“Don’t mistake / me as a fairy tale for the other girls,” declares Saint Margaret of Antioch in Anne Champion’s stunning hagiographic poems. Champion maps out a complex terrain of desire, dominion, and cruelty, exposing the ways in which women are disenfranchised by spotlighting a variety of women saints: mainly, the patron saints of architects and prisoners, of headaches and lace-makers, of dentistry, of pregnant women and exiles, and of incest and mental illness.
Champion’s use of staircased tercets in “Saint Apollonia (Patron Saint of dentistry and those suffering from dental problems)” allows for a quick unfurling of unsettling visceral images: the “bleeding gums of a battered woman” moves immediately to the image of an “orchid yanked from its root,” before arriving at the brutality of “fists shattered my teeth.” These violences against women are layered stanza by stanza culminating in a dense intensity that although uncomfortable is necessary to address, especially in order to bring awareness to, and hopefully disrupt, the historical loop of violence against women. And, while Champion’s poems churn with patriarchal assault—from a woman’s imprisonment to another’s immolation to one who “named her demons: Father, father, father”—ultimately, these are poems of redress as they move from the subjugation of women to revolt and resurrection.
Both agency and voice are accentuated in “Saint Dymphna (Patron Saint of incest, runaways, and mental illness)” as Dymphna instructs the orphans to eat; if not, she says, “you won’t have the energy / to name what hunts you.” The power of naming is a potent act. Ultimately, Champion’s poems are a repudiation of forced silence; they are an act of severing “the quiet that hovers over forests and good girls.” They are seething songs that deserve to be heard again and again. And, I for one, am here to listen.
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