The Post-Modern Outsider
A Review of John Fry’s With the Dogstar as My Witness
Joshua Gage

John Fry is an author who intentionally delves into realms both awkward and uncomfortable. Approaching his newest collection, With the Dogstar as My Witness, readers may be intimidated by both the content and form of the poems. That intimidation is deliberate. Fry wants readers to feel cast out and alienated by his poems, as these are the very subjects and themes he addresses in his work. Using personas of holy figures who were outcasts in some way, Fry creates a discussion about which individuals the modern church or Christian community chooses to exclude.

Fry’s major preoccupations in this book are the ways in which people who stand outside religious teachings or are condemned by the church can still find favor with the Christian community or, failing that, with God. Many of these poems allude to feelings of the speaker’s alienation as a member of the LGBTQ community, but use biblical outcasts (Mary Magdalene, Judas, Thomas) as personas to explore these conflicts. For example, the poem “credo” contains the lines:


when, doubting, he touched to see
seeking the exact location

of soul’s shining kingdom
of heaven behind spear-split skin

did Thomas find its aleph—
did Mary feel any pain

when crowning she
pushed out godhead

—Judas kissed Jesus
—did Christ kiss him back

In these lines, Fry connects with St. Thomas, doubting Thomas, as well as Mary and Judas. While his speaker venerates these key people in the life of Christ, so too does his speaker identify with their outcast status. There is a tension here, a tension between one of faith and evidence, one of loyalty to one’s God and loyalty to one’s self. Fry taps into the doubt of these individuals as his speaker wrestles with his own doubts and disillusionments. This speaker wants so badly to be accepted as one of the faithful and yet needs something tangible, some sign or feeling, to believe that they are accepted. The kiss between Christ and Judas at the end of the poem, a homoerotic interpretation between the ultimate betrayer and God incarnate, solidifies the outsider status and tension-fraught longing within the speaker. This early poem establishes the tension found in the rest of the book. Fry uses very experimental poetics to wrench the language into suffering to explore the isolation and longing for Divine presence felt by his speakers.

Instead of a more traditional, left-justified, rhythmically driven style of poetry, Fry opts for a post-modern exploration of sound in his poems. His lines are often scattered across the page, one brief moment or thought leaping to another. Instead of connecting these moments through a standard narrative arc, Fry instead leans heavily on sound to make the connections in his poems for him. For example, the opening lines of “as Judas fleeing from the storm in his marrow”:

        in the olive-adorned hour
before I betray you, already consecrated
                       your breath fills my mouth

            as the first word animated
father-fashioned river clay,

                     when I kissed you, a sun
           rose where your logos had been

wine-pressed words (I am the vine)
            ripening the barren branch I’d become

This sonically lush stanza begins with a mournful assonance that carries the theme of the poem with it. Then Fry introduces the voiced plosives (before, betray, barren, branch), but tempers their harshness with softer fricatives (breath, fills, first, father-fashioned). Fry clearly understands the phonemic relationship between words and uses this relationship to drive his poems forward instead of a more traditional rhythmic or metrical relationship.

This, of course, makes for some difficult reading. A reader can enjoy these poems, especially if they read them out loud, but will struggle to make sense of them in the moment. These are poems to be read, reread, and pondered. Fry often leaves blanks or gaps in the poems, forcing the reader to help construct the meaning. A series of poems, all titled “debris field,” push this idea to the extreme. The poems mimic their title. The lines are scattered across the page, with large gaps left between each stanza for the reader to fill in their own meaning and find their own connection with the poem. For example:

                        & was this also given
for you, the loneliness of limestone’s
                                    memory of water
carried always a handful of salt
            saved from the city that burned
having already eaten, having already drunk deep of

unleavened bread
sacramental wine

                                    & also, a needle

These large gaps between stanzas force the reader to create meaning and make their own connections between the ideas and images Fry presents. While Fry’s lines are there to guide the reader, it is up to the reader to find the deeper themes in this chaos. By breaking up the language in this way, Fry demands that his readers find a new way to approach the poems. While this might be rewarding for some readers, too much of this approach ultimately becomes taxing. There are times when his poems get the best of him, and while they are sonically pleasing, it’s difficult for a reader to make sense of them or to find a resonant theme amidst the language. For the most part, however, Fry is able to find a balance, giving readers just enough to participate in the poem without feeling that they are directionless.

Ultimately, the struggles that Fry puts his readers through have a purpose. The majority of the speakers in these poems are outcasts or outsiders, and Fry uses not only language and imagery to convey this struggle, but form as well. In struggling to find meaning in these poems, readers will be able to identify with and participate in the struggle that the speakers face when dealing with the church as well as the Divine. Fry forces readers to experience the outsider position, an uncomfortable effort for many, which is exactly the point. Fry and his speakers face daily situations that make them uncomfortable or alienated, so readers should feel uncomfortable and alienated as they read. This painful, awkward tone forces the reader to feel empathy for the marginalized in society, and that ultimately brings them closer to Christ.


Joshua Gage is from Cleveland, Ohio. His newest chapbook, Origami Lilies, is available from Poet’s Haven Press.

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