Sarah Fox’s First Flag doesn’t fuck around. I went in expecting to review a bunch of poems and came out covered in placenta juice, reborn. As a holistic whole, First Flag orders the shifting identity relations of daughter/mother/father/society/embryo/ self into biopolitical tension, echoing themes of Sylvia Plath for its hatred of dad, not as memory—which at times seems tender for Fox—but as archetype: the authority figure, the Man. Against such gendered antagonism this book dissects itself, moving from autobiography to autopsy, to reveal that sacred phenomenon: mom. This is a book about family but also the politics of family, of mothermood, of the feminine, of the nonrational, and the unconscious, set in a universe that is simultaneously utopian, apocalyptic, and utterly domestic. I found it engrossing, disgusting, and wonderful.
Fox utilizes astrological charts, psychedelics, and alternative psychology, towards a sense of self-actualization that is part old-school hippie, part new-school irony, all outlaw. At 150 pages, this is book is a serious production with conceptual rigor and deep engagement, no fluff. In the tradition of modernist witchcraft, Fox uses the I Ching divination system (the Richard Wilhelm translation) to set the book’s table of contents ontologically—according to object/identity relations. No one can accuse her of being too casual about experimentalism.
By biopolitical I mean where the regulatory power of government and industry meets the personal, biological fact of life (ie, how the doctor treats the patient). According to the opening epigraph, “the placenta of the pharaoh was placed on a pole and carried into battle. This is history’s first flag.” Representing the maternal organ as historical archive and symbol of power, as well as a transferable part of oneself, gives it multiple connotations combining the public and the private, challenging masculine points of view. In her essay Feminism, Marxism, Method, and the State, Catharine MacKinnon defines the “feminist method” of consciousness raising as rooted in exploring how the personal is political:
“Proceeding connotatively and analytically at the same time, consciousness raising is at once common sense expression and critical articulation of concepts. Taking situated feelings and common detail (common here meaning both ordinary and shared) as the matter of political analysis, it explores the terrain that is most damaged, most contaminated, yet therefore most women’s own, most intimately known, most open to reclamation” (536).
Perhaps there is nothing more intimately known by a woman, and yet more politicized, than her placenta. I also think Fox’s poetics are a good application of this method of proceeding through connotation and analysis, feeling and science, into feminist forms of knowledge. The book opens with a preface titled “Difficulty at the Beginning” featuring the image of a zodiac chart layered with text. Scattered, precious lines about birth and awakening are interrupted by dark medical records: “Sarah’s right jaw was swollen, as was the bridge of her nose and both of her eyes were also swollen and red from the forceps” (xxi). This instrumental violence of the doctor recurs in the antagonistic figure of the father, who, in the first poem, is creating our narrator in a petri dish as a kind of biological experiment:
“I acquired folds and lobes, a misshapen middle
part mottled by holes he had neglected to suture” (1)
The style is a raw, rough, first person language heavily tied to the body’s codes, to anecdotes and to confessional verse, torn between agency and victimization. There is also a self-conscious mythology of self at work that imagines itself in transpersonal forms, such as her feral poem “The Animal in Me” (122). Still, her language remains disarmingly conversational with ironic emotional distance and insecurity that feels relatable in a down to earth way:
“I should worry about my father.
I’m pretty sure that I worry about my father
but it’s hard to tell. My feelings are complicated.
I am Premenstrual Syndrome & “Pseudo-dementia.”
He is Rheumatoid Arthritis & Congestive Heart Failure,
T-shaped uterus — Lumbar stenosis w/ fusion…
The ring John gave me as an anniversary present” (18)
The simple declarative phrasing (“My feelings are complicated.”) reminds me of Dorothea Lasky’s tone in Thunderbird. The easygoingness belies its accumulating intensity, just as the non sequitur of the last line of the stanza causes us to conflate her feelings for her father with those for her husband. And again, medical discourse intersects or defines their condition as symptoms instead of people, which her own language contradicts with its pathos.
What emerges later in the book is the revelation that Sarah was a “DES Daughter,” someone “exposed to the synthetic estrogen Diethylstilbestrol in utero,” a midcentury miscarriage preventative prescribed to women, later revealed to cause major health issues such as cervical cancer and birth defects. Sarah describes herself as “a walking time-bomb of radioactive meat” (129), a product of the botched health policies of the 1970’s. This contextual understanding explains why for her the womb is equally a grave, or a liminal space between life and death capable of psychic transcendence.
The tour de force of the book is the 36-stanza cycle marking its center, titled “Comma.” The connotative principle in the feminist method returns here as we are given the definition of comma as an interval, a punctuation mark, and—insofar as it separates subject from object—a birthing. Each free verse stanza has a short title structuring it, the first being, “I Slid Out of My Mother’s Body” (69). Behind the stanzas are full-page background images from eighteenth century anatomical tables of splayed fetuses and human corpses that are downright creepy. However, they merge well with the visceral quality of the text, which, like the petri dish poem, contrasts fertilization and contamination:
“I entered air a poisonous object subtracted
from a poisoned mother. Her radiance
scathes me. I’m a pharmaceutical interpolator.
