What echoes throughout Gailey’s work is the understanding and the desire to create alternate worlds when reality is chaotic.
Jeannine Hall Gailey’s second book, She Returns to the Floating World (Kitsune Books 2011), is a collection that is inspired by and recreates Japanese folk-tales, anime, and Shinto spirits. One of the themes of Gailey’s book is the fear and sense of danger caused by nuclear power, and the implicit message that humanity has made horrible mistakes that have resulted in great destruction.
In poems throughout Gailey’s book, the speaker recounts her childhood in Oak Ridge, Tennessee, the town where the U.S. government led a project that developed the first atomic bomb used in World War II. In these poems, there is a sense that the norm of life is in essence an aberration itself, created by the unfathomable yet the very real, destructive circumstances of nuclear power. For example, in “Oak Ridge Haiku,” “[t]he wasps and swallows / build nests from radioactive mud / in a neighbor’s house.” The simplicity of the haiku form belies the haunting truth that the human-made interferes with the wild and can become a destructive force. In “Chaos Theory,” dahlias, roses and tomatoes are described as “pinks and red so bright they blinded, /… marvelous / from that ground sick with uranium.” And the ugly reality of “the janitor’s radiation poisoning” is never mentioned by the speaker’s father, “only those roses, those tomatoes.”
What echoes throughout Gailey’s work is the understanding and the desire to create alternate worlds when reality is chaotic. Through the desire to create alternate worlds, a connection is made between the speaker in the poems set in Oak Ridge with the shape-shifting Japanese folk-tale foxes, cranes and other creatures. In the haibun “Code,” the speaker and her brother “join magic hang glider flights over poisoned forests, gas masks, protective gloves, a world of giant caterpillars with eerie songs, molds and spores that sear flesh. This made sense.” For the speaker, literally floating above the world is not so much an escape as it is a necessity in a reality in which humanity is constantly creating new and horrific ways of destroying life.
Written before the Fukushima nuclear plant crisis, She Returns to the Floating World will resonate with readers re-evaluating nuclear power in terms of both energy and weaponry. The need for this book is clearer than ever, given not only its relevance as a record of the past, but as a sign-post of the present, pointing towards an uncertain future. But down the road, whatever reality the reader finds herself in, Gailey’s book will illuminate the way to transcendence and peace.