Born under a bad sign: Feminism, Poetry and Healing, and the Animal in Sarah Fox’s The First Flag, by Jill Magi

What to do when your beginnings, in utero, are “poisoned” so that your life is seemingly somaticized, completely structured by a “disordered” body, by illness? 

In answer, Sarah Fox writes:

            I started to project into the space of my mother

            a thought: my bones. And I changed my thoughts

            about “mother” & “cage” & “meadow,” & then

            “daughter.” And “I am” & “he’s not.” And I imagined

            a Yes that birthed out a star pour, each bone recomposing

            as skyward colostrum. […] 5

But how to so project and change one’s thoughts? In “poetizing” both the bad sign and what it means to be born, The First Flag shows us.

A quote from “The Fetal Origins of History” begins Sara Fox’s second book of poems: “In fact, the placenta of the pharaoh was placed on a pole and carried into battle. This is history’s first flag.” This epigraph reminds us that even if born solo, we are always the placenta’s twin. Placenta: temporary nourishing structure that has the potential to nourish after it is “dead.” Born out with us as another mother and sibling, its death is likely the first death we will experience.

By beginning with the placenta, Fox complicates the idea that poems of woman lead to poems of motherhood, and that mother poems are poems about children. Rather, this work is about self and other and a third creation unfolding, about organs of destruction and nourishment, and about society as a whole. 

In a section called “Preface,” Fox’s birth chart is the substrate upon which the poem “Difficulty at the Beginning” is printed. The poem transcribes baby book information: “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). But the difficulty is more complex and the “beginning” is before the birth event. In a subsequent poem we learn that the speaker is a DES daughter; an OB/GYN prescribed and administered the drug to her mother.

The poems that follow are in a voice that talks back to this beginning, and it is a rebellious voice. For example, in “War on Drugs,” the speaker confesses “Could there be anything I wouldn’t smoke?” and continues: “Please shut/up about the fucking taxes, or economy,/or voting, or whatever” (55). Often the language is vernacular, youthful: “The crows harass me, I’m like ‘yes yes yes/I know you’re here!” (56). These are poems of indignation and young adult yearning, as if the speaker is attempting a handstand on the edge of a volcano, asking others to watch.

Then comes the beautiful tumble. In the section entitled “Coma,” we come to the pause, to the brink of a completion. In fact, this section begins with etymological information linking “comma” and “coma.” The poems that follow announce a rejection of one kind of narrative, they welcome magic, and perform a rebirth:

            […] I grew tired of being an ode.

            The path of medicine is a poison path. Your bitters

            are my nectar, I’ve grown tired of being a bruise.

            All the smitten birds call me out of my body, I’m so tired

            of being observed. “Poison” is a lie, from sea to shining sea.

            “Dominion over all things.” Censored psalters, even.

            Woman and Poison share an ancient alliance. (78)

The language in “Coma” changes into a sculpted, attentively ritualistic, almost religious tone. I read this sequence as “A birth plan spilling cosmovergence” (69). The voice shifts from an individual’s rebellion to a proclamation of solidarity in the poem “I Don’t Want,” which invokes the courage to fully feel and concludes with a shout-out to that famous feminist anthology No More Masks!: “No dragon, no morphine drop, ‘No more love, okay?’/I do not want: feminine rhyme. The moths. Monastic/silence. Nurses’ corners. No more masks! Or nouns” (73).

These poems are also printed over a substrate: medical drawings from the National Library of Medicine. Throughout The First Flag I interpret the presence of images as an enactment of hybridity and the claim that W. J. T. Mitchell makes: there are no pure genres, and text and image do not function as opposites or competitors. In The First Flag, reading both text and image mirrors the act of simultaneously considering/conjuring histories and futures, mother and daughter, human and animal, inside and outside.

The last section is appropriately named “The Caldron”: fire as near total transformation. And so The First Flag is a circle: author’s origin is marked by DES, and the book comes back to this origin in its final section, transformed, in the stunning prose work entitled “Naked” in which Fox announces, “I am a DES Daughter” (128). She then explains what this means for a whole generation of mothers and daughters exposed to the dangerous, carcinogenic, and deforming anti-miscarriage drug prescribed from 1944 through the early 70s. Disease and disorder are always either manifest or latent and may be passed on to the DES daughter’s daughter.

“Naked” is a shining work of prose. Perhaps it is a blueprint for future works where Fox may again choose to move between citation, study, experience, performance notes, photographs. Reading, I experienced a kind of ease, as well as the need to re-read, to dial in closely, but never out of confusion or in order to wade through tricky subterfuge. These pages review the book’s themes, rendering a prose of deep knowing that expresses complexity by weaving together many experiences and voices with grace:

            I understood myself observing myself being observed (medically)                             (psychologically), being signified “defective.” Observed as erotic object,                   patient, poisoned body. I observed myself being observed as defiled,                         categorized, afflicted, paradoxical. Parallax: womb/tomb. I remember an                   ultrasound—after a second or third miscarriage—where my uterus moped               in a shadowy corner. The tech said, “That doesn’t look like a uterus.” (132)

A page later: “Racoon medicine: scavenging divine materials; dexterous, surgical, masked, maternal” (133). And then: “One day I spot a trash bag in the ditch on the side of the road, deer parts and bones and a bloody white T-shirt spilling out of it” (133), Fox narrates the act of taking these bones and laying down next to them, nearly inside them. This telling is preceded by notes on Marina Abromovic’s works and notes from a movement workshop lead by Eiko Otake. Culminating in a description of her father’s death, “Naked” is, indeed, as the deer bones are, “Sacred coliseum to conclude & contain my performance” (139).

