The First Flag
Coffee House Press, 2013
Reviewed by Joseph Harrington
Sarah Fox’ second book is The First Flag, and it is one fierce standard to follow. The book dispenses a potent compound of divination, memoir, psychoanalytic insights, placental rites and resolute feminism. This list might evoke what Kathleen Fraser referred to in 1989 as “immediately accessible language of personal experience as a binding voice of women’s strength,” a “poetry of content” resistant to “fragmentation and resistance” at the level of the sentence. While The First Flag is all about women’s strength, its style of writing is consistently inventive, innovative and imaginative. Yes, there is Voice in these poems, but it speaks paratactically and goes in unexpected directions; it out-foxes patriarchal syntax; it is as often bemused and reflexive as it is rhetorical or representational:
By the time my symbols reached the other
you, goldenly, I was elsewhere, “reported threat,”
you know, quietly. I, unsorry & story
wise, wanted a snake. An exact right. Mine.
Her increased range over our little hole. This world
is made by clearing what I’m doing . . . (“Wife Object,” page 13)
The language alternates quickly between registers, turning on a dime from manicky-chatty to gnomic: “But I mean really what is it with poets? / Because litmus nucleus failure, how bright / the tongue glows for love” (29). Moreover, while the book begins by mapping the motion of dreams, by the time it ends, it has incorporated the dream into the very semantics of its sentences and lines:
. . . I know I’m late,
but not pregnant – after all I’m only a girl masquerading
as My Pretty Pony circling the drain poke of the world’s
cutest death goddess. . . .
. . . I’m sporting my black Irish filly costume trimmed
with mother’s perineal blossoms. (“Placental Economics” 142)
Indeed, one gets the sense that, over the course of the book, its language, and perhaps its author, has gone through a transformation into something more powerful, surprising, and resilient than before.
The title refers to Lloyd DeMause’s claim that “the placenta of the pharaoh was placed on a pole and carried into battle. This is history’s first flag.” Many of the poems turn on such powerfully resonant images, but there is a hermeneutic suppleness here, a fear and trembling when dealing with signs (in all meanings of the word). They remain overdetermined in the original (psychoanalytic) sense: generating too many meanings to be reduced to only one. “The solstice moon // pretends to be a cross in the sky. / It’s like the third eye of God / the boy, only rabbitish”: the ultimate Dianic symbol turns into Constantine’s conquering sign, that of the male (son) god. But it only pretends; it’s like a yogic third eye; it retains its rabbit. The father with a thousand faces seems alternately protective and threatening, both the surveilling “Man Who Stands Behind Me” and the wisdom-dispensing “Medicine Man” (133). “Father-shadowed entities gaze, / they root and coil and hunger, tongue my every / aspect. If they weren’t the only him I had / I’d ask the birds to peck out his eyes” (2). One gets the sense that this “father” is bigger and more slippery than any single view of Patriarchy – is maybe even a self-aware part of the daughter’s “birth sign.”
However, The First Flag frankly confronts and aims to change chemical, political, and physical violence against women. Fox is a “D.E.S. daughter,” a group of women and girls whose mothers took the prescription drug D.E.S. from the 1940s to 1970s. This synthetic estrogen, whose inventor provocatively described it as the “mother substance,” was prescribed to prevent miscarriages but increased their likelihood – along with that of birth defects and cancers of the daughters’ reproductive organs. The pall of D.E.S. – and the Herr-Doktor-Vater sense of mastery that “gave birth” to it – lies over all of the poems. “My mother and I have the same (m)Other, / man-made (m)Om. I came astride the butcher’s / alchemical homologue” (69). That (al)chemical homologue could be D.E.S. and a lot of other things as well; it is not enough – this protagonist wants the real thing, actual psychic/signifying gold out of the lead of the past.
