Chondrus crispus Köhler s Medizinal Pflanzen 034
Franz Eugen Köhler, Köhler's Medizinal-Pflanzen

There is a phrase from Daisy Lafarge’s Life Without Air that stayed with me throughout my attempts to clarify the impression that the book had left. In a poem which shares its title with the collection, she writes: ‘Thus, when Empedocles saw rhodophyta streaming between her legs / in the bath / it was blood-on-the-tongue doxology’. Leaving the first image behind for a moment, what was ‘blood-on-the-tongue doxology’? Blood on the tongue speaks of a wound, an accident; ‘biting one’s tongue’ is also an idiom for holding back speech, especially speech that might disturb the listener. Blood on the tongue also occurs in the midst of receiving Catholic mass, as the wine you drink has become ‘in a way surpassing understanding, the […] Blood of Christ’.[1] In the poem, Rhodophyta look like clots of period blood floating in the bath, so that ‘blood on the tongue’ might also stand for tasting that blood, calling to mind Germaine Greer at the height of her public profile and influence during feminism’s ‘second wave’: ‘if you think you are emancipated, you might consider the idea of tasting your own menstrual blood – if it makes you sick, you’ve a long way to go, baby.’[2]

‘Doxology’ is not a word familiar to me, but comparing ‘orthodox’ and ‘heterodox’, I vaguely gathered a sense of ‘something taught, believed’; then, adding on ‘logy’, I arrived at ‘the study of’, like ‘philology’. My guess was a bit off: a doxology is a short hymn in praise of God. Reading about the ‘Lesser Doxology’ on Wikipedia, I noticed that the Greek words for Holy Spirit are Hagion Pneuma so that the literal meaning of pneuma ‘that which is breathed or blown’ brought me back round to the Air of Lafarge’s title. The doxa of ‘doxology’, beyond its biblical use, goes back to Plato and is a belief in the deceptive appearance of things. It is also taken up by Aristotle to describe something that can be used and tested on the way to knowledge or episteme.

So far, so much. Lafarge’s poetry has this absorbing quality to it: a sense of a weight of thought and feeling behind its choice of words, the form of its phrases. Its effect on the reader is as an imperative to feel, and, as demonstrated above, to think through. If I find something laboured, even awkward, about lines such as ‘forcing me down on all fours as the dishes and aperitifs clatter away from my terrible orogeny’, or ‘She had believed unquestioningly since childhood that a bee’s sting was its Achilles heel, and conferred on the species a benignity that set them apart from wasps, who stung with pagan abandon’, then it is an important labour, and a welcome awkwardness. Lafarge’s treatment of writing as ‘a place for moving through the murk of what I don’t understand or know how to articulate, rather than what I do’ brings an honesty to these poems, which admits to the gaining of knowledge and insight as a process involving struggle, obscurity, and, very often, great personal expense.[3]

Situating a poem in the space between knowing and not knowing allows the reader not only to arrive at a realisation of its meaning through the process of reading it, but also to examine the process of arriving at knowledge. In ‘A Question for Zeno’, the speaker frames her situation in terms of a paradox, addressing it to the original paradoxographer, Zeno of Elea. The situation the speaker describes is not, like Zeno’s paradoxes, an exercise in abstract reasoning; instead, Lafarge’s address to Zeno becomes a purposeful provocation, an invitation to see the qualities of the mathematical or philosophical paradox in this concrete example of financial and emotional abuse. The paradox becomes, in Lafarge’s hands, suffused with the experience of paradox: that is, an occasion for intense and self-defeating, self-doubting thought, a contradiction that draws you in rather than comes to you. ‘I can’t stand to think of my poetry/ running through the veins of a man whose depravity/ I can’t bring myself to understand’: the paradox stands as a figure for coercive knowledge, an imperative to the unbearably endless pursuit of an obscure and anyway contested conclusion. And yet, the poetry persists, itself paradoxical in nature: ‘both the sieve/ and the hand which slaps me free/ to drain the blood back into sensibility - / maybe there is no bloodless poetry.’ The poetry participates in paradox on two levels, then. It makes the money taken by the abuser, the money which affords survival, and hence makes poetry production possible in the first place. But its complicity cannot entail the abandonment of poetry, since it is also, in the end, a way of understanding the financial paradox it has come to embody.

