She Returns to the Floating World by Jeannine Hall Gailey
(Kitsune Books, Crawfordville, FL, 2011)
I love learning things in poems, and in She Returns to the Floating World, by Jeannine Hall Gailey, I get to learn about Japanese fairy tales, animé, and DNA. I get to learn the meaning of the Japanese word “kitsune” (*ki-tsu-ne*), which is “come, love, sleep” and to wonder about the relationship between the content of the book and its publisher’s name, Kitsune Books. “Kitsune” is also the name of the fox-wife, a main character in the Japanese mythology winding through the book, a vixen/human transformation.
It’s an engaging book of poems, but I am most engaged by the real life connections, the intersections of fantasy and reality, the hints of how and why fantasy might rescue us from various versions of an unsustainable real life.
For instance, in “My Little Brother Learns Japanese,” simply stating the truth sounds ominous:
He learns to conjugateI get the irony that I am engaged by the almost “I” poems in a book that celebrates a culture without them! But doesn’t this stanza hint at important auto/biography?:
verbs with no future,
and reads poetry that does not
begin with “I.”
He learns in Japanese fairy tales
that siblings, not spouses,
are often saviors;
the older sister brings the dead brother
back to life
over and over again.
Just as this poem promises, that theme of sister-brother salvation recurs. In “The Taste of Rust in August,” the brother is hit by lightning but survives. That poem establishes a connection between brother and sister in terms of taste and body chemistry; she’s drawn to tasting rust and metal from iron deficiency and he’s got “a funny taste in his mouth” from the lightning.
In “Code,” brother and sister are linked again, by vulnerability and a love of Miyazaki’s animé: “My brother and I were sickly, pale kids, apt to bleed easily at a scratch from a dog’s claw or tree branch, vomiting and hives from too much grass and sunlight.” It’s a haibun, this poem, a Japanese form that begins as prose poem and ends with haiku. Sickened by the real world, these children are drawn quite naturally to magic and the superpowers of animated characters: “This made sense, our pixilated metaphor, the girl in the pictures saves everyone.” Physical illness and the title—“Code” (and there are other “Code” poems)—suggest dangerous mutations, and these come up again in “Chaos Theory,” which begins:
Elbow-deep in the guts of tomatoes,
I hunted genes, pulling strand from strand.
DNA patterns bloomed like frost.
The speaker’s father, who hates chaos and loves order, tells her about “the garden of the janitor / at the Fernald Superfund site,” where “mutations burgeoned in fractal branchings,” a secret he has to keep from his children and perhaps from the janitor, himself, so proud of his giant dahlias, roses, and tomatoes.
In his mind he watched the man’s DNA
unraveling, patching itself together again
with wobbling sentry enzymes.
When my father brought his story home,
he never mentioned the janitor’s radiation poisoning,
only those roses, those tomatoes.
This book resonates sadly with Hiroshima, of course, but also with military and industrial pollution and now with the nuclear meltdown post-tsunami in Japan. The shared social disaster of “DNA unraveling” parallels a personal narrative of damage. “So many aberrations in the code,” begins the poem called “Aberrant Code I.” It continues, “I watch a show about mutant heroes, evolution.” Again, quite naturally, anyone might hope for aberration to result in fantastic, heroic, extraordinary powers. “My doctor asked if I had powers like the X-Men.” Unfortunately, most of our aberrations do not lead to superpowers, not in the real world.
In “Aberrant Code II,” the speaker reveals:
…I was already
blessed with DNA so sampled, broken
that no one would could relay its message.
Perhaps the only way to relay this kind of message is through poetry, and perhaps that is a superpower. In “Aberrant Code III,” the speaker is “[I]ncreasingly alienated. Alien.” She addresses a lover or husband whose “hair is golden, / just like the fairy tales” and who should have known better than to mate with her: “Your blood plus mine a disaster, / our offspring sinking ships.” This is a sad, sad story and resembles many an origin myth, including the sister/brother/spouse tale of Izanami and Izanagi, whose first set of children died and whose second set became the islands of Japan.
So is this some interspecies love song,
you, grown tree-like; me, a fox in the dust,
some hybrid of woman and mythical beast?
The answer seems to be yes. To make sense of a life that won’t make sense, to give order to chaos, to redeem personal or social tragedy, we enter fantasy, we write stories, we make poems or aberrant codes sometimes unrecognizable on a medical chart.
There is much joy in this book, side by side with much sorrow. Making out in a closet, watching a husband make dinner, laughing, singing. And much transformation. Since transformation into fairy tale and animé are the main offerings, it would be wrong to read too much autobiography into these poems. And the poems “Autobiography I” and Autobiography II” warn the reader about that! “No, last time you read me / wrong. I’m not the main character,” begins “Autobiography I.” “Stop imagining I was waiting / for your permission. / I started this before you even knew me.” And every time the woman “vanishes” or “disappears” or transforms in these poems, she may well come back, as something altogether different.
Don’t be surprised;
the woman reappears
and this time she will be a stranger to you;
this time, she will keep more to herself.
I wouldn’t want to scare her away. I wouldn’t want to misread her. I want her to keep telling me things.
Kathleen Kirk is the poetry editor for Escape Into Life and the author of four poetry chapbooks, most recently Nocturnes (Hyacinth Girl Press). Her work appears in a number of print and online journals and anthologies, including Confrontation, Lake Effect, Greensboro Review, Poems & Plays, and Umbrella, and she reviews for Fiddler Crab Review and Prick of the Spindle. She blogs at Wait! I Have a Blog?! http://kathleenkirkpoetry.blogspot.com/