Poetry Sunday: ‘Fox Woman,’ by Dorothy Gilbert


Fox Woman                 

thoughts on two prints by Yoshitoshi and Hiroshige

She turns away. Her little boy, his hand
on the brown train of her kimono, stares
at her comfortable back, her swirling garment,
his face all trust. No shadows there, no knowledge;
stay, he says. Play. In that warm room
of trunks and screens, rectangles, floral silks,
with only a tumbling vine to hint at vagary
in nature, how’s he to know
life’s to be one goodbye after another?

Here she has lived all these years, in this house, with this husband,
a human being. He rescued her, a vixen.
Her young fur’s sheen had caught the eye of hunters
in dead orange grasses. She led them, looped them,
did her best to dizzy them, but they wore her down,
closed in, when suddenly he rode up,
scattered them all, and scooped her to his saddle.
Shaking, weak with gratitude, she turned
into a woman; that
was the real ambush. Oh, he was stunned
by her beauty, but not long; a quick man with his instincts,
he knew her gift.

At home, he gave her silks, paintings, even a small dog,
and a koto. She learned to play
brilliantly; the notes hung like fruit
above their heads. He’d praise her, tell her stories
of human history, wars, treacheries, honor
beyond death. He’d guess her thought
and praise it, too, touching her shoulder.
A pair of hunting spirits, they started thoughts
from the mind’s dim thickets, together sensing
paths, traces . . . He stroked her hair, her stomach;
she leaped; one animal, they spoke
the speech. In that space, that den
of themselves they’d hollowed out of nothing,
what were names, labels, captor and captive?

Years passed. The son grew, walked. And then, what whiff
woke her? Swamp spring, perhaps; newborns’ damp fur,
the salt of it; sweet earth,
sweet grass? Histories of sex, dusty or fresh; odors
of the movement of blood; the pulse of fear
in the doomed? Fox-barks in the swamps, the phosphorescence
of her kind, the nights, the reeds, the crying?

The part of her
still in the room is woman; robe, obi, hair
dressed in splendid loops. Past the threshold

her face is lost to us. Behind a screen
her profile’s shadow lengthens, strangely proportioned:
fox nose, fox ears, fox leg and paw—

She goes to kitsune bi, the glow in the night meadow,
the foxes all communal, casting their fatal light,
luring a man from his safe way on the road to town,
drawing him into the marshes of longing and terror
and of course, loss.


First published in PEN Southern Lights Anthology, 1998, then in Tattoo Highway, Summer/Fall 2007 and from Dorothy Gilbert’s poetry manuscript, Bee Purple.


Dorothy Gilbert with Cat_11-6-15Dorothy Gilbert’s poetry has been published in The Iowa Review, The Nation, The New Yorker, PEN Southern Lights Anthology, the online publications Persimmon Tree and Tattoo Highway, and other journals. She has published two verse translations from medieval French: Erec and Enide, the first known Arthurian romance, by Chretien de Troyes (University of California Press), and Marie de France: Poetry: A Norton Critical Edition (W.W. Norton), released in October 2015. She has also published science fiction and journalism. A long-time secretary of the West Coast branch of PEN, she teaches freshmen at the University of California, Berkeley.






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Notes on “Fox Woman”

Rebecca Foust, Poetry Editor

Rebecca Foust, Poetry Editor

This poem’s epigraph tells us it is ekphrastic—based upon or inspired by another work of art—here, two Japanese prints found by the poet in an art show catalog. I read “Fox Woman” and chose it for this column without first having seen the prints, and that is how I hope readers will experience this poem. Some—as with people who prefer their imagination’s versions of characters to the ones fleshed out in films—may choose to experience the poem without ever looking at what inspired it. But those who do examine the prints may be interested in what the poet had to say about them: “The background in “Fox Fire” is mainly inky blue-back, with a wonderful tortuous tree in the foreground; under the tree sit the communal foxes, drawn to look like flames. It’s a wonderfully eerie picture.” Gilbert also talked about the idea of a shape-shifting character popular in Japanese folklore:

In the catalog is a very interesting article by Brenda Jordan called “The Trickster in Japan: Tanuki and Kitsune,” in which she calls the trickster “a rather complicated psychological manifestation of that which is called the “Shadow” by C.G. Jung. The ‘Shadow’ is like a second personality of which we are not normally aware and cannot actively control but which forces itself upon us and others against our better intentions. In mythology and folklore, characters such as Hermes in Greece, Coyote in North America, and tanuki and kitsune in Japan act out the Trickster or Shadow role as a reflection of certain mischievous and sometimes evil elements in the human personality.” [George Braziller, Inc., in Association with the Spencer Museum of Art, ed. Stephen Aldiss, Japanese Ghosts and Demons: Art of the Supernatural (University of Kansas; New York 1985), p.137.]

The poem is sufficient unto itself, though, because Gilbert does such a terrific job of evoking the images. We see details of the decorous, eminently civilized inner space of the room occupied by the human “half” of the Fox Woman and her child; we see the child and feel his longing for his mother. We also see, in perhaps a way even deeper than is communicated by the art, the terrible urgency that compels the Fox Woman over the literal threshold, away from woman-, wife-, and motherhood and into wildness. The poem makes us notice visual details (for example, the elaborate loops of the woman’s coiffure) that I, for one, missed when I looked at the print. And we get the benefit of the author’s interpretation of the art, as when she describes the fox half of the woman’s image as “strangely proportioned” and the light cast by the foxes in the meadow as “fatal.”

The poem thus repaints with words the story captured in the art, but it also enhances and amplifies the purely visual experience. Look at the multiple meanings communicated by the word “vixen” used in line 11, and at the precision of imagery  insisting it is less the color than the reflective quality of the color—its “sheen”—that makes the foxes stand out in a field of orange (lines 12-13).  Sound is also important, like the repetitions in adjacent words like “what whiff” (consonance), “salt of it” and all communal” (assonance) in lines 36, 38, and 50 and that wonderful “of course, loss” slant rhyme that ends the poem. The love story is the poet’s gloss on the prints and its eroticism transcends any visual rendering I could imagine, particularly the scene in the “den” of the conjugal bed where “He stroked her hair, her stomach; / she leaped; one animal, they spoke / the speech” (lines 31-33). What a world of touch pulses through those lines! Tension is generated by the sexual charge of the language, as well as by a series of oppositions set up between men / women, and human / animal that lead to the poem’s central opposing dynamic of “captor / captive.”

Who is the captor and who captive in this narrative? The foxes at the end are posed not (as the Fox Women was first portrayed) as victims of the hunt but as creatures who lure men to their doom. When the fox transforms into a woman, we are told “that / was the real ambush”—but—of and by whom? Was the man ambushed by the fox into taking her home and marrying her, or was the fox ambushed by her own (ultimately weaker) humanity into leading a caged life away from the wildness she craves? Finally, who experiences the “loss” at the end: husband, wife, child, fox—or, all of them? The poem, as all good poems do, leaves these questions open to be answered by readers, each in their own way.

The Fox-Woman Leaving Her Child by Tsukioka Yoshitoshi can be viewed here. Fox Fire (Kitsune bi) by Ando Hiroshige can be viewed at here.


Paradise Drive book coverRebecca Foust’s fifth book, “Paradise Drive,” won the 2015 Press 53 Award for Poetry and was reviewed in the Georgia Review, Hudson Review, Huffington Post, Philadelphia Inquirer, San Francisco Chronicle, Washington Review of Books, and elsewhere. Recognitions include the 2015 American Literary Review Award for Fiction, the 2015 James Hearst Poetry Prize, the 2014 Constance Rook Creative Nonfiction Award, and fellowships from the Frost Place, MacDowell Colony, Sewanee Writer’s Conference, and West Chester Poetry Conference. “Paradise Drive” can be ordered at www.press53.com. For more information visit rebeccafoust.com.

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