In the remarkable poem “Transitional Object,” the speaker relates a dream in which a man is dragging her “across a bleak terrain / inside a cage made of bones” which turn out to be those of her mother:
. . . he simply
could not let me out of the cage made of the bones
of my mother, until I had accepted his apology
for hauling me everywhere inside the cage
made of the bones of my mother. . . . (3)
This crazy, circular illogic of domination masking as concern could be that of a contrite wife beater or a weeping convicted rapist/football star. But the speaker thinks “‘Oh yeah’” and starts “to project into the space of my mother / a thought: my bones.” An earth(ly) body takes shape around this thought, thereby transmuting the nightmare into something that is “recomposing.”
One of the I Ching hexagrams states that “shock brings success.” The female body, in these pages, is often grotesque – especially the maternal body, which “slurps back into a bulb, festering and sussurant” (142). The poet envisions a tumor in her breast as an exploding airbag and her husband’s “distressing excitement at being smashed by my giant, infested, toxic breast with tubes spraying pus and other gross fluids all over his hair” (49). True, the Father’s face is plenty scary: it “hosts a second face / seared by mental hazards the wolves / find stinky and reject.” But at the same time, “Mother dangles / the sucked-out pelts of her nonviable / children” (69). The proscribing/prescribing father and the devouring mother complement one another.
Those last lines come from “Comma,” the 36-part sequence that Clayton Eshelman describes as “[t]he masterpiece of this extraordinary collection.” It is, at the very least, a show-stopper. In form, “Comma” departs from the long-lined, loose-limbed poems of the rest of the book. The lines are short and dense. There are two or three (titled) poemlets per page, both left- and right-justified. It is an image+text, as the poems are printed against the background of anatomical plates (of humans and animals) from the National Library of Medicine’s Historical Anatomies archive. Birth and death, sustenance and poison are never far apart here. In “Born in Prison,” the speaker describes her “daughters,” who jump rope and chant:
. . . “Say say oh enemy,
come disappear with me, and bring
your pharmacy, climb up my torture tree,
slide down my cutter blade, into my Seroquel,
and fade away we will, forevermore – shut the door.”
“Your father runs this hospital,” said the chaplain, disrobing.
End of poem. In “Quarantine,” the “I” is subjected to iatrogenic suffering: “detectors beep and yap and ¡dream-whine! / and ¡chase after! when prompted by detection / of x y z exotic contaminants” (73). But the poem-cycle ends somewhat more hopefully, under the sign of the deer, who is “the daughter of our transformation.” The final (centered) poem concludes with “ancestral faces peering up through the dirt”; in a gesture of both defense and incorporation, “We eat them” (80).
But the transformation is only completed in the poem-essay “Naked.” In a ritual / performance art piece inspired by the work of Marina Abramović (and reminiscent of Cecilia Vicuña’s), Fox recovers a bag full of bloody deer parts left by a hunter; she places the rib cage of the doe on the beach of a Wisconsin lake. Just as the daughter/speaker identifies with/as the bones in “Transitional Object,” so the doe’s ribcage becomes the woman’s: “I am breathing in I am breathing out, I stand for my rib cage, for some mother substance. I stand within these bones that have net me. I shake off the flies and fashion my armor” (136). This armor defends against all avatars of “The Man,” because his “repulsion is our objective, his disgust is our beautiful armor and sorority (our sorcery.)” (138). The grotesquerie has served a purpose; by the end of the following poem, the speaker gives birth to a different sort of boy, who flies away, “flitting toward the royal blistering crimson hole of the Sun” (143).
The First Flag is an extremely complex and ambitious book, one that cuts through the dead-serious “playfulness” and studied poses of much other experimental poetry. It is a book fashioned from the quick and the dead, the raw and the cooked. In it, Sarah Fox has created something profoundly daring, unique, unsettling, and beautiful.
NOTES See Fraser’s essay “The Tradition of Marginality,” Frontiers: A Journal of Women Studies 10:3, 22-27.  For further information on D.E.S., along with a preview of Fox’ current work on it, see her “Next Big Thing” interview: http://foxopomp.wordpress.com/2013/02/06/next-big-thing/  For a generous selection from “Comma,” see Jerome Rothenberg’s Jacket2 blog: https://jacket2.org/commentary/sarah-fox-comma