Poetry

Poetry Sunday: 'Introduction to the Body in Fairy Tales,' by Jeannine Hall Gailey

Guest Column by Susan Cohen
Cohen_4-15-15Happy Halloween! In honor of my invitation from Rebecca Foust to write the last column of October, I looked for a poem I could tie to the annual parade of princesses, witches, and skeletons, and thought immediately of Jeannine Hall Gailey, who often borrows imagery from myth or popular culture. I found “An Introduction to the Body in Fairy Tales,” a chilling piece reprinted, appropriately, in Best Horror of the Year: Volume Six, an anthology of short fiction.
Yet, here it is as a poem, one that appears in Gailey’s newly released fifth collection, Field Guide to the End of the World, a reminder that literary genres can blur. In this piece of free verse, Gailey uses lineation and stanzas that mark “An Introduction to the Body in Fairy Tales” as poetry, yet she also adopts diction that deliberately mimics an essay. The title prepares us for parody, for some of the dark humor with which Gailey typically leavens her most apocalyptic work, and invites us to read this as a persona poem narrated by a scholar, perhaps an anthropologist. She cloaks the speaker in an authority whose source we don’t know. A persona poem, like Halloween, allows a poet to don a costume.
But even taken as an essay title, what’s the actual topic at hand: fairy tales or bodies? Both, as it turns out. This duality—the way Gailey subtly moves between the body and images of the body—is just one of the choices she makes to keep us slightly off-kilter and propel the poem.
In contrast to the title’s studied academic neutrality, the opening sizzles. A simple declarative sentence dares us to disagree that the body is a “place of violence.” We’re led to assume this means in fairy tales, since the line follows up with “Wolf teeth, amputated hands,” some of the most horrific allusions from the Brothers Grimm. And we begin to understand without being directly told that the body under discussion is female: a girl’s body, vulnerable and rendered powerless before either animal or human predators.
Yet, with the command to “cover yourself,” it’s not immediately clear whether the speaker means to parrot or parody the patriarchal message of fairy tales. Either way, the poem already begins to drop any pretense that we will get a neutral analysis. There’s a slipperiness here that makes me wonder again about who this speaker might be.
The “paper dress” included in the list of coverings struck me as so odd on first reading that I looked it up and found it does, indeed, come from a Grimm tale I’d never heard. But women also wear a paper dress in the doctor’s examining room and that is where my mind went first.  With two words, Gailey possibly invites yet another type of vulnerability into the poem. Is the speaker still an anthropologist talking about myth? I know from her extensive previous work that Gailey suffers from autoimmune disease, among other serious illnesses extending back to her childhood near a nuclear research facility. She’s frequently a patient, as other poems in this collection make clear. We don’t need to know this biography in order to appreciate the poem, and perhaps I’m reading in more than Gailey intended. Yet she’s introduced a reference that echoes in both the fictional and real worlds, a potentially personal reference.

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  • Aubrey Ginsberg October 31, 2016 at 6:56 am

    Great woman with great poems. your poems make me more romantic

    Reply
  • Aubrey Ginsberg October 31, 2016 at 6:56 am

    Great woman with great poems. your poems make me more romantic

    Reply