Colorado State University Center for Literary Publishing

Book Review

With the Dogstar as My Witness

By John Fry

Reviewed By Karen Kevorkian

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Tensions of conscience are laid bare in John Fry’s new book, a mobile poetics striking a delicate balance between personal and theological reference. The body is Judas, “after he who kissed Christ / queer or so I’m told.” “What a funny thing flesh” he adds in the poem “update after the resurrection.” Most successfully, fractured syntax, lush imagery, and the implicit silence of spatial interruption create pleasurable verbal texture and complicate the events of the poems. “Debris Field,” the second poem of that title in the book, makes immediate the book’s generative pain, the conflict between doctrinal absolutes and primal urgency. In the beginning, Fry writes, the Alpha and the Omega were:

 

 

            shadows tattooed
verses engraved upon
                                          skin, in your

beginning there was right
& there is
                        wrong, all that

is clean
            & what is not
of the Father

                        just as he who lies
with a man as a woman shall
surely be put to death

The poem follows with a quote from Leviticus identifying he who transgresses as a sort of pariah dog, dwelling “outside the camp.” This is a nervy poetics, teetering on the incomplete. Lines flirt with meaning and statement, maintain tension as intriguing as unconsummated desire. Imagery layers and complicates, flashes out with resonance that plays with contraries based on the generative trauma of growing up queer in South Texas, at odds with cultural norms, finding in the Christian veneration of the crucified body a spectacular expression of the male body.

The poetics intensify and complicate as the book progresses, the most pleasing lines keeping the focus on image. Tropes draw on an observed landscape, the natural image making immediate the emotion contained in the religious reference. Imagery carrying the stamp of the local makes vivid what would be abstract. Meena Alexander notes that place becomes the outer border to the self of the bodily interior (“Poetics of Dislocation”). Evoking Seamus Heaney’s term, she calls to the “country of the mind” that poems create. To reference the phenomenal world within a larger narrative of fluid poetics makes a resonant lyric language. The poem “[If I don’t need oceans to move myself over stones]” considers the geologic lineage of the Edwards Plateau, fusing setting with the personal, layering and complicating the event of the poem:

all these fossils we
held had glittered, swam

this diluvium where
glisten was once

crushed stone flecks
of river earth & sky

silver clasped    horns of Ammon
phylum Echinodermata    diatom

glint between our teeth (salt
so far inland on our hands, our knees

In the exposed geologic landscape of the Southwest, an allusion to the god Ammon fossilizes the power of religion, steering the poem into a place of erotic resonance. In “Advent, again,” a poem cited as “after Jean Valentine” (no surprise), the poet grapples again with the idea of God, bringing a localized, relatable physicality to the idea of God’s mother: “word heavy / (swollen ankles, back pain, / stretch marks, heartburn / / & the hobbled / possum carrying young on her back / (her one lame leg.”

A fragmented poetics also works to suggest a world that is numinous, a source of revelation. For the final poem in the book, “every time you wish the sky was something happening to your heart,” the act of serial noticing conveys the quality of utterance, intensifying a poem’s drama:

as if it had something to do with
religion:     spirit in the wheel
of cattle egrets spun
out of the scorched field
lonely for livestock, eyes
of the alfalfa still asleep
below the saltpan moon
—even if the gloaming wells up from this

hallowed ground    I will not let thee go

Jacob’s pillow      except thou

white feather ladder     bless me

The scrutiny of the immediate implies a search for meaning. If there is no resolution from the search, the quality of observation at least brings awareness of the spiritual dimensions of questioning.

While a nonreligious reader may find some poems leaning more heavily on religious imagery than serves a poem, the conflation of that imagery with personal angst leads to piercingly strong statement. The poem “[now I ache at the strange]” conflates the divine Him with an absent, personal him, “who lives / alas! away,” transforming a medical exam for what seem to be ulcers— “Gnosticism had eaten / cleanly through the esophageal lining / / of my eschatology”—into Communion ritual:

handed a cup of clay, he

bade me drink      — but even novenas
can’t coat a stomach already gone. . .

Hearest Thou, can you

follow this ion trail
I am breathing:        a chalkline

circle around my mouth

The depth of the pain and struggle these poems convey is never in doubt. References to Christianity and its iconic moments as tropes of personal conflict, in the sequential form that a book of poems takes, feels like a journey. The book feels like a pilgrimage of expiation and self-acceptance, as if the poems on the page were paving stones along a path, which allow religious orthodoxy to reconcile with the body’s commands.

Karen Kevorkian is a poet whose work has appeared in Antioch Review, Michigan Quarterly Review, Denver Quarterly, Volt, Los Angeles Review of Books, and elsewhere. Her two poetry collections are Lizard Dream and White Stucco Black Wing. She is a lecturer in the English department of the University of California Los Angeles.