Exodus in X Minor by Fox Frazier-Foley
Sundress Publications, 2014
65 pages – Sundress Publications
In her award-wining chapbook, Fox Frazier-Foley places us under a trance and drags us through a blurred century of past lives—of existences not easily classifiable as human or animal. Her writing is, in a word, atmospheric. These poems haunted me for the week after I read them in my office that looks out into our backyard. More specifically, the backyard buried under almost four feet of snow. And yet, once rooted in Exodus’s bare-bulbed, locust-buzzing world my sense of discomfort shifted from sub-zero wind to staggering humidity, razor blades, ominous tea leaf patterns, the rattling of metal fan blades and old women in sweat-stained house dresses swatting at insects “that moved like apple/seeds tossed in a breeze.” Not once does this collection invite you to make yourself comfortable—instead it offers you a dusty, velvet-covered footstool to perch on and listen with caution, one foot always ready to bolt.
Exodus opens on an incantation laced with self-made orphans, starched nightshirts, a heroin overdose and the central thread of a hymnal “wont you/bury me beneath the tree where my family lies.” Here we’re introduced to the fox-haired girl and her partners-in-reincarnation—the red bearded men who behave “as ibises searching/for serpents, bare-toothed & welcoming/storm winds.” These men return to the speaker in each successive life in the forms of lover, father, even dealer. The recanting of revelations brought to the surface in a series of poems aptly titled “The Fox-Haired Girl Visits a Spiritualist Medium in Upstate New York and Sees One of Her Past Lives” is tactically made unclear (as you might expect when trying to contact the spirit realm). So the characters seem to shape-shift through the poems and sometimes between single lines. For instance, the fox-haired girl moves fluidly from seven year-old girl to unhappy-yet-devoted mistress to the dead fox she encounters in an abandoned abattoir and claims as her twin. Similarly, the red-bearded man is cloudy in his roles, varying between protector (a father introducing his daughter to their ancestral spirit animal) and tormentor (a man who disappears into the woods for days at a time and claims she’s “the only woman who knows me”). Though it seems in every reincarnation the fox-haired girl is either his to keep for himself or his to give away, their partnering has a bright and blissful side about it as well—he brings her roses and promises to forge her a blade; she knits him a sweater. And nothing says love quite like a complex, diamond cable pattern.
The marrow of these poems also lies in the fox-haired girl’s struggle to reconcile the volatility of human nature and how easily violent tendencies and cruelty can be drawn out of the (seemingly) most harmless matter. Frazier-Foley writes in a “Letter to Diane Arbus”:
It’s the sweetest
dddddddddddddddddddddd among us whose hide becomes
acquainted with impressions
dddddddddddddddddddddd of heels; we acquiesce to taking
dddddd our quiet where
we can find it; Razor blade learning
dddddddddddddddddddddddddddd to unlink the cuffs of skin
I interpreted these letters as prayers, and Diane Arbus as the saintly, mother-like figure who finds beauty in the grotesque and to whom the fox-haired girl keeps returning for comfort. Our heroine seems equally intrigued and terrified by the thought of death sneaking up on an otherwise protected child (“For Maddy Lerner, Age 6…”) in the form of and accident with her mother’s rifle—or on a sick puppy lost in the middle of the night despite her owner’s best efforts to keep her warm. It’s moments like these where Frazier-Foley chooses not to get heavy-handed with melancholy metaphors or imagery meant to shock her readers and drum up our fear of things that are beyond our control. She leaves it to us to dig out our own memories and find feelings of resentment, disappointment, hopelessness—because we’ve all, at one time or another, been that rising river and that “ramshackle raft.”
Even still, Exodus’s characters take their hardships in stride, insisting that no matter where they’ve been, “Tarnish-free is a promise you’re ready to cash in on.” They think on the past with feelings of nostalgia and a lost sense of self worth for having been elected “yeast raised donut queen” or “Miss Antifreeze.” The dead sissoh fondly remembers “my coat/of human/My zipper.” As the fox-haired girl tells Diane Arbus, we’re “always thumbing absently for the worn/horn of a saddle in our memory.”
The repetition of familiar locations (the medium’s home in upstate New York, the recruitment center, etc.) gives this collection the aura of a tarot reading. The premise is always the same but we often find the meaning shifted, the outcome reversed. And with a second reading we’re back at that tree—our family’s resting ground—with new clarity and more questions to go unanswered, but the fox-haired girl knows I’ll keep asking anyway. Yes, she reminds me, you wanted this like tattoos.
Meg Cowen writes poetry, paints on canvas and builds really heavy furniture in a mid-19th century New Hampshire farmhouse. Some of her recent work appears in PANK, Passages North, La Vague and interrupture. She curates poems and other literary-ish experiments as editor of the online journal Pith.