• Dylan Richards

(SPAM Cuts) 'p value', by Daisy Lafarge

Four brown insects drawn on an old manuscript.
Four insects, possibly bees, woodcut. Wellcome Collection.

In this introspective, materially attuned SPAM Cut, Dylan Richards tests the waters of Daisy Lafarge’s poem, ‘p value’, remarking on the affinities between oleic acid and bee wings, whales and graphite smudges. In drawing attention to the multitude of ‘things’ caught between lines, bodies and spaces, Richards speculates on the state of degradation amidst worldly interconnection.

There is a pale-yellow stain of olive oil throughout my edition of Daisy Lafarge’s Life Without Air. The glow of yellow rests in the top corners of ‘p value’: sunrise and sunset in the palm of my hand. The oily lumens come from oleic acid, the oil’s component compound which ‘is a colourless to pale yellow liquid with a mild odour’. As well as adding a visual dimension to the poem – a small shimmering pocket in the page corner – it also contains the perfumed memory of a previous dinner. This conspicuous contamination of my printed edition provides a sensory display of how poems are their own ecosphere, especially ‘p value’.

Timothy Morton explores a poem’s capacity to be a ‘little ecology’ in their chapter from Material Ecocriticism. They argue that it is due to the poem being a space where ‘things coexist’. Morton is clear that ‘[a]s long as things coexist, there are these shifting, liminal spaces, which we could imagine as a set of interesting zones, like fields of color or sound, which emanate from them’. Other ‘things’ inhabiting the ecosphere of ‘p value’ are water and salt particles from sweat, soft layers of graphite from a pencil, the fresh ink of a pen, even microscopic pockets of Cornish air encased whilst printed and bound in Padstow by T J Books Limited. In the fourth stanza, the speaker self-consciously ruminates on what coexists with the printed words on the page:

[s]he thought about the white space between the lines in her textbook how much still lurked there, waiting to be boxed into terminology.

Those lines conclude the stanza, and Lafarge’s subsequent meditative lacuna provides a moment to peer beyond the pages’ inky tattoos to consider the body that wears them.

‘p value’ echoes a longing to find certitude; the speaker dreams of a ‘phylogenetic tree that | could neatly classify her feelings and thoughts, fears and desires’. ‘Phylogenetic’ relates to the biological process of phylogenesis: ‘the evolutionary development of a species or other group of organisms through a succession of forms’. This desire for self-development is conveyed through biological hermeneutics; emotional growth becomes a scientific process that can be controlled, a wish to remove those anomalies of life that leave stains on our souls, and find sanctuary in the safety of consistency. The uncertainty of moving through life, in which the speaker attempts to find this emotional apparatus, is likened to an ‘aimless swimming through textbooks’. The aquatic metaphor ripples into the following stanza, where the speaker relinquishes their gender, switching ‘she’ to ‘they’. The notion of coexisting ‘things’ is brought into acute focus. Sharing the body of water inhabited by the whale, ‘she’ evinces the liminality that exists between the human and nonhuman.

The liminal space is where the literal and figurative ecologies of ‘p value’ come together. The ‘whale who dies at sea’ and the ‘dead bee in the middle of the path’ point toward Lafarge’s concern with environmental degradation; the sonority of these deaths resonate through the text’s materiality, and in doing so enter the reader’s emotional and physical space. Holding the book in one hand –– opened so that pages 62 and 63 are facing the reader –– the two sides of the text fall and rise with the movement of one’s hand. ‘p value’ has been positioned so that it literally flutters like the ‘papery wings’ of the ‘dead bee’ that the speaker has ‘knelt down and picked… | up’. Lafarge has created an experience of textual symbiosis. The speaker picks up the ‘papery wings’ of the ‘dead bee’ as the reader picks up the ‘papery wings’ of the book, a dead tree; the speaker ‘gently [prods] a finger over [the bee’s] body’ while the reader gently prods their finger over the poem's body.

What is so effective about ‘p value’ is how Lafarge manages to engage us with the eco-materiality of her work using syntax and figurative depictions of ecological spaces. Having her textual world self-consciously consider the ecosphere with which it coexists –– alongside many other ‘things’ –– invites the reader to reflect on their own position within a shared ecology. The poem’s liminal spaces are prised open by Lafarge –– just enough so that the reader can enter and attune to the maelstrom of surrounding environmental degradation. Apollo’s thumbprint in the corner of the page, my own smudging graphite and ink, the curl of blackening page corners, and the sand and crumbs hibernating in the cove of the spine: these bring the mythical, human and material together in ‘p-value’. We are left paddling in our own emotional worlds within an ecosphere that asks: how long?



Morton, Timothy. 2014. ‘The Liminal Space between Things', in Material Ecocriticism, ed. by S. Iovino and S. Oppermann (Bloomington, IN: Indiana University Press), pp. 269-279

Text: Dylan Richards

Published: 26/7/22