(REVIEW) Life Without Air, by Daisy Lafarge
Nina Hanz takes a lens to dichotomies of seepage and fermentation, and the crispness and swelling staleness of relationships as they are formed and broken in Daisy Lafarge’s Life without Air (Granta, 2020). With one eye on historical source texts and one firmly on the contemporary context of reading a collection about airlessness from the confines of a national lockdown, she examines what it is to (have space to) breathe, both on the page and off it.
Air is the object of both the inside and outside: of the body, the laboratory, the home. It is domestic and public, both familiar and foreign. Contained to parts and molecules, it separates, but it also fuses: through inclusion, exclusion, the inhales and exhales.
Living without air, living free of oxygen, might seem impossible, but us creatures all share the goal of survival. In his observation of fermentation, the French biochemist Louis Pasteur noted that not all organisms perish from lack of oxygen and that perhaps some thrive. This is the central focus of Daisy Lafarge’s T.S. Eliot prize shortlisted debut collection Life Without Air (2020), itself a continuum and rapture of discovery that reads with sonic esteem. Rolling and expanding outwards only to be contained again in the next poem, Lafarge studies the complexities of life under pressure, in extremis, the near-uninhabitable. In poems like ‘Meridian dream’, ‘Jennifer’ and ‘false alarm air’ of the ‘understudies of air’ series, Lafarge produces a unique crispness that sharpens the stanzas as they pass over your tongue into speech. And then there is a staleness, certain words that linger, fermented into the pages and the white matter and the glia of your brain.
As with its opening: ‘Meridian dream’. Untitled on the first page, but labelled in the index, this thin column is made of the same six letters broken, split, bonded and reshuffled. M-E-R-I-D-I-A-N. Meridian. The poem is an anagram breaking through claustrophobia in that it swells and grows in steps and stages. ‘Mired in a / mined Air.’ I read and sense the letters moving freely within the mind. M-I-N-D. Then I feel a brief wave of agoraphobia—a fear of stepping outside the margins. ‘I dream in / I rid name’ and then later, ‘I drain me / Meridian’. Perhaps it is not the escape that frightens me, but that it will end. Soon, this feeling passes; although limited by letters and the ruling laws of the game, these twelve short lines feel like they still have space to move through, air to mine in.
When Louis Pasteur began to study survival in airless spaces, it was the asymmetry of fermentation’s by-products that caught his attention. These optically active alcohols did not align with his existing law of hemihedral correlation, an earlier theory based on the symmetry of chemical structures and their external shape (Dubos 1988). His foundation of fermentation was the solution, also the exception, that proved his theory. ‘Like all asymmetrical creatures / we love from a lack of alternatives’ — this must be written for Pasteur. Lafarge continues, ‘and since a home can be made of any old where / I might have lived forever in your bottom drawer’ — I find these lines in ‘dog rose duende’. Like the other poems, there is just enough for you to follow, but then you are thrown off by the added details. The asymmetry of these poems is the unexpectedness, the ‘lived forever in your bottom drawer’, that shifts your perspective to the bacterial, the microbial as you read. Like any dream, you follow closely as the phrases turn and shrink and breed.
It is fitting – the timing – to write about survival and air, to readdress in the midst of a pandemic the seminal research of the microbiologist who also discovered the principles for early vaccines. If you are lucky enough, like me, not to have experienced the symptoms of this air-loving virus, your breathing has surely still been laboured, out of stress or out of sympathy, in a life more aware of our biology, our confinement. Even though, as I write this now, nobody I know personally has lost their life to Covid-19, the shallowness of breathing, this fear of touching, feels close, and I am reminded of my late grandmother’s lungs. She passed away at the end of 2019 from a complication with her heart medication, causing water to fill her lungs. She passed peacefully in her sleep, perpetually dreaming. She didn’t witness our collective effort of survival in the Covid-19 Pandemic — I suppose this is the silver lining.
It feels almost like a dream, reading this collection. One of those dreams where you hover above your own body and watch a you that’s not you move through life. This is what it feels like to read, in fleeting phrases of Lafarge’s poems, about the present moment but also how it overlaps with the past, as we tend to a science most of us will never fully comprehend in its haze. Regardless of the agency we have or don’t have during this pandemic, we must watch the little failures, our past and present, from a distance that also feels so proximal. In her series ‘Dredging the Baotou Lake’, Lafarge writes of our relationships with nature and technology through a short study of a lake in Inner Mongolia. The poems contain our sense of failure, of having failed, because this lake is sick, contaminated by its namesake city industrialised to meet our global demands of smartphones and flat-screen TVs:
have you ever festered in your own quarantine, afraid that your toxins would spread, only to find, when you finally seep outside, that your sickness has turned benign, as if the very air could oxidise pain?
It spoke so directly of our current situation that I initially misread this poem, this question called ‘6. Song of the ugly lake’. When it asked me if I had festered, I first read ‘step’ instead of ‘seep’. When you finally step outside — I must have been longing. Stepping or seeping, our bodies have all started to spill more (germs, bacteria, sentiments, etc.). Instead of seeping into the soil and poisoning the ground, we spit those tiny molecules for the wind to carry onwards, unknowingly, whenever we step outside. We cover our mouths and noses and isolate because we are a sick lake made of people. This makes us toxic to the land and lakes but also to each other. And our ignorance is nothing more than the sleeping through of mutual destruction.
