for Saint Wilgefortis
Before they stripped you of your sainthood they laid before you votives
bowls of oats offered that you might break your fast— but did you
ever forsake your own self-imposed suffering but for your daily allotment
of flesh skin of your own likeness His image turned wafer
not wasted not willow bark blanched by deprivation— no blue rivers
beneath the whiteness of thin tissue—no. Barren-bellied you waited
while the bowls of hulled buckwheat and steel-cut oat groats soaked and turned
soup in rainwater— sour rancid and tasting faintly of salt
if you were to taste such spoiled grain. I want to touch the downy hair
of your chin your cheeks the roots of your ruination and release sprouting
out of soft skin— from the Latin lana meaning wool meaning to warm you
through long winters. I was so young the first time I felt it on the small
of my back infant fields of fine blonde hair cropped up crept across
my upper arms the fine bones of my face. Where were you Wilgefortis
when the image of a sailboat in a gray storm broke in fractured glass
over my mother’s hairline or the first time not tasting meant not seeing?
What became of you then Liberata patron saint turned pious fiction
as if to strike you from the cross could deny you your crucifixion
as if your shoe never slipped from your heel the fiddler never played
at your feet as if your beard had not been borne of such a laboring
for release I have a desire to depart. O my bearded saint how did you
bear it? I have no grain to give. I am empty handed.
Known as Uncumber in England and Liberata in Italy, Saint Wilgefortis is venerated by women seeking liberation, especially from abusive husbands. She is often depicted with a beard, supposedly grown after she asked God to take away her beauty so she could avoid an arranged marriage. As she was an ascetic, the facial hair was likely lanugo. In his anger, her father had her crucified. Her feast day, July 20, was revoked in the late sixteenth century.
The phrase “pious fiction” is taken from J.H. Lacey’s “Anorexia Nervosa and a Bearded Female Saint,” published in the British Medical Journal in 1982.
The penultimate line quotes from Saint Jerome’s letter to his protégé Eustochium, whose sister Blessila’s death has been attributed to her strict fasting: “Let your companions be women, pale and thin with fasting…such as daily say, with true earnestness, ‘I have a desire to depart and be with Christ.’”
Katherine Mooney Brooks teaches expository writing at Virginia Commonwealth University, where she is an MFA candidate in poetry and nonfiction and serves as lead associate editor emerita of Blackbird. Her work has appeared or is forthcoming in Blackbird and Tusculum Review.
The Image archive is supported in part by an award from the National Endowment for the Arts.