Review by Moira Richards
BECOMING THE VILLAINESS
by Jeannine Hall Gailey
Steel Toe Books
Department of English
Western Kentucky University
1906 College Heights Blvd. #11086
Bowling Green, KY 42101-1086
85 pp., $12.00
Jeannine Hall Gailey fills her book, Becoming the Villainess, with women--real women, fictional women, mythical women and comic book superwomen who of course, are often real women too. The book has between its covers, innocent women and good women and bad women and explores our capacities to be all of these. Indeed, the beautiful lass on the cover gazes at herself in a hand mirror with a frame of carved curliques that confer a cute pair of horns onto her reflection.
In these poems we meet a variety of interesting people like the one who once was Playing Softball with Persephone and who recalls,
The ball rolls forward and she grabs it,
squeezes it like a ripe pomegranite, almost takes a bite,
then wipes her mouth on her dusty arm.
And perhaps, we like to think, the mythical princess manages to escape her fate after all. But no. In another poem, Persephone And The Prince Meet Over Drinks, she tells us of her complicity,
His ravishing grin drew me in,
He bought me cocktails, whispers
of pomegranite in the bottom of the glass.
I knew what I was doing.
I was prepared for a long dance with death.
Later again, a neighbour gossips with the reader that (Persephone's in Seattle "You haven't heard? ..." ) and Persephone too, chats about life in Hades in the poem entitled, Persephone Thinks of Leaving the Suburbs.
In a similar vein Cinderella, Ophelia and other familiars wind strands of their tales through the book. Gailey has also included a small history of each one too, just in case they're not so familiar. In one poem someone (perhaps her ex-husband?) describes the wickedness of the Snow Queen but then a few pages on The Snow Queen Explains herself, retaliates perhaps with,
Hey, I didn’t start out like this.
I enjoyed corned beef sandwiches,
good vodka. It started with sparkle –
I didn’t notice how sounds had dampened,
how the summers with you became intolerable, sticky.
I moved North, started keeping pets with fur.
I enjoyed the way my new stilettos
pierced the fine layer of ice outside my door.
There is also poetry in Becoming the Villainess from or by women who were trapped into lives they didn't want. A poem entitled The Selkie Wife's Daughter is narrated with sad understanding by the girl who frees her mother, helps her to,
... shrug on that magic seal coat and swim
quickly away, enchantment broken, transformation
... that's what she left me--webbed fingers
and toes, a lonely father, the stench of salt
and seaweed, the knowledge she had never
been herself with me.
The poet makes sly commentary in many of her poems such as in Here There Be Monsters where the persona asks, "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?"
Maybe she is answered by The Changeling who says, "It is as you fear; / beneath the push-up bra, / the false set of eyelashes, / I am fundamentally 'other.'"
It soon becomes evident that serious feminist critique informs these poems of Wonder Woman and Vampire Slayer type personae. Gailey notes in Spy Girls how the world has been constructed so that "A femme fatale can't also be / a loving wife and mother. / So she becomes a workaholic." And she observes in Women in Refrigerators how womanhood is controlled so "If by some chance we do grow powerful or popular, / we are blinded, kidnapped by demons, put into wheelchairs, / impregnated by rape. Our memories are stolen. We lose /... / If we're lucky, we might become the villainess."
I enjoyed very much this witty, often acerbic, always thought-stimulating collection of poems.
: "Google 'Moira Richards' to find links to my essays on Women Abuse, my reviews of woman-authored books as well as to other writing and editing work I do for various print and e-publications. I can often be found lounging about the staff rooms of womenwriters.net
- usually sipping tea, sometimes Jack Daniels."