LIKE ASH IN THE AIR AFTER SOMETHING HAS BURNE
Hyacinth Girl Press, 2017
Reviewed By Jasmine An
men called my body bounty groaned in treasured thirst for my diaphanous laughter’s luxurious curve . . . in the desert I was transformed wild brutes hunted hawked & hounded my body for sustenance or sport I howled my hymns & singing spun skin-clad cyclone through blistering sandy vales . . . I fought each creature dirty ivory eyetooth and hooked claw and each one bore my face
In the above poem, and in each of the poems in her collection Like Ash in the Air After Something has Burned, Fox Frazier-Foley takes up the histories of saints who manipulated their identities, and their presentations of gender, in pursuit of faith and/or survival. These poems — which largely concern women whose stories have been dismissed by Church historians as unverifiable, or manipulated to dismiss patriarchy’s culpability in their deaths — acknowledge the impossibility of proving historical fact. Yet, rather than dismissing the possibility of female agency and power, Frazier-Foley writes into the unknown, drawing on surviving details of these saints’ lives, and filling the gaps with generously crafted details and language.
Given this density of context, the role of titles is particularly important in this collection: the wealth of information behind each saint threatens to overwhelm the reader. However, each tightly constructed headline gives us just enough detail about each saint’s identity, as in the title “St. Uncumber Swore Herself to Holy Virginity and Grew a Beard to Avoid Being Forced Into the Marriage Her Father Had Arranged for Her; Enraged, He Crucified Her, His Only Daughter.” This poem ends with the lines:
have you ever gathered a new found ounce of yourself. What did it feel like Could you bear the threat of having it razored away My true Uncommon Commoner: to share his fate was bliss. The nails went in screaming as you’d think, then air left unencumbered me of this
Frazier-Foley unflinchingly points out humans’ capacity for cruelty, and the realities of gendered violence that are still familiar to many of us in the present day. Yet, even as the body falls prey to the bodies of others, the voices of these poems press on, seeking in their own bodily dissolution/evolution what they were denied in flesh:
. . . I burned myself with alkaline and sunlight screamed myself out I readied myself I learned to discard
“St. Pelagia Was A Famous Dancer and Courtesan Who Converted to Christianity, Disguised Herself as a Man, and Made Pilgrimage to the Mount of Olives, Where She Died After Three Years Of What Is Generally Characterized as Strict Penance, But Which She Determined to Be a Period of Self-Purification and Solitude” narrates the voice of St. Pelagia in one section of an epic poem that spans fifteen parts across the collection. Like St. Uncumber and St. Mary of Egypt, the sense of self that St. Pelagia seeks is not possible in her material reality. Her poem highlights the struggle for ownership over a woman’s physical body, though her life as a courtesan and dancer is filled with wealth and luxury:
He arranged a marbled pendant of opulent pearls tinted violet between my breasts, marvel tongue inside me. . . . I was sin itself, laughing in spite. Delight. Kicking bare feet brushed in bergamot oil, bathed in rose water, tossing tousled, glossy hair.
Yet when her lover says, “Isn’t she beautiful? Doesn’t her beauty / give all of you pleasure? It gives me / tremendous pleasure to behold her beauty—” the statement is one of ownership over St. Pelagia’s beauty. And perhaps the saint herself read something similar into these words: for they act as the catalyst for her turning her back on material wealth, power, socially coded trappings of femininity, and, eventually, her own body in her journey of conversion. (“Self-pleasure is not always the violet throat of a peacock/nor lavish ambush tail./It is not always pleasure”).
Yet this poem — and the entire collection — ends defiantly:
spirit never-bodied cannot know this grace scourge farewell blood mosaic . . . where fallen born & carved my own learned to foment visage from circumstance & became Myself. Unadorned. Who wouldn’t for a moment want to stay?
These final words pay homage to the journey, with all its hardships, of the body towards faith. “Spirit never-bodied cannot know this grace” is a breathtaking statement after the violence that the bodies in this collection have undergone. And yet, such words point to the strength that Frazier-Foley draws from, and endows, in each of these saints: through the acts of their own hands and their defiant faith, both in themselves and in God, they became something new.
To follow the winding of St. Pelagia’s epic poem through the collection is also to follow the breadth of Frazier-Foley’s craft: the lush language, turns of alliteration and internal rhymes (“purplest stars of mandrake flower”) that describe their subjects. From there, the form of the poems change from section to section. By the end, the language is pared down, sparse. Tracts of white space in place of punctuation invoke the disembodied drift of a Medieval hymn that carries one haltingly, but irrevocably, to its concluding note. Like Ash In The Air After Something Has Burned asks us to consider existence beyond our limited assumptions of gender and the finite bounds of our bodies. In language as vast and sweeping as creation itself, Frazier-Foley opens windows into the unknowable tracts of history and faith and invites us — lucky witnesses — to peer through.
Jasmine An comes from the Midwest. Her first chapbook, Naming the No-Name Woman, won the 2015 Two Sylvias Press Chapbook Prize and her next chapbook, Monkey Was Here, is forthcoming in early 2018. She currently lives in Chiang Mai, where she studies the Thai language and urban resilience to climate change.