In 2020, amidst devastating wildfires and insurrections and a pandemic, we all seemed to collectively agree that we were living through the end of the world (or to quote an internet meme and the title of one of these poems, “This Is the Darkest Timeline”). But isn’t someone’s world always ending somewhere? The poems in Flare, Corona hinge on a paradox: “This is not the end, just an ending.”
During all of this upheaval, Jeannine Hall Gailey experienced her own personal apocalypse: a cancer diagnosis, followed by a multiple sclerosis diagnosis. Gailey approaches the complexities of her situation with optimistic fatalism. There’s something empowering in the knowledge that we all die. Whether it’s tomorrow or in fifty years, from cancer or coronavirus, our individual tragedies are both insignificant and cataclysmic. In Flare, Corona, she reckons with the ways in which we can hold two conflicting truths simultaneously: you can appreciate the beauty in the world and still believe that it’s unfair.
I attended Jeannine Hall Gailey’s AWP panel “Mutant, Monster, Myself: Writing the Chronically Ill Body” this past March. My little brother died at twenty-four after a life-long struggle with epilepsy. I’ve had trouble finding the words to write about him in a way that feels authentic to his experience and mine. How do you write about illness so that it’s present, but not the defining aspect of an identity? The panelists talked about embracing what you’re resistant to write, in this case, the difficult realities of living with life-limiting conditions.
The discussion was inspirational, but make no mistake, Gailey’s work is not a saccharine survival story full of platitudes. She breaks down the false narratives we tell ourselves to get through the day in “At the End of Two Years of the Plague, You are Tired of the Word Resilience”:
of all the signs singing “for your safety,”
You try to remember the last time you felt safe.
Road rage is up. Starlings peck at each other
outside your window. The Snow Moon
rises but it’s too cold to spend much time looking.
Resilience: you hear “Silence, slice, siren.”
The speaker points out the irony in companies touting “safety” during one of the most unsafe periods of our collective lives. Gaily approaches language with a tongue-in-cheek playfulness, taking an overused word like “resilience” and rearranging the letters into darker, perhaps more truthful, words. The poem argues that this kind of cheery language is meaningless, or at least filled with underlying tension.
“Flare” is perhaps the best example of Gailey’s wordplay. The poem begins with a statement of scientific fact: “Solar flares eject plasma beyond the sun’s corona”. In this case “corona” refers to the outer layer of the sun’s atmosphere. Though the pandemic isn’t explicitly referenced in this piece, it echoes throughout the poem in the shadow of this loaded word. In a similar vein, “flare” refers to both the sun as well as the speaker’s nerve damage: “My flare lit up the MRI, white coronas around black holes.” Tiny tumors, the solar system, coronavirus, they’re all one and the same. This unfolds at the sentence level as well. Gailey’s writing consistently uses parallelism to peel back layers of meaning to reach a more complex totality.
There’s something comforting in Gailey’s insistence that we’re powerless against forces of nature. Maps, Geiger counters, storm trackers, MRIs, and other tools intended to predict catastrophes recur throughout the collection. The speaker in “Self-Portrait as MRI” accuses her doctor, “You think you know me because you’ve seen a map / to my brain?” We can’t reduce a human life to a diagnosis or lines on a chart—so why do we try to do that with the universe? “My self-portrait / lies outside these discernible outlines, these false / atlases to what lasts inside of us.” We take comfort in numbers and statistics because they give us the illusion of control, but they don’t tell the whole story.
At the same time, there’s an appreciation for nature’s beauty and the sheer miracle of our brief existence. The poems ask, is it better to know death is imminent or to be oblivious? “How to Survive” points out the futility of trying to prepare for death. It reads like a satirical instruction manual. The suggestions to avoid a plague (“Be alone, in the desert”) or a tsunami (“Be uphill”) reiterate the circumstantial nature of our existence. The real advice? “Sing your song, put the note in a bottle, be remembered, / because someday soon, we will all be gone.” No, this isn’t a depressing thought, it’s a truth, a relief, a peaceful acceptance. That’s the paradox in Gailey’s writing.
Flare, Corona is a life-affirming exploration of the small endings that occur every day, set against the backdrop of our world ending. As the speaker muses in “The Year I Was Dying,” a moment can be immortal, even though our bodies were never meant to be:
How could they get to me, here,
while I was taking these photos,
proving every second that I was here
that my eyes were on these trees, this man,
this moon, all mine, all of them, this minute.
In the end, our own or the world’s, all we have are moments where we felt something. It’s all over, and it’s never over.
About the Reviewer
Carrie Lee South is an MFA candidate at the Arkansas Writer’s Workshop where she focuses on dark speculative fiction. Her work has appeared or is forthcoming in Iron Horse Literary Review, Opus Comics, The Dread Machine, Tales to Terrify, and elsewhere. Read more at carrieleesouth.com