Life Without Air: Daisy Lafarge

Anna Souter explores Daisy Lafarge's 'deeply ecological', debut poetry collection. She finds a voice that questions how we live among one another and draws out the environmental, bodily, and psychological impacts of technology.

When Louis Pasteur first witnessed the process of fermentation, he observed that some microorganisms were capable of anaerobic respiration. He called this unexpected phenomenon ‘life without air’. Daisy Lafarge’s debut poetry collection takes such states of airlessness as a running theme: tracing a breathless line between microscopic processes, oxygen starved lakes and suffocating relationships.

These deeply ecological poems explore how life persists even in apparently inhospitable circumstances. The subject is an ironic one, since the whole collection is suffused with an awareness that human actions are making the planet an increasingly inhospitable place to live. Lafarge thus explores some of the most pressing questions of our times: how can we find ways to cohabit even while we make the world less habitable? What conditions might be necessary for our survival?

The subject is an ironic one, since the whole collection is suffused with an awareness that human actions are making the planet an increasingly inhospitable place to live

Many of the poems incorporate references to sickness and pathology, exploring the analogy, and indeed literal relationship, between personal and planetary health. ‘Dredging the Baotou Lake’, for example, uses a series of eight brief images to unfold a world of interconnections between environmental destruction, technology, and bodily wellbeing. A note explains the real-world context of Baotou, a manmade lake in Inner Mongolia, made poisonous by the waste products of rare-earth mineral mining. These minerals are used in the production of smartphones as well as ‘green’ technologies such as solar panels.

Lafarge uses this ‘sick lake’ as both literary motif and ecological reality, to explore the idea that when we damage the Earth, we also write that damage into human bodies and psychologies. Those who dredge the lake are ‘sometimes / lightly drowning’ – a wonderfully paradoxical turn of phrase that perhaps evokes how we experience the climate crisis as a simultaneously overwhelming and distant phenomenon.

In the same poem, everyday technologies are fused with the people who make and use them: ‘the screen of your phone / turned green from the night / you cried into its face / […] and which were the hands of the woman / who built it?’ Lafarge draws out the environmental, bodily, and psychological impacts of technology; from toxic lakes to toxic relationships, lost landscapes to lost lovers (one poem, recognisably both current and timeless, is titled ‘Ghosted’).

Lafarge draws out the environmental, bodily, and psychological impacts of technology

References to sickness bring Life Without Air into a specific and unintentional relevance in the pandemic era. ‘Have you ever festered / in your own quarantine, afraid / that your toxins would spread’. Through an accident of ecology, the imagined temporalities of the poems and our current reality intersect, creating uncanny spaces between the fiction of the page and our substantive experience. ‘What creed or council’, Lafarge writes, ‘could find it in themselves / to admit the air as parasite?’

Lafarge’s poems remind us that our shared experiences of contagion, quarantine, and confinement, are not unique to the present moment, but indicative of a wider truth: microbes constantly pass backwards and forwards across the boundaries of species and individuals. Bodies are really assemblages; things are always ‘infecting’ each other.

These are complex biological truths, too often simplified into a romantic reverence for nature as an ethical force. Lafarge draws attention to this in her essayistic poem ‘p value’: ‘I had to keep reminding myself that parasitism was a type of symbiotic relationship, not its opposite. That “symbiosis” wasn’t a synonym for ecological harmony. I wondered if the people who kept using the s-word in exhibition blurbs and event descriptions knew what kinds of relationships they were endorsing’. Lafarge thus speaks knowingly to the eco-zeitgeist currently seeping through academia and the arts; prompting readers to challenge both the translation of ecological concepts into buzzwords and the co-opting of neutral nonhuman actions into anthropocentric questions of morality.

Lafarge speaks knowingly to the eco-zeitgeist currently seeping through academia and the arts

This parasitical perspective on symbiosis, or ‘living together’, is also applied to human relations. A feminist sensibility comes through in Lafarge’s depiction of toxic domestic settings in which women are silenced and exploited for their bodies or their money. For example, the poem ‘A Question for Zeno’ presents the experiences of a woman who ‘recently left a coercive relationship’ and who is using her academic stipend to support her ex-boyfriend: ‘unless this man who claimed to love me / (and yet has never had a job) sees some sense - / I won’t make next month’s rent.’

The most powerful poem in Life Without Air is perhaps ‘Fossil Dinner,’ which begins: ‘Enter my husband, most lauded cartographer of our day.’ Set at a dinner party among a group of famous academics, around a table laid with a cloth embroidered like a map, the text slips between metaphorical analogies and surreal physical realities. ‘My breath comes out in clouds over the territory […] / The clouds segue on the far sides of the table and begin to rain formic acid over the crudités. / No one speaks as an atmosphere pulls itself together.’

The crux of the narrative comes when the abused and confused wife (the poem’s ‘I’) attempts to bridge the gap between human bodily experience and academic otherings of nature: ‘At a loss I open my mouth and point at it, meaning the natural world is in here - ’. At this point, the cartographers and palaeontologists physically force her under the table, and she is silenced.

Life Without Air charts the intimate interconnections between the human and ecological; two registers so intimately intertwined it is impossible to unpick them in Lafarge’s experimental lyrical voice. Although occasionally opaque, in general these poems wear their erudition lightly: balancing a pared-back but rich vocabulary on a solid base of knowledge and research. The subtle achievement of this collection is to push back against patriarchal Enlightenment values that see nonhuman existences in terms of capital and resource, without negating the opportunities offered by science for understanding life in new ways. Life Without Air prompts us to question our forms of cohabitation – and to wonder how we can get better at living together.