Phoebe Reeves’s The Flame of Her Will
Rebellious Defacing: A review of Phoebe Reeves’ The Flame of Her Will by Carrington Kinslow
The Flame of Her Will by Phoebe Reeves is a new chapbook from Milk & Cake Press, slated for release in December of 2022. It's a reworking of the 1928 translation of Malleus Maleficarum by Rev. Montague Summers, a text used to hunt and persecute women on the accusations of witchcraft. It was a text used to oppress women, claiming that they are unable to think on their own, that they can hold complete dominion over men at their will, and that they're able to physically disform mens’ genitals. With her chapbook, Reeves, in her own words, commits a “rebellious defacing of the original.” It's a project that rips the misogyny right out of the text, and manipulates a meditation on the female experience into being.
Reeves is an English professor at the University of Cincinnati’s Clermont College, where she also runs a poetry series. She has published two other chapbooks, one titled The Gardener and the Garden with Seven Kitchens Press, and one titled The Lobes and the Petals of the Inanimate with Pecan Groves press. Her poems have also appeared in The Gettysburg Review, Best New Poets 2018, Drunken Boat, Phoebe, and Memorious. Read her work in Issue 9 of Miracle Monocle online.
I was instantly drawn to this chapbook when I heard that it was about women facing accusations of witchcraft. I thought it was such an interesting, albeit horrific, moment in women’s history to focus on. As I began to read The Flame of Her Will, and specifically the introductory matter wherein Reeves explains what the project meant for her, I knew I was going to read an absolute masterpiece. Not only did I learn bits of history I hadn’t known before, but I also got to experience a reclaiming of that history that has long been viewed as nothing but utter tragedy.
Yes, this chapbook is tough to read at times. It can be stomach-churning and heart-breaking to face these atrocious acts against women. It’s impossible not to feel a connection to the women and girls scorned throughout history. Their pain is our pain, womanhood is an inescapable shared connection. But, Reeves’s poems are about the ferocity of womanhood, the rage and power that are inherent to women. The Flame of Her Willis not just about violence and oppression, but about how women overcome, how they conquer, how they are unbeatable forces of nature.
Reeves also notes that at the time she was writing The Flame of Her Will, women in the United States were in the midst of losing their bodily autonomy with the overturning of Roe V. Wade. The despair that Reeves felt about this, about watching the world in regression, is painfully evident in her poems. Her first poem, “The Witch Must be the Other” was incredibly powerful for this reason. It's a stunning piece about women’s bodies, men’s bodies, and the relationship between the two—namely how men attempt to harm and destroy women for their own pleasure. She uses vivid imagery, comparing women’s rage to the viciousness of a wolf, to craft a stunning poem with unnerving relevancy.
Reeves is a master at turning her personal emotions into a masterwork that is a universally recognized pain. While reading The Flame of Her Will, I felt like I was connecting intimately with all of the women in my life, and women I have never met before. My favorite poem from the chapbook is “Witches Can Changes,” which again, draws on the imagery of women and wolves. Reeves writes, “The wolves which sometimes question her eat the fierceness of her strength and consume her true shape.” Reeves takes women, which are often associated with softness and domesticity, and inserts them into the context of wildness and ferality. It’s a striking reworking of the original text, and one that really caught me off guard in the best way possible.
Reeves draws on a lot of female pain and suffering, especially given the fact that the poems were constructed directly from the language used in Malleus Maleficarum. It was a tough read, a very intense one, but one that also made me feel comforted. Shared pain is difficult to talk about sometimes. It’s hard to confront the reality that women have, historically, experienced so much suffering. And it’s hard to admit that they still are, that they have been failed in so many ways. Reeves's The Flame of Her Will was educational, empowering, maddening, and a bit therapeutic at times. This chapbook is a beautiful examination of womanhood, and one that reclaims the pain that comes with it, in a very somber way.
Get your copy from Milk & Cake Press soon.