JOHN BLOOMBERG-RISSMAN Reviews
“The Fox-Wife Dreams” in She Returns to the Floating World by Jeannine Hall Gailey
(Kitsune Books, Crawfordville, FL, 2011)
The Fox-Wife Dreams
My husband says, can’t trust foxes, their eyes like geodes. The wind brings red fur in my window, and the smell of them clings to my sheets. At the shrine of Inari, he rescued me. I see in his face he will leave me, the fox tail beneath my bed clothes betraying. He swears he didn’t know I was kitsune, though my sharp glances were everywhere, jumping when the dogs bayed. The brown silk robes of my youth, the smell of smashed leaves underfoot, wherever I walked. The curl beneath the bedsheets. Foxfire, foxflare, foxfur. Our noses were flames in the forest. The light of torn paper lanterns is never true, the moonlight uneven. He always praised my face, the narrow nose, high cheekbones, close-set eyes. My hair red even when I brushed it darker.
Come sleep with me,
he asked, even after.
Stay with me.
Far away, a fox barking at good fortune. Faithful, faithful, the vixen snaps at his ankles, the taste of rust in the mouths of our charmed children.
I recognize this as a poem on (at least) two levels. An allegory, more or less. There is the Japanese folktale / myth level, and there is the “scenes from a non-mythological marriage” level. The second is clearly informed by the first. So I will have to do a little research into fox-wives and their lore. Wikipedia is surprisingly good at helping me understand the mythological level, and even many details of this poem:
Kitsune … is the Japanese word for fox. Foxes are a common subject of Japanese folklore; in English, kitsune refers to them in this context. Stories depict them as intelligent beings and as possessing magical abilities that increase with their age and wisdom. Foremost among these is the ability to assume human form. While some folktales speak of kitsune employing this ability to trick others—as foxes in folklore often do—other stories portray them as faithful guardians, friends, lovers, and wives. … Kitsune have become closely associated with Inari, a Shinto kami or spirit, and serve as its messengers. This role has reinforced the fox’s supernatural significance. … There are two common classifications of kitsune. The zenko (literally good foxes) are benevolent, celestial foxes associated with the god Inari; they are sometimes simply called Inari foxes. … A kitsune may take on human form, an ability learned when it reaches a certain age—usually 100 years, although some tales say 50. As a common prerequisite for the transformation, the fox must place reeds, a broad leaf, or a skull over its head. … In some stories, kitsune have difficulty hiding their tails when they take human form; looking for the tail, perhaps when the fox gets drunk or careless, is a common method of discerning the creature's true nature. … Kitsune-gao or fox-faced refers to human females who have a narrow face with close-set eyes, thin eyebrows, and high cheekbones. Traditionally, this facial structure is considered attractive, and some tales ascribe it to foxes in human form. Kitsune have a fear and hatred of dogs even while in human form, and some become so rattled by the presence of dogs that they revert to the shape of a fox and flee. … Other supernatural abilities commonly attributed to the kitsune include possession, mouths or tails that generate fire or lightning (known as kitsune-bi; literally, fox-fire) … Inari's kitsune are white***, a color of good omen. … Kitsune are commonly portrayed as lovers, usually in stories involving a young human male and a kitsune who takes the form of a human woman. The kitsune may be a seductress, but these stories are more often romantic in nature. Typically, the young man unknowingly marries the fox, who proves a devoted wife. The man eventually discovers the fox's true nature, and the fox-wife is forced to leave him. In some cases, the husband wakes as if from a dream, filthy, disoriented, and far from home. He must then return to confront his abandoned family in shame. … Many stories tell of fox-wives bearing children. When such progeny are human, they possess special physical or supernatural qualities that often pass to their own children.
***The entrance to an Inari shrine is usually marked by … some statues of kitsune, which are often adorned with red yodarekake (votive bibs) by worshippers out of respect. This red color has come to be identified with Inari, …
“The Fox-Wife Dreams”. We learn three things right off. First, we are in a romantic kitsune folk-tale. Second, we are eavesdropping on the fox-wife, not her husband. Third, we are eavesdropping on her dream. We do not know if this is a sleep-dream or a day-dream.
“My husband says, can’t trust foxes, their eyes like geodes. The wind brings red fur in my window, and the smell of them clings to my sheets.” It seems that it is a day-dream. It is unclear at this point whether the husband knows his wife is a kitsune. If he does, his is clearly unhappy in the marriage. If he doesn’t, well, he will be if he ever finds out. I mentioned the two levels of this poem. On the “scenes from a marriage” level, the bit that really works is “eyes like geodes”; that’s a good sign that he feels he doesn’t know / can’t read his wife.