Louis Pasteur’s work is cited in the collection as a starting point of sorts, but it is not the process of fermentation which is being investigated on these pages. Rather, it is the harsh environments – and people – whose elements Lafarge transcribes. From toxic lakes to toxic relationships, this collection is as much about the people who make up our environment as the ecology we find ourselves in. As with the character Genie, who floats through multiple pages of the book. ‘Genie held her breath / and the artex started raining. / The year processed in discord. Genie became adept / at the opposite of breathing and made very little sound / at all.’ In ‘what Genie got’, the interior life, at home with her deafening mother, is a place of struggled breathing, a place where the ceiling falls down in dribbles because the air she breathes is one of drowning in her mother’s trumpet-like yelling. Later, at a school made of walls covered in the ‘fading acne of blu tack’, there is a similar suppression. For all her bodily changes and those of her interior-scape, Genie must adapt to the hostility of her habitat because some organic matter, lactic acid or alcohol or otherwise, doesn’t have the luxury of easy breathing.
Even though all the living conditions explored in the poems are harsh, and some key themes are repeated, they are all made of differing relations. In ‘p value’, which reads as prose until the last stanza, the narrator queries the pests found living off their houseplants, in their own home. The voice reads, ‘I had to keep reminding myself that parasitism was a type of symbiotic relationship, not its opposite. That “simbiosis” wasn’t a synonym for ecological harmony’. This poem was a shifting point for me, retrospectively enhancing the poems that came before it. ‘There had to be gainers and losers; we craved the details shamelessly’. This sentence refers to the narrator’s desire to place things in categories, a Palaeolithic habit that still bubbles up. ‘P value’, along with its surrounding companions, speaks of the complex nature of relationships — where and how we draw their connections and influences.
‘A Question for Zeno’ is one of the more haunting educations in this idea of parasitism. Zeno of Elea was a 5th-century scholar known primarily for his paradoxes (Guthrie, 1965), and is who the narrator addresses, explaining their financial situation, their caustic puzzle, that has them bankrupted by an ex-husband:
perhaps my trouble is in identifying the line between my money and other people’s, in that mine so quickly becomes theirs which is perhaps why it took me three years of therapy to be uncoerced from supporting an abusive parent financially I like to think this current paradox is the culmination of the wound I have to pass through rotating in coloured concentricities like representations of the inferno in which case the paradox is a diagram is the cross-section of a wound falsely squashed on a single plane like microbes pressed between two slides
Throughout the collection, there is use, misuse and abuse of power — personal but also institutional – being documented. Leaching relationships such as these are hard to define, let alone terminate. ‘Perhaps my trouble is in identifying the line’ writes the protagonist, but the poem does not go further to find conclusion. Nor do any of them: they perpetually live somewhere between gainers and losers. ‘A Question for Zeno’ does this masterfully with its final lines: ‘Dear Zeno, is a wound always pressed between two people like a / page / or a banknote?’ In its duality, this wound refers back to the parasitism of ‘p value’ in that its definition suggests the host too must continue to adapt, with scarring, in order to survive the harmful organism, the X she cannot escape. Both heartbreaking and frustrating, adapting to our environment is, now more than ever, the only means of survival.
This and other moments of intense gravity emerge throughout the collection like thought bubbles, light-to-the-touch severity that offers dream-like glimpses into environments that aren’t actually as distant as you might suspect. In the poem ‘3. Performing the border’ from ‘Dredging the Baotou Lake’, Lafarge pulls the remote Baotou closer with a direct and proximal magnitude:
the very pixels could impute a body’s affects, our to-and-fro traipse from cyborg to goddess and which were the hands of the woman who built it? the ghost-handed mother who says there and there
Lafarge’s writing moves effortlessly through the body, to our chest and breath — as if the concepts themselves were being condensed, or vaporised. The sharp edges of pixels and cell phones soften into our bodies, lives, and emotions, becoming part of us and our screen-lit faces. The gravity of our skewed relationships, even those with inanimate objects and non-human bodies, are linked and connected to demonstrate how we harm our habitat, in the broadest definition of the word. This poem, like ‘A Question for Zeno’ and ‘6. Song of the ugly lake’, stirs the snow globe complacency we so often find ourselves in. Who did build your phone? Who was its mother? This person is absent in our lives, but after reading Lafarge’s work, her space is nonetheless noticed. Lafarge makes sure to carve her a spot.
Just like ‘Meridian dream’, we construct borders and lines that keep us contained, that help us navigate the world. With our seepage and spillage, the passing on of viruses and bacteria, these borders become foggy. Perhaps fearful. Even in the smallest of rooms though, it is this air that brings us together, that establishes us as beings still in relation despite our time of interruption and withdrawal. And in doing so, the atmosphere allows Life without Air to make a space, a room, a page, for all us creatures who are still learning to exist.
Dubos, René J. (1988) Pasteur and Modern Science. Washington D.C., ASM Press.
Guthrie, W. K. C. (1965) A History of Greek Philosophy. Vol. 2: The Presocratic Tradition from Parmenides to Democritus. Cambridge, Cambridge University Press.
Text: Nina Hanz