I have spent the last week dipping in and out of Jeannine Hall Gailey's new book, She Returns to the Floating World--what a treat! And last night, I read it straight through. I hope to do so again, several times, because it's the wonderful, rare book that rewards that kind of close reading, as well as offering treasures for people who would rather peruse here and there.
As I read, I noticed several themes, all of them appealing. This book has lots of siblings, many of whom save each other. Early in the book, Gailey presents this central theme of salvation (by siblings and others), with "My Little Brother Learns Japanese." We learn a bit about the Japanese language: "He learns to conjugate / verbs with no future" and "how the word for heart / can also mean indigo blue" (italics in original). Then we get to the lines that help shape the arc of the whole narrative: "He learns in Japanese fairy tales / that siblings, not spouses, / are often saviors;".
Yet this is not solely a book about salvation and redemption. Another thread that winds its way through this book is an exploration of all the ways that life can go terribly wrong. For example, Gailey includes a series of 6 poems that explore aberrant code (after 3 poems that use the metaphor of code in a different way). She finds inspiration from the world of computer coding, as you might expect, but she uses those ideas as a jumping off point to territory even more vast and full of riches.
In fact the book looks at aberrant code from all sorts of directions, in far more poems than the 6 that share that title. We see DNA mutations, some from simple gardening, some from radiation poisoning, some from both. The poem, "Chaos Theory" is my favorite example of this strain: flowers that grow "churning offspring gigantic and marvelous / from that ground sick with uranium."
We see Gailey recombine the DNA of all sorts of fairy tales and myths that revolve around transformation, transformations that don't often go well. We see poem after poem of mostly female characters trying to make themselves into the creatures that they think they want to be. Most of us know it won't go well, but the poems that explore these themes are mostly gentle and sympathetic. Sometimes they're even humorous. In "The Fox-Wife's Husband Considers the Warning Signs," we get a list poem that tells all the reasons the relationship was doomed: "When you had our baby, I caught you licking his head absently on / more than one occasion" and "Sometimes when you thought you were alone, you gnawed on / your forearm."
In fact, foxes run through this collection, from the creature on the cover, to the series of Fox-Wife poems, to the baby foxes that peep through some of the poems. It makes sense the foxes should take starring roles. Foxes are quick and cunning and adaptable, much like the characters in this book. Birds, and their feathers, also appear more often than other creatures, which makes sense when we consider the Japanese culture which informs so many of the poems in this book.
Gailey also treats the theme of transformation in a modern way, with a sci-fi sensibility. In some of the poems in this book, we see the modern response to this desire for transformation, the combining of the human with the machine. In "The Lost Limbs of Anime Girls in Space," we meet women who "wake in the night to scratch phantom skin, / the joints between flesh and machine always aching." I'm no cyborg, but I understand.
The poems vacillate between hope and despair. In "Anime Girls Consider the Resurrected," many of the themes of the text converge. We see the hope for resurrection across cultures, "Mary at the tomb / Nausicaa buoyed by caterpillars." This poem shows us a woman who returns, in the form of a white bird. We get the reassuring word that "She does not stay away forever."
But then we progress through the last section of the book, a section haunted by loss, by wives who must go away, by husbands powerless to convince them to stay. Yet even these poems contain a central current of rebirth and resurrection, of transformation, sometimes into the dust that we'll all be eventually, sometimes into a more powerful force.
The last two poems show the push and pull of these themes and images. In the second-to-last poem, "Yume (the Dream)," we have images of a small, frantic animal, a weeping cherry tree, "the sky like iced concrete," and the knowledge of "how hard we hold on to what must disappear." The poem leaves us with an empty-handed speaker, a desolate, forlorn final sentence: "I was hoping for a prayer, but here all I find is absence."
But absence and abandonment don't have the last word in this collection. The final poem, "The Fox-Wife's Invitation," promises that life moves in a cycle, that today's loss transforms into tomorrow's bloom and fruit. We see the promise of reconciliation: "You may be imprisoned in an underwater palace, and I'll come riding the the rescue in disguise." The poem and the collection end in these lines: "From behind the closet door / I'll invent our fortunes, spin them / from my own skin."
Yes, the poet as silkworm (another creature that weaves its way through this collection)--what a wonderful book Gailey has spun for us. Make sure that She Returns to the Floating World is on your list of summer must-reads.
Loving Lilly Ledbetter
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