In She Returns to the Floating World, Gailey utilizes anime and other aspects of Japanese culture, such as its folklore and attitudes following The Bomb, as she puzzles through how to define “she.”
The Japanese word “ukiyo-e” (a genre of wood block prints and paintings) literally translates to “pictures of the floating world.” A “floating world” can be a red-light district, a fantasy realm and/or any place to which you can escape. Jeannine Hall Gailey’s second full length poetry collection She Returns to the Floating World takes full advantage of this multi-layered concept.
Having come across Gailey’s poems online, I knew before I began reading her current collection that the book would contain poems tied to Japanese culture, especially the otaku (nerd/fangirl/fanboy) sect. When I saw the collection’s title, therefore, I immediately thought of the movie Laputa: Castle in the Sky which was directed by Hayao Miyazaki of Studio Ghibli. Laputa is about an abandoned flying world which also links back to a satirized floating world of the same name which appeared in Jonathan Swift’s Gulliver’s Travels.
I could go on, but you don’t need to know all of these connections to enjoy the rich poems that appear in She Returns to the Floating World. Catching the links, however, adds another layer of enjoyment to your reading.
In She Returns to the Floating World, Gailey utilizes anime and other aspects of Japanese culture, such as its folklore and attitudes following The Bomb, as she puzzles through how to define “she.” Gailey’s poems look at the female from all sides: sister, wife, mother, body. Yes, the female body itself and what it means to have that form is examined in full detail.
The book’s form is separated into five parts. Part One: The Fox-Wife: Come, Love, Sleep opens with “The Fox-Wife Dreams” which transports us into one version of a floating world where the feminine is something immediately mistrusted, “My husband says, can’t trust foxes, their eyes like geodes” to which the Fox-Wife thinks “I see in his face he will leave me, the fox tail beneath my bed clothes betraying.” The Fox-Wife and other shape shifting women appear throughout the book. They are presented in their Japanese context, but it is through them that Gailey can speak to a more universal woman.
One of my favorite poems returns to the foxes in “The Fire of Foxes II” which presents a masculine fox who sacrifices himself in order to save his village. It is this male fox that the speaker of the poems seems to want to be when she says, “The fox is rewarded with eternal life; his eyes and tail become stars in the sky. At least that is the version I have learned by heart.” Don’t we all have a certain desire to be remembered, to be the hero, heroine? But how often does it happen that the hero is male? For more on that discussion you should also pick up Gailey’s first collection Becoming the Villainess.
If there is anything negative to note about She Returns to the Floating World, I’d make note that a few of the poems feel “required.” I’ve noticed (in my own writing as well) that when poets find a “theme” in their work they may try to write some poems to fill in gaps in that “story.” There are a few poems in this book that have that feel of almost filler, but even so I found them necessary.
There is so much about this book I could discuss with its strong sense of order and overarching motif, but I want you – reader – to pick up this book. I want you to find your own connections. I don’t want you to take the feminine slant of this review to put you off either because the book is so much more than that. It just happened to be the topic I decided to focus on for this review. To which floating world Jeannine Hall Gailey’s words take you?