She Returns to the Floating World

Jeannine Hall Gailey
Kitsune Books

Once I Believed the Stories Didn’t Have Endings: A Review of Jeannine Hall Gailey’s She Returns to the Floating World

by Julie Brooks Barbour

With her collection She Returns to the Floating World, Jeannine Hall Gailey has created a masterpiece. I do not say this lightly. Gailey’s second book is alive with Japanese fairy tales, references to the films of Miyazaki, and anime girls. The poet is able to thread these stories together with the fox-wife, a changeling who introduces the other changelings while holding the narrative together by reappearing. However, these aren’t any changelings, as the story of each poem resonates with the idea of woman as other. In these poems, women are never what they appear to be:

“I look down and see my paw on his hand.  He sees the half-moons of nails, the pink skin.”
(“The Fox-Wife Describes Their Courtship”)

Thus begins what I’d like to praise as an important book for women writers and readers. These female changelings are outcasts from the outset. They understand themselves no more than men do, though they still find acceptance in pockets of society. In the sequences of “Codes,” little girls and young women find solace in fairy tales and superheroes. They know they are odd, but find a way to make sense of their place in the world and a way to fit in:

“Because in childhood we imagine ourselves fierce, super- / powered mutants so different we must become heroes.” 
(“Code II")

“When I turn twenty, the boys are so grateful I speak the code language of their childhoods they invite me to midnight screenings of sci-fi flicks, tell me their secret government hacks….  Because I know the code. Code for something broken.  Code of ephemeral DNA.”
(“Code III”)

However, there’s another side to this: the escape to fictional worlds cannot always last. In the sequence of “Aberrant Codes,” women become scientific experiments because no doctor can read their codes:

“You would never know from looking how / un-human I am. They are always trying to touch me.”
(“Aberrant Code I")

“In this body trapped beneath the layers of skin / some strange worm, some dragon, some other soul.”
(“Aberrant Code II")

“I should never enter the hospital, let the doctors look at me in wonder. / I wasn’t meant for this fish tank, this testing hub.”
("Aberrant Code IV")

This strangeness relates itself to the contemporary world: women we know or can relate to enter the conversation, becoming part of the tale Gailey weaves:

“In ten more minutes they will read // the pieces of me / in a jar / like tea leaves.”

(“Waiting at the OB/Gyn’s Office for the Results of a Biopsy”)

“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.”
(“Why We Cannot Have Children”)

In these poems, each woman is a being separate from normality, or what our culture perceives as normal. She is her own creature, the woman whose code no one can break. She is also the wife who disappears, the sister who becomes a savior, and the bird who returns to offer hope:

“Sing us a new song,
not of spring, of water,
of how we can make it alone
all those weary nights
and the moon so pregnant with light.”
(“When the Bush-Warbler Returns”)

Outside of codes, outside of otherness, the women in this book seek a common language, a new way of telling stories, apart from the tales and questions of men:

“But now, now, only sticks and stones are left and we are tired of all the breaking. Whatever language, we are asking for praise, for freedom in the cornfields, for the rebirth of the sun.”
(“Anxiety, Post-Apocalyptic Futures, Whatever: A New Song”)

“Once I believed all the stories didn’t have endings, but I realized the endings were invented, like zero, had yet to be imagined.”
(“The Fox-Wife’s Invitation”)

Ending this book is the fox-wife, bringing the tale full-circle with a glimmer of hope that women can rewrite their own endings. Even though they may not be understood in the real world, women can make a place for themselves that they understand, where they speak a language to one another that makes sense.  Gailey has written an important collection that will resonate with women readers. Hers is a shining voice in contemporary women’s poetry and American poetics.


Julie Brooks Barbour’s chapbook, Come To Me and Drink, is forthcoming from Finishing Line Press. Her poems have appeared or are forthcoming in UCity Review, Waccamaw, and Kestrel. She teaches composition and creative writing at Lake Superior State University where she edits the journal border crossing.