I am no longer lonely, I enjoy the dark,
the click-click of my claws against glass,
the way my tail sparkles in moonlight. Even
this new voice bewitches me. If you put
your ear on my chest, you can hear
the new, unfamiliar thumps of four hearts,
each stronger than the last. Touch the skin
between wing-bones, the delicate eyelids.
In this body I’ve become myself again.
As I circle the castle, the song that scrapes
my throat agitates the stars themselves.
The music stings your lungs like the burning of stone.
The song mentioned in these last lines is yet one more
motif. A number of the Philomel poems allude to song. In “Philomel’s
Rape” her song is described as a “somewhat tenuous ‘gift’ … / not as
healing as you hoped.” Procne, “the swallow, forgets, / sings easily in
the spring sunshine,” while Philomel never changes her tune—“it hangs in
the air like honey, but stings the heart.” “On Rubens’ ‘Tereus
Confronted with the Head of His Son Itylus’” describes the sisters’
speech as birdsong. “Case Studies in Revenge: Philomel Gives Some
Advice” contains Philomel’s catalog of those she knows who have found
revenge disappointing. Speaking for herself, she concludes: “When I had
my fill / of revenge, I began / making music. It tasted sweeter.”
Clearly, these women will not remain silent; they lift their voices in
all manner of song.
To Plath’s “Every woman adores a Fascist,” Gailey replies in “The
Snow Queen,” “… the truth is, every man wants an ice princess.” In
“Women in Refrigerators,” she holds out the promise of yet another
reversal for women: “If we’re lucky, we might become the villainess.” In
this poetic world populated by literary and comic book heroines, fairy
tales’ damsels in distress, and the former playthings of the gods, many
women readers will find their own lost voices; many male readers will
feel compelled to listen.