John Fry
with the dogstar as my witness
Orison Books

Reviewer: Cindy Hochman

The seeming contradiction of religion is that it often perpetuates the very problems it is asked to resolve, especially for someone who wants to believe but whose fundamental values are antithetical to its core tenets. It is no wonder, then, that “in the agony of an eleven-year-old / afternoon / storm clouds blacken” (“debris field”), for poet John Fry discovered early that the church, meant to provide spiritual succor, offers little comfort to a boy whose sexual identity puts him at odds with its teachings.

—Judas kissed Jesus
—did Christ kiss him back


because the body betrays
I called mine Judas
after he who kissed Christ
queer or so I’m told
did not recognize this
skin I was in as mine

(“update after the resurrection”)

The heartrending yet redemptive poems in this collection are a poetic genuflection against theological doctrine but toward God. Despite his puzzlement, there is a childlike reverence and sense of wonderment, even though “childhood left / [him] thumbmarked, open”; even “though I / wasn’t ever not an other”; even though his homosexuality flies in the face of Leviticus’s warning that “he who lies with a man as a woman shall surely be put to death” (or, as reworked by the poet: “flies in my mouth / abomination buzzed”); and even when confronted with a deep (Judas-like) betrayal, or at least abandonment, of body and soul. But it is clear that he so wants to believe, and in a paradoxical way, his anguish brings him that much closer to the divine.

The truest testament to Fry’s adherence to a faith that has in many ways deserted him lies in the form and structure of the poems themselves; there is a hymnal quality to the lyric, chant, emphatic repetition, and passionate radiance of these poems, along with a spaciousness on the page that seems to beckon the reader to partake in a solemn worship. The small font and lowercase letters (even in the title of the book) bespeak not actual smallness – for the poems thunder with gravity and implication – but awe and astonishment, as well as fear and confusion. The poet’s phrasing combines biblical formality with modern-day idiom, which serves the content well, and adding to the prayer-like arrangement is the reiteration of the titles “credo” (to denote guiding principles), “antiphon” (recited before or after a canticle), and “debris field” (wreckage). So, too, there are two, no doubt purposeful, chapter headings called “nightwalk.” The tone is quiet and respectful (whispered like psalms), but the pained cry-outs (“throat-wild howls”) are real and true.

                             where you would
place your hands

                             searching for a scar
where the raiment
ripped (call it skin)

                             open wound a mouth …

                             so I placed my hands there
where hurt was holy

                             where belief meant nails

(“as Thomas—because he doubted—believed”)

It is notable that the poet utilizes Kazim Ali’s slant-rhymed phrase “scripture & rupture,” which so strikingly captures Fry’s wrench-and-rend relationship with divinity. To this, the poet appends numerous references to wounds and gashes that of course bring to mind Jesus on the cross (from “antiphon (preacher”): “it was as if my tongue rusted / like the nail hammering / your severed sinew & bone” and, going back to the original sin, “Eden inside that gash / inviting us, children lost from the womb, to crawl in”). And, again invoking the rupture of scripture, in “wonder thicket,” there is an actual unraveling: “knot of an Our Father come undone.”

not-psalm 121

how we’d lifted burnt
offerings, our hearts, as shorn

                             things bleat, cling, for help
had not come …

                             promised benediction, our goodbyes
blackened our altars, help had not come.

In the same way, Fry uses negation; witness the title “not-psalm 121,” as if the poet wishes to rewrite the sacred song’s affirmative intent, along with the dire refrain of “help had not come,” and there is the same pointed antithesis in the title “by the light of no moon,” and similar references to “not sky,” and “no name.” This, of course, goes to the heart of Fry’s dilemma: how to reconcile loneliness and need for community “(a man a man / lost no longer / doesn’t mean belong / once strange always / estranged / as marked is marked)” with devout outstretched arms that have not always embraced him.

say I am:          otherwise agnostic, a believer
only when in unison
words are sung-said
beside another, stranger or
familiar, not alone …

                                  grace looks like

                                  bread, wine, we


Throughout this collection, Fry aligns himself with those whose devotion was marked with torment (Doubting Thomas, Mary Magdalene, Judas), which is the price of craving. But the telling title “as Thomas—because he doubted—believed” attests to the fact that Fry’s own ability to remain faithful and faith-filled is no false hope, but rather, proof that those who demand answers often come away more certain than those who trust blindly, even when the dogstar (Sirius, the brightest star) is a “star gone gray.” The “open mouth a wound” is indeed a scar on the poet’s psyche and spirit, but the mouth is also the place from which poems emanate, and from which help does sometimes come.