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                       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.


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