The First Flag contributes much to the discourse on contemporary poetry, particularly feminism, poetry and healing, and the animal. These discourses deserve some attention in light of this book.

First, on feminism. Unscientifically, I have been tracking just how conservative these times appear to be. I notice in the young women I teach a reluctance to speak in class. Yet their individual reading lists are filled with second-wave feminist texts. And as suit wearing has made a comeback, perhaps a sartorial miming of the characters in “Mad Men,” I wonder if we aren’t also internalizing those middle class 1950s gender roles. As women poets were recently pictured in a New York newspaper in ways that may be read as “objectifying,” and as VIDA continues to count because the count is still uneven, I celebrate the feminism of The First Flag. Sarah Fox’s work is a force resisting a dysfunctional and still anti-woman medical industry. It also has the potential to recast “father” and maleness in a feminist light.

Thinking about feminism and poetry while reading The First Flag, I felt compelled to re-read Christine Wertheim’s extraordinarily lucid introduction to Feminaissance, a collection of essays on women, gender, feminism, and poetry published by Les Figues Press in 2010:

            […] however much the traits of a gender may be viewed as cultural                           constructs, not essential qualities of biology, the fact that some bodies don’t             bleed unless they’re in pain, while others shed blood for the sake of the                     species, means(!) that the subjects of these bodies live the signifiers of                       gender differently. The cultural attribution of instability to a body that                     smells and swells and leads and gushes out blood, and which may host                     other smaller bodies, dead and alive, is lived by its “subject,” however                    “structurally neutral,” quite differently from the subject of a body that does             not do these things. In other words, while gender may be socially                               constructed, the body is sexed with respect to reproduction, and in every                 culture, these symptoms attract significations that are laid across, and                       affect the way embodied subjects live the purely social determinants
            of gender. (xiii)

Fox and Wertheim: both posit that biological essence is a gate to multifarious understandings and outcomes, and to hope that you can skip the gender part of life as if there are no power imbalances associated with gender, is probably going to result in missed opportunities for potent knowledge. You will likely have to double back and walk through the gate again: this time with consciousness.

Second, poetry and healing. I believe in this intersection and I am wary of poetry as therapeutic tool. I think that something more potent than “getting better” occurs when humans, as other animal species also do, work on aesthetics—the beautiful, the excessive, the impossible to define, and the non-instrumental.

If poetry is the denaturalization of language, and this mirrors the experience of illness where the body’s objecthood is made apparent, we may then say that there is a relationship between poetry and illness, and by extension, healing. Sarah Fox’s work pushes further toward the “what’s next” after this equation is made. And for Fox, what’s next is action, vocation: text as document of performing poetic knowledge, saying, “this is what a poetized life does.”

Eleni Stecopoulos, whose critical and creative work is at the intersection of poetry and healing, articulates this movement from idea of language to practice of healing in a Harriet blog interview posted on April 29, 2011:

            If one of the truisms of postmodern poetics is to valorize the “materiality”               of language, my encounters with medicine gave me an opportunity to test               this empirically. I persistently encountered an understanding of language                 not as discourse or communication but as energetic force, and a belief that               the material word had visceral effect on bodies. And I was struck by how                 diagnosis and treatment would often engage the healer’s own body.                         Barbara Tedlock and Dennis Tedlock, anthropologists who are initiated                   diviners in the K’iche’ Mayan tradition, speak of how the hands of a healer               put out as much energy as the brain, and hold all the intelligence of          
            the brain.

The First Flag is a record of estrangement of language and the body made more than strange. The “more,” I would argue, is possible via ritual and religion. I would say that Fox is ecumenical while tapping the roots of various spiritual traditions. Dedicated secular humanists, beware: it would not be possible for this work to exist without religion.

Finally, poetry and the animal. “Animal studies” are hot right now and declarations that we are in the Post-Anthropocene are coming in from all over. In Body Transformations: Evolutions and Atavisms in Culture, an inter-species study of the body and art, Alphonso Lingis writes, “The sharing of traits with other species is the most ancient ethics” and indeed, The First Flag fuses with the animal often (13).  

Reading the poem “Postnatural” and looking at photographs of Fox holding a placenta up to the light, preparing to encapsulate the mass which “… continually negotiates/and is equally our common grave” (146), I think of nature TV footage of the birthing animal eating the afterbirth. Why not turn cameras off or away at that point? One theory is that we show this in order to differentiate ourselves from “animal,” saying, “we don’t do that because we are human.”

But what if we watch because we understand, we desire? What if we want to remember that the placenta is an object and a cycle, and that we are wrong to consider something “waste” if its primary function appears to be no longer needed? I am reminded how often menopausal women are told they don’t need their uteruses and ovaries, when in fact those organs transform into vital pleasure-hormone generators at a time when women can do some of their best work and perform their best leisure!

Does The First Flag signal that we are coming around to understand the ferocity with which we need to encapsulate what nourishes? To look again at the things we think to discard, the things we name “poison”? Lingis asks, “Do we not come up against a birth each time someone turns to face us?” (4). Saying “yes” to this question, and knowing that we meet a thousand faces—human and animal—at every birth, is the radical democracy upon which Sarah Fox’s The First Flag pivots. 

Jill Magi

Jill Magi works in text, textile, and image. Her books include LABOR, out this year from Nightboat Books, Threads (Futurepoem), SLOT (Ugly Duckling Presse), Cadastral Map and Torchwood (Shearsman Books). Her essays on art, writing, and culture have been published or are forthcoming in The Force of What’s Possible, The Racial Imaginary, The Chicago Review, and The Eco-Language Reader. An extended essay on a text-image theory/curriculum is just out from Moving Furniture Press/Rattapallax. She teaches poetry and writing through textiles at New York University Abu Dhabi. You can view her web-site at