Headlines tell us the barebones facts, and in doing so often belie the truth. Obituaries do the same. They present us with histories that neglect the spirit of the people they seek to eulogize. Fox Frazier-Foley’s new poetry chapbook Like Ash in the Air After Something Has Burned confronts this dilemma, and in doing so insists that what lingers after death is something far more complicated and foundational than third-person accounts can suggest. This is especially true for women and the ways in which men recount us after we’re gone.
Frazier-Foley’s poems are unlike any others I’ve read. Each one is titled by a lengthy, third-person version of the death of a female saint. These sprawling titles contain all of the facts and none of the truth. The bodies of the poems, however, are narratives by the saints themselves, first-person accounts from beyond the grave. The shapes these poems take on the page become stand-ins for the women’s physical bodies: scattered, disconnected, and most alive in their spaces and absences. While these women are physically gone, they gain agency after their deaths through Frazier-Foley’s poems.
These histories feel relevant and resonant in today’s social and political climate. They remind us of just how little has changed through the ages when it comes to the plight of women. Stories of female saints taking on the mask of maleness in an attempt to save themselves or to avoid unwanted marriages, or of women who leave their traditional roles to seek out opportunities denied them, or to form communities for and by women, bleed from the past into the present. Then as now, women pay serious penalties for their nonconformity; sometimes the price is their lives. The author reminds us through these poems that the women’s sacrifices are worth it.
In the poem “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,” the saint rewrites the male-driven narrative that she was cast out as punishment.
I was sin itself, laughing in spite. Delight. Kicking
bare feet brushed with bergamot oil, bathed in rose water,
tossing tousled, glossy hair. My body bearing precious
stones & gilded cloth as the donkey bore my baubhle weight
unlike any other fancy whore […]
Here, male castigation becomes female empowerment.
In the poem “St. Matrona Left Her Husband and Abandoned Her Daughter to the Care of a Nun, in Order to Live a Monastic Life Under the Name Babylas; When Revealed as Woman and Forced to Leave the Monastery, She founded a New Community of Monastic Women,” Frazier-Foley rewrites and reimagines the Eishet Chayil, the Hebrew song a husband sings to his wife on the Sabbath, praising her valor.
My husband used to sing this song to me every Friday night, a tradition passed down to him from his father. And each time I’d hear it, I’d cringe. It tells us that a woman of valor is beyond the value of gems. That her husband trusts and values her and her work; that he succeeds because of his wife. “She considers a field and purchases it, and plants a vineyard with the fruit of her labors,” it tells us. She provides food for her household, sews their clothes, reaches out her hands to the poor, and speaks with wisdom and kindness. And her husband? He “is known at the gates, where he sits with the elders of the land.” In other words, he studies and lounges while she works and works. Frazier-Foley’s poem rejects this version of wifehood, and rewrites the song:
For without the luminous strength of woman, man will eat the
flesh of his neighbor’s arm. For the unfaithful man’s own flesh
will be dipped in the monthly blood of women, and he shall eat
that as well. His hands still stretched out.
Here, the services of the female saint are performed not for a man’s benefit, but rather for a community of women who work in tandem. She constructs a nest of female strength in which all work and all prosper. And she leaves the child-rearing to her husband in order to create this network of women. In doing so, she paints a picture of female evolution that men are not part of.
Frazier-Foley’s chapbook speaks to what women bear and how deftly we bear it. Her fiery writing serves as an echo of the saints’ pain and sacrifices through the ages – women who were meant to be silenced, burned, demolished. In this chapbook, they mingle with the air we breathe and shift our attentions in ways those who destroyed them could never have imagined and would never have sanctioned. Their ethereal accounts, purposefully disjointed, give voice to holy women who were silenced in their lifetimes. In Like Ash in the Air After Something Has Burned, we celebrate their sacrifices while holding fast to our own.
Cover design © Sarah Reck. Author photograph © Fox Frazier-Foley.