Fox Frazier-Foley’s “Like Ash In The Air After Something Has Burned” Reviewed By Jasmine An

 

 

LIKE ASH IN THE AIR AFTER SOMETHING HAS BURNE
FOX FRAZIER-FOLEY

Hyacinth Girl Press, 2017
Chapbook
$6.00

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.