Monday, July 4, 2011

What I'm Reading: She Returns to the Floating World

81º ~ headed to a high of 99º, which seems fitting for the 4th of July, partly cloudy here for now with a chance of t-storms, moments of tiny breezes interspersed with stillness in the leaves

A week ago, I wrote about how Jeannine Hall Gailey's She Returns to the Floating World inspired me to revise, and it happened again yesterday as I finished the book.  Jeannine is a fellow blogger friend, although I hope we get the chance to meet in the flesh one day.  I was lucky enough to follow her new book's progress from contract to publication, one of the real joys of blogging for me.

Before we get to the contents of the book, I have to remark on the cover, which features an artist I've admired for a few years now, Rene Lynch.  I'm not sure where I first encountered her work, but the image on Jeannine's cover, which is perfect for the book, was the inspiration for one of my own poems last year.  Cool.

So, the book in a nutshell, from my notes scrawled on the last page:
Japanese fairy tales
Oak Ridge, TN - the bomb - Japan
atomic legacy
code (i.e. computer, biological, scientific)
renewal & resurrection
husbands & wives
brothers & sisters
distrust of the body/flesh

This is a lengthy collection, clocking in at 129 pages.  It is full of haibun with a few haiku, along with narrative poems and lyric musings.  There are five sections, and each section begins with an epigraph that helps an American audience bridge the gap with Japanese themes.  Within each section, the blending of pop culture, fairy tales, and modern, global concerns is fantastic.  There is nothing cheesy about it; every speaker is authentic, every line rings true.

Of all the Japanese fairy tales, the fox-wife is perhaps the most important to the book, although the white crane-woman is prominent as well.  As the hyphen implies, the fox-wife is a half-creature, hiding her tale while in human form, always separate in a permanent way from the man she loves.  There are several fox-wife poems in the book, usually in the form of haibun.  One of my favorites is "The Fox-Wife Describes Their Courtship."  In the prose section, we get these lines:

When we're alone, I forget my other life sometimes, forget my sharp teeth and tail.  I become the thing beneath his hands, softer.

and later

He always sought to put things back together.  I tear things apart.  The instruments of bone and blood are the same; the intents are different.

and the final haiku:

I know before he does
how he will leave me,
a little temple of spine and fur.

The separate-but-together (a la Tim O'Brien in "The Things They Carried) theme carries through the entire book, whether the speaker is a fairy tale being or a modern woman.  Here Jeannine gets at the brokenness of our world and does so with deftness and beauty.

Another way into this theme is through the use of "code."  In the poems this might be computer code for gaming or technological advances, it might be the scientific code responsible for the atomic bomb, or it might be the genetic code damaged now by all we've unleashed on the world in our quest for progress.  In "Aberrant Code II," the speaker states, "...but I was already / blessed with DNA so sampled, broken / that no one would could relay its message."  At the end of "Aberrant Code V," the speaker tells us, "One story's about nuclear waste and the other a trick of genetics. / Either way the ground here is sown with monsters, / some of them weeping, some of them eating the furniture."

That idea of the broken DNA translates in several poems into infertility issues, which culminate in a poem toward the end of the book, "Why We Cannot Have Children," which is heartbreaking and real.  It is a list poem.  Here is just a sample:

Because I am a witch, a demon.
Because one might be born with a fox's tail, or a white bird's feathers.
Because our children would all become monsters.
Because I would rather not pass on the problems coded within me.

Finally, I have to remark on one of the last poems in the book, "Autobiography I."  Here, the poem begins:

No, last time you read me
wrong.  I'm not the main character,
I'm the photographer, the one
with her feet in the river.
I'm the frame of reference,
not the delicate willow branch,
not fragile and crumpled as a peony.

What I love about this poem is that it not only continues one of the main threads of the book, the idea that we can never become truly known by another human being, not known down to our soul's last atom, but also that it reinforces the idea that the "I" is not the poet.  Who knows how much of the narrative of the book has happened to Jeannine?  Does it really matter?  I think not.  In fact, I'm relieved to separate the poet from the speaker; perhaps because I have some connection with Jeannine, I would shy away from the hard truths of the poems if she were outright confessional.  Not sure if that makes sense, as I'm on an on-going journey with figuring out the "I."

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She Returns to the Floating World
Jeannine Hall Gailey
Kitsune Books, 2011

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