by Kimberly Burwick
Consider the following timeline:
- April, 1989: Madonna's “Like A Prayer” hits #1 on the charts.
- June, 2016: An official decree issued by Pope Francis raises the liturgical celebration of the memorial of St. Mary Magdalene “to the dignity of a feast, the same rank given to the liturgical celebration of the Apostles.”
- January 2017: The “pussyhat” protest lands a spot on the cover of Time and The New Yorker.
- February, 2018: B.K. Fischer’s Radioapocrypha is published by Mad Creek Books, an imprint of Ohio State University Press.
Ask yourself what these events could possibly have in common. The answer—unequivocally—is feminist ideology. Such is the meditation Fischer delves into in her third collection of poems, Radioapocrypha. Casting Mary Magdalene as Maren and Jesus as Callahan (her high school chemistry teacher), Fischer drops us into a 1989 Maryland suburb for us to reconfigure what it means to worship and be worshipped.
Radioapocrypha has much to say about how teenage girls in 1989 were caught in a kind of trickle-down feminism, or (more aptly) a lack thereof. “Mapplethorpe died // in March but what we did know while we / maneuvered through First Ladies at the Smithsonian: / ghosts of peach faille, ivory silk twill, / copper shantung. We were dreaming of simulacra / in polyester nylon, practicing our up-dos and / feathering the front . . . ” Maren is caught in paradox: she views Callahan as a contemporary Jesus-figure (and has conceived his child) but tonally, she is desperate to ascend from this tired parable. Satirically Fischer writes, “If you put an ear-piercing gun on the dash / in the first act, it’s going to go off / in the car.” Subverting Chekhov’s dramatic principle, Maren turns the proverbial pistol into something women use to adorn themselves with jewelry. In subtle moments such as this, readers must recalibrate what it means for Mary Magdalene (a.k.a. Maren) to take ownership of the complexity of clandestine sexual relationships.
Not only is the collection unconventional in subject matter, Fischer largely makes us reconsider the traditional poetic line. Written as a novel-in-verse, these are not strictly prose poems, nor uniformly narrative. In fact, her most lyrical moments are reminiscent of the chorus women in Act III of Aeschylus’s tragedy, The Oresteia. Just as the Furies seek transformation from their outcast status and cultish acceptance into Athenian society, Maren begins, “This is she. // Speaking. // Sorry, I didn’t mean to / hang up on you, you / caught me off guard—.” The real beauty of Fischer’s work culminates when lyricism and narrative merge. In the way that a warm-front collides with a cold-front, Fischer’s lyric “she” soon plows into Callahan, who “sat us down to settle the score. He / was a master of sarcasm, the master of ceremonies. He was / a lover and a healer. He was a real son of a bitch.” Subtly, the female voice takes power.
The etymology of the verb “to judge” dates back to the Latin jus (law) and dicere (to say). More than anything Radioapocrypha is about moving beyond the presence of judgement. The poem “(Litmus)” begins, “You think you can a piece of pH paper up to a person and tell if / a taste of him will burn the tongue?” and ends with, “Equilibrium is not peace.” In Fischer’s world, she demands that we move beyond blaming the young woman for her illicit affair and begin to examine the unity of word and action. Fischer furthers this concept by pairing italics with direct narration:
he laughed, held my bangs back from my forehead
chain of forgetfulness
parted my mouth with a fingertip
the first form is darkness the second is desire
fingertip across the lip
you’re ok with this?
As readers, which lines draw us to judgement—the narrative or the philosophical? This is Radioapocrypha at its best. To complete the narrative means that we must participate in the reconfiguration of feminist thought that does not stop at equilibrium, but only pauses for meaningful dialogue that must continue to evolve.