“At the shrine of Inari, he rescued me.” We have seen the relationship between Inari and the kitsune from Wikipedia. It is interesting, tho I don’t know that I should make anything of it, that Inari’s foxes are white. Is the fox-wife white? Is the red fur that upsets the husband hers? It’s a little confusing because a) as the entry for Inari tells us, red is associated with her, and b) I don’t know Gailey’s sources. But it does seem at least slightly possible that the husband, when saying, “can’t trust foxes”, is saying “can’t trust women”, a generic bit of misogyny which ignores his wife’s particularity. At this point in the poem particularly, I would be the last to insist on this point …
“I see in his face he will leave me, the fox tail beneath my bed clothes betraying.” We know that kitsune have trouble hiding their tails, just as women have trouble hiding their female sexuality. Allegorically, perhaps, they are one and the same. If so, the misogyny might come from his fear of women’s sexuality. In which case his “can’t trust” is a bit of projecting.
In any case, we can be sure that the wife senses that their marriage is in trouble.
“He swears he didn’t know I was kitsune, though my sharp glances were everywhere, jumping when the dogs bayed. The brown silk robes of my youth, the smell of smashed leaves underfoot, wherever I walked. The curl beneath the bedsheets. Foxfire, foxflare, foxfur. Our noses were flames in the forest. The light of torn paper lanterns is never true, the moonlight uneven. He always praised my face, the narrow nose, high cheekbones, close-set eyes. My hair red even when I brushed it darker.” We recognize many of these details (sharp glances, the issue with the dog, the foxfire, the facial features, the red hair) and so must have the husband. He is clearly lying, or at least unbelievable to the wife, when he denies knowing what she was. If we think about this on the “scenes from a marriage” level, he is swearing he didn’t know she was a woman, with all that means (something I will be the last to define) (tho I will note that (“the curl beneath the bedsheets” again suggests that he is denying her her sexuality).
A slightly puzzling bit is, “Our noses were flames in the forest. The light of torn paper lanterns is never true, the moonlight uneven.” Is she making excuses for him (“we were drunk, he couldn’t really see me …”?; or is this a reverie of some sort, a drift back before the days she took on human (wifely) shape?)
“Come sleep with me, / he asked, even after. / Stay with me.” This little “haiku” suggests that he knew exactly what he was getting. My one puzzle here is “Even after” what, exactly? I suppose the answer depends on how the lines I discuss in the previous paragraph are parsed … or maybe we don’t know … after all, she doesn’t have to tell us everything.
The important point here is that he did know. And he chose. He chose her. So why are they failing? She is clearly a zenko kitsune, a beneficient spirit …
“Far away, a fox barking at good fortune. Faithful, faithful, the vixen snaps at his ankles, the taste of rust in the mouths of our charmed children.” Her zenko-nature is confirmed by “faithful, faithful …” So why? She doesn’t know why. But she does know that tho their children are charmed, in the sense that they are the products of this particular union (this can be seen as true no matter which level of the allegory is being considered), they will taste rust … they already taste rust. What is rust? The rotting away of one of the strongest of materials …
[Editor’s Note: This is one of 50 reviews written, mas o menos, in 50 days. While each engagement can be read on a stand-alone basis, there’s a layer of watching the critic’s subjectivity arise in a fulsome manner if the reviews are read one after another. So if you have insomnia and/or are curious about this layer, I suggest you read the 50 reviews right after each other and, to facilitate this type of reading, I will put at the bottom of each review a “NEXT” button that will take you to the next review. To wit: NEXT. And an Afterword on John's reading process is also available HERE!]
John Bloomberg-Rissman is somewhere towards middle of In the House of the Hangman, the third section of his maybe life project called Zeitgeist Spam (picture Hannah Hoch painting over the Sistine Chapel) The first two volumes have been published: No Sounds of My Own Making, and Flux, Clot & Froth. In addition to his Zeitgeist Spam project, he has edited or co-edited two anthologies, 1000 Views of 'Girl Singing' and The Chained Hay(na)ku Project, and is at work on a third, which he is editing with Jerome Rothenberg. He is also deep into two important collaborations, one with Richard Lopez, one with Anne Gorrick. By important he means "important to him". Anyone else want to collaborate? He blogs at Zeitgeist Spam.