Lafarge has spoken of how Louis Pasteur’s concept of ‘life without air’, ‘opens up a way to think about nonhuman life oppressed and overlooked by human domination, of human resilience under systemic conditions of patriarchy and capitalism, and more intimately in the experience of abusive relationships.’[4] Her collection is underpinned by an expansive sense of systems, of their behaviour, their interactions, of the spaces between them. The idea of an atmosphere, of being porous to our surroundings, appears and reappears throughout the collection: we act on the air, and it acts on us, even in the apparently basic act of breathing. The sequence ‘Dredging the Baotou Lake’ approaches this human complicity in nature with appropriate clarity and appropriate ambivalence: ‘as with the moon, so with our mothers/ it’s what we make with the fallout that matters.’ The environmental crisis has already been made, humanity, or perhaps, the pressing question of how ‘humanity’ is constructed, is already in the midst of it. If you are to ‘make’ anything in this context, the poem suggests, you must enter into the crisis, ‘lightly drowning’.

In the introduction to Slow Violence and the Environmentalism of the Poor, Rob Nixon writes:

‘Attritional catastrophes that overspill clear boundaries in time and space are marked above all by displacements—temporal, geographical, rhetorical,and technological displacements that simplify violence and underestimate, in advance and in retrospect, the human and environmental costs.’[5]

He analyses climate catastrophe as a phenomenon of ‘slow violence’, ‘a violence that occurs gradually and out of sight’, inflicted by the rich on the poor. One example given is the sixty-seven atmospheric nuclear ‘tests’ carried out on the Marshall Islands between 1948 and 1958 by the US, at that time the occupying power. Decades after the Marshall Islands became a republic, ‘jellyfish babies’, caused by the radiation left behind by those ‘atmospheric tests’, were still being born, without heads, limbs or eyes, dying a few hours after delivery. Nixon’s and Lafarge’s books share a preoccupation with ways of knowing things which are both wilfully and powerfully obscured and literally invisible. It is impossible, really, to perceive cause and structure as isolated phenomena in the world; at the same time, the consequences of an abusive relationship, of atmospheric pollution, of global heating, of poverty, of colonialism are all felt by those who suffer them, and, in that sense, known. It is the task of power to conceal its ways of working, and thus to conceal from those it abuses the reality of their abuse. Lafarge’s poems demonstrate the ability of poetry to trace phenomena of thought and emotion as they emerge. They suggest a poetics which finds its place, almost impossibly, in incipience, process and dissonance, and hence in the shadowy places, among the as yet nameless parts of reality.[6]

It occurs to me that I should finish this already lengthy review by saying how much I enjoyed Lafarge’s book, but ‘enjoy’ is not the word. It reads like a high-wire walk among vistas of ‘the normalised quiet of unseen power’, in between twin poles of detachment and immersion.[7] ‘[T]o be in your element is to die in it’ concludes the poem ‘Life Without Air’, embracing the push-pull of understanding: the necessity of getting close, of being among, and the terrible risk inherent in that necessity. Attending to this paradox, as it extends from human relationships, to environmental science, religion, feminism, philosophy and positions itself at the heart of the question of how to ‘survive/ and keep surviving’ is, perhaps, also a kind of ‘extremophilia’.

It is exhilarating, finally, to read Life Without Air and find yourself not just among one system of thought, but at the intersecting borders of a number of systems. From here, the world seems to shift and open up. The very first poem of the collection, positioned between an epigram and the more conventionally formatted ‘axiology’, is easy to miss. In it, the word ‘Meridian’ is repeatedly fragmented and rearranged: ‘I dream in/ I rid name/ I mend air’. The action of interrupting the wholeness of the word, damaging the surface of the concept of a meridian, an imaginary line used to divide the globe, seems key to Lafarge’s project. There is hope in the action of breaking and putting back together—‘I mend air’—an action which seems impossible until it is begun.

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Grace Linden is a poet and artist from London.

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Life Without Air by Daisy Lafarge is published by Granta, £10.99. It was short listed for the T.S. Eliot Prize for Poetry 2020.

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[1] Catechism of the Catholic Church. Available at: https://www.vatican.va/archive/ccc_css/archive/catechism/p2s2c1a3.htm (Accessed: 17th March 2021).

[2] Germaine Greer, The Female Eunuch (Fiftieth Anniversary Edition), (London: HarperCollins, 2020).

[3] Daisy Lafarge, ‘Interview’, Available at: https://granta.com/interview-lafarge/ (Accessed: 17th March 2021).

[4] Ibid.

[5] Rob Nixon, Slow Violence and the Environmentalism of the Poor (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2011), p. 7.

[6] Nixon also quotes from Rachel Carson’s A Silent Spring, where she describes the presence of environmental health problems as ‘a shadow that is no less ominous because it is formless and obscure’.

[7] Edward Said ‘The Public Role of Writers and Intellectuals ‘, in Helen Small (ed.) The Public Intellectual (London: Blackwell, 2002) pp. 19-39.