Poetry

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

By the time we’re told the “dark forest has a code,” meaning both a behavioral code and a cipher, it seems the poem also has a code. It operates, as good poems do, on multiple levels, even in a kind of doublespeak. When “You” launches the second stanza, we can imagine the speaker addresses both herself and us. The canary certainly appears in fairy tales, yet it also commonly represents—by way of metonymy, in this case an object standing in for a concept—the early warning that an atmosphere is poisonous. As the stanza proceeds, the narrator also drops any mask of objectivity and grows angrier. The second stanza presents an undeniably feminist voice. These “songs” we’re taught as girls, warnings to hide ourselves from the male gaze and yet to seek the protection of men, can make us fear our own sexuality and hate our bodies. Damned if you let yourself be caged; damned if you refuse and venture into the toxic world.
Or maybe just damned. At the heart of the poem, I’m jolted by this turn bridging the second and third stanzas: “Your body is the tower you long to escape, / and all the rotted fruit your babies.” Even before “rotted” shocks us, the metaphoric tower stands out as stunningly subversive. As in the poem’s opening line, the body is presented as place. No metaphoric place can be more phallic than a tower. Here, Gailey turns the tower into a trope for the female body, the inescapable imprisonment in our own tissue, blood, bones, organs, and genes that can betray us with its transformations: puberty, mutation, disease, pregnancy, or barrenness. We’re trapped both in the actual body and by the archetypes about it. Finally, the poem reaches a somewhat hopeful path out with its “ghostly white pebbles,” in which I like to read the possible guidance of those who came before.
Indeed, many poetic foremothers have undertaken this feminist project of revisiting fairy tales. This is an ekphrastic poem, on its most obvious level a work of art about another genre, in the tradition of Anne Sexton, whose Transformations featuring Snow White, Cinderella, and other Grimm characters appeared in 1971. Louise Glück repeatedly works in mythic mode with a kind of stripped language whose echoes I also hear in Gailey’s declarative sentences. Like Adrienne Rich, Gailey dives into the wreck of tradition to explore what generations of male writers canonized.
Still, Gailey finds a fresh and powerful approach using a deceptive narrator, a voice only thinly disguised as impersonal, in a poem only flirting with humor. In “Introduction to the Body in Fairy Tales,” the undisclosed source for the poem’s authority turns out to be the poet’s female body. Childhood stories do introduce us to our bodies. This Halloween, I’ll notice the stubborn endurance of these archetypes, even in the age of tweets, when a princess rings the doorbell and I grab my witch’s hat.
 
cohen_cover-owlmarch23-2016-330Guest Editor Susan Cohen’s most recent book of poems, A Different Wakeful Animal, won the 2015 David Martinson—Meadowhawk Prize from Red Dragonfly Press and can be ordered at Amazon. Cohen was a newspaper reporter, contributing writer to the Washington Post Magazine, and professor at the University of California Graduate School of Journalism before earning an MFA from Pacific University. Her poems appear widely in journals and anthologies, including the Bloomsbury Anthology of Contemporary Jewish American Poetry, and have received numerous honors, including the Rita Dove Poetry Award and the Milton Kessler Poetry Prize. www.susancohen-writer.com]]>

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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