Unexplained Fevers and Burn This House—Blisteringly good poetry

We know the story: A beauty at the mercy of a mean stepmother or wicked witch is trapped in a tower or glass coffin awaiting rescue by a huntsman or a prince.

Beauty, youth, passivity are the salient female characteristics on display in these fairy tales. But what if these trapped damsels are freed, not by a strapping woodsman or a nobleman on a white steed, but of their own accord? On their own terms. Now there’s a happily-ever-after ending.

Not that it’s a cakewalk. A point not at all lost on Jeannine Hall Gailey, author of Unexplained Fevers (New Binary Press). In her third book of poetry, Gailey turns the fairy tale inside out. Her heroines might contemplate their circumstances, piningly, dreamily. But they also act on their desires and needs, which can open up a whole new pit of perils. But at least they are awakened to the fact that life is not a fairy tale.

Rather than await rescue, these fairy tale heroines shy from it, spurn it, in fact.

Not a party princess, not ready to embrace/ the noisy party prince just yet; give me a little/ time to myself. (from “I Like the Quiet: Snow White”)

Who says I need a partner to dance? Here/ in this tower I am mistress of all. (from “I Like the Quiet: Rapunzel”)

Then there are the matter-of-fact undertones of the fairy tale that any self-respecting heroine must be alert to in “Advice Left Between the Pages of Grimms’ Fairy Tales.”

Princess, remember to fill your pockets/ with more than bread crumbs, and/if you can’t sleep don’t blame the legumes/ beneath the sheets.

From the opening poem titled “Once Upon a Time” to the final, fitting poem “At the End,” Gailey gives us images both starkly funny and dark, verses pithy with wit, and always, always a last line that stuns.

For more great fairy-tale busting poetry, read A New Red and What Big Teeth by Lana Hechtman Ayers.

In Burn this House (Red Hen Press), Kelly Davio explores relationships—how they falter or erode, how time distorts the memory of them, how family bonds disappoint with their fragility and fallibility. Her subjects are brought to life with the crack of consonants and words that pierce with their honed edges such as these in one of my favorites in the collection “Why Rent is Cheap in Shoe Lane.”

Mrs. Feneley walks halls at night/with Velcro shoes and a fragment of stained glass.

“The Way I Remember” opens with a line whose labial sounds give a muscular energy that is countered by the shush of the sibilants at the end of the line, giving a sense of secrecy to the poem.

It was my sister who walked barefoot/on the balance beam of a creosote-soaked/railroad tie abandoned in a field, and speared/ the soft flesh between toes.

In a section Davio calls Sin is a poem titled “Envy.” In it, the narrator compares her mother’s solicitous attention to her younger brothers’ coughs in the night to the obliviousness she exhibited toward her, the narrator’s own nighttime fears. You didn’t hunt that seeping dark as I/ eyes wide open, dreamed… . It’s accusatory. The poem is less about envy than a feeling much more raw, much more wounding as evidenced by the continuation of that line: I was sliced… . Even as the narrator owns up to her sin of envy, she is pleading guilty to another.

In “Pride,” an elderly couple’s passive aggressive behavior toward each other belies the feelings of violence they harbor.

He dangles/ his argyled heels above the cold floor.
Cold now that she’s filched the rug,

There’s a perverse beauty in Davio’s use of the word “filched,” which connotes a petty crime and which is a harbinger of the grimmer description of the action that ends the poem.

The title poem “Burn this House” appears last in the collection and describes not so much a razing as a cleansing. A divesting of the sins, errors and omissions. A beginning.