My mother and I have the same (m)Other,
man-made (m)Om. I came astride the butcher’s
alchemical homologue. The butcher said,
we’ll grow up on this street. We’ll wear masks
to conceal our monstrous mutual disease.
He said, look at my throbbing moneybags.
I roam over a burial site, my cosmovisage,
some myness that is not quite dead yet.
A birth plan spilling cosmovergence” (69).
Lyrically, the partial rhymes of “(m)Om/homologue” and “street/disease,” positioned at the end of the sentences but enjambed in the lineation, creates clear harmonic patterns across disjunctive syntax. We already have the motif of the body as meat, and now the homology of the doctor as butcher, in the business of death, extends the metaphor. The “radiance” of the mom is also a pun on the “radioactiveness” we come to be aware of, signifying beauty and toxicity as one. I love the play of “mom” and “om” (a mystic Sanskrit syllable considered the most sacred mantra). Furthermore, the Apple dictionary tells me “om” is sometimes regarded as three sounds, a-u-m, symbolic of the three major Hindu deities, making it sound even more like “mom” when pronounced. The portmanteau of “cosmovergence,” perhaps a combining of “cosmos” and “convergence,” enacts its desire by converging with itself to “give birth” to a new word, a new language, which is ultimately what every poet is after, right?
Born a prisoner, over the course of the stanzas the narrator’s mythic self prevails against the mythic father, escaping from his regulatory bondage via an unraveling dream full of shamanistic, sacrificial motifs. The end of the cycle figures her birth/death as a return to the earth, reconnecting her being with nature:
“I had cold feelings, and wished for the sight of things.
In time I fingered open a hole and saw at last a bit of sky.
I suckled there and the hole dilated. I tasted treebeing.
Bog forest. I smelled it, I tingled. My head finally slid through” (79).
Here what she’s sliding through is as erotic as it is earthen. This book’s ideology seems to come from a second-wave feminist perspective and in particular ecofeminism, through its imagistic duality of women and nature as essentially linked entities. On the other hand, is there a limit to what, say, the symbol of “the lake” can accomplish as a “healing act”? Is a sense of connection to the earth via deer or hummingbird, of seeing oneself as homologous with trees, a reification of nature’s falsehood? Is it cliché to hug trees? Or is that exactly the kind of return to a material (maternal) basis we need in a world of global climate change and physical disembodiment?
On his web resource The Green Fuse, environmental philosopher Adrian Harris asks, “Is there a feminine essence? Some Ecofeminist theorists rely on the essentialist notion that women are by nature more nurturing, caring and life affirming than men…In this form, essentialism defines biology as destiny; men will always be the destroyers of the environment, and women will always be Earth’s saviors. Clearly, if men are innately greedy, aggressive or competitive, there is no hope for a politics designed to change them.”
Regarding the question of audience, First Flag seems torn about the cisgender male reader, such as myself, uninitiated with uteri spells. Does it want to seduce or repulse us? The truth is, both:
“I’m afraid all the garbage I’ve buried / in my dreams will excrete and offend you” (78).
“The rib cage and I willfully reject the Man. His repulsion is our objective, his disgust is our beautiful armor and sorority (our sorcery.)” (137).
The tone shifts from apologetic to defensive, but even then it’s rejecting the archetype, not the sex, so that the enemy is not personified in the potential guise of the male reader per se. She is right to be afraid of polarizing her audience, but in the end I don’t think you need to be a doula to appreciate this book. The risks she takes pays off in the beauty of her prose.
I am thoroughly impressed with this First Flag’s visionary breadth, somatic connection, scholarly endnotes, emotional range, and formal ingenuity. Not since Diane di Prima’s 1978 Loba have I encountered the figure of a goddess this gritty and unabashed. Anyone interested in visionary poetics and/or documentary poetics and/or radical feminist phenomenology should give this book a read. It’s no flash in the pan. Fox’s cunning voice is here to simmer in what Plath called “the cauldron of morning.”
Nicky Tiso is an MFA creative writing candidate at The University of Minnesota. He received his BA in English from The Evergreen State College in 2010 and interned with Siglio Press in between. He has work currently or forthcoming in: TYPO, Revolver, Poets for Living Waters, HTML Giant, Ditch, Thieves Jargon, No-Record Press, and Wheelhouse Magazine. Nicky was a recipient of the 2012 Academy of American Poets James Wright Prize for Poetry as well as a panelist at the 2013 Conference on Ecopoetics at UC Berkeley. He blogs infrequently at nickytiso.blogspot.com and tweets.