The doctors say my nerves are getting thinner.
No wonder, shrinking against the agitation, atoms
vibrating together with the supermoon.
My brain has blank spaces now,
illumined by inflammation.
From “Planting Camellias as Act of Resistance”
Jeannine Hall Gailey returns with her sixth collection, Flare, Corona, a haunting series of poems that fuses chronic illness, global pandemic, and solar flares with expert clarity. Gailey’s verse deftly balances confidence and patience, offering line after line that ripple through the mind for hours after reading. At the core of the collection is a deep and thorough exploration of language, fixating on various terms for radiation. Against this extended reflection on what it means to absorb and emit light, Gailey frames the collection with meditations on mortality and the ways in which confronting death fundamentally alters our daily lives.
The collection opens with “Irradiate,” a poem that establishes one of the more pervasive metaphors throughout the book. The speaker begins simply, “As a child I was radiant.” Gailey invokes the colloquial use of “radiant” deliberately, setting the reader up for a sharp turn in the second line, where we learn that “the land grew irradiated corn and roses,/tomatoes large and abundant. Swallows and catfish/carrying the isotopes into the water and woods.” Within these lines, Gailey establishes a running thread of chronic illness caused by the dumping of radioactive materials near her hometown. She further complicates the use of radiation in the closing lines, explaining, “I meant I was full of/radiation. I meant I was full of light./I meant I could give birth to nothing/but light.”
The irony of these lines lies in their literal truth, as the speaker has long term effects from radiation exposure, including (we can infer) the inability to carry a child. Whereas readers are primed to encounter phrases like “full of light” and “give birth to…light” as metaphorical, Gailey leans into the double meaning created by the concrete effects of radiation poisoning. The author digs further into these effects throughout the collection, including a series of poems carrying the title “Mutant Sonnets.” In “Mutant Sonnet: Signs of Spring on the Way to More Medical Testing,” the speaker describes lying down for a medical technician. She juxtaposes images of how her “blood blooms with red and blue” with “the magnolia’s/barely budding, and spring” as she wonders, “What is blossoming? What is dying?” This question of mortality lingers throughout Flare, Corona like an ever present shadow that follows the speakers through the poems.
One of the earliest poems in the collection is “On Being Told You’re Dying, but Not Quite Believing It,” in which the speaker struggles to process the possibility of death “because around [her], the mortal world is always dying.” The speaker moves between the childlike fantasy of “a game in which no one ever dies” and the bitter charge that “angels have no investment/in the living,” effectively capturing a complex and fraught response to mortality. At the end of the poem, the speaker refuses death, instead fixating on her “lungs still breathing, [her] fingers still on this page.” The final poem of the collection directly invokes its predecessor. “When I Thought I Was Dying” again reflects on how questions of mortality impact daily life. The speaker notes that “It was easy to love things. Birds, the flutter of branches,/[her] husband who always has to be right.” By the end of the poem, the reader learns that the speaker is not dying, which forces her to reorient herself. She acknowledges that she will likely stop appreciating small moments, ultimately concluding, “That’s the thing//about having time. You miss so much.”
As someone new to Gailey’s work, I was instantly and repeatedly struck with how effective the author is at discussing some of the hardest moments of human experience with absolute grace and subtlety. Flare, Corona is an essential addition to disability poetics, a collection that offers an unashamed and deeply vulnerable window into chronic illness.