Daisy Lafarge’s Life Without Air was published this year by Granta Books. Shortlisted for the T.S. Eliot Prize for Poetry, the collection explores states of airlessness, from ghostly asphyxiations to the toxic environments of extractive capitalism, and ensuring consequences both psychic and ecological.
Granta spoke to the poet about the zoonotic diseases, ancient processes of inoculation and resisting totalising metaphors.
The title of the collection is ‘Life Without Air’ – a reference to the eighteenth-century scientist Louis Pasteur’s term for fermentation. It’s a strong image. What drew you to it? And why does it introduce your collection?
Air and airlessness were already emerging as themes when my editor Rachael and I were sorting through material to include in the book, but finding the phrase in Pasteur was serendipitous, as I was reading his work in relation to my PhD research on pathogens. The duality of the phrase immediately startled me; it seemed to be a riddle at the same time as a clear, scientific description.
From various accounts I’ve read Pasteur held some pretty unsavory views – he was a huge germaphobe and this seemed to go hand in hand with his hatred of ‘the masses’ and distrust of democracy. Apparently he put his family through an ordeal every dinnertime, at which he would sit and silently ‘search’ his food and wine glass for traces of dirt or contamination. His discovery of the interaction of bacteria and yeast in fermentation overturned the classical theory of Spontaneous Generation, which held that life spontaneously appeared out of dead or decaying matter – which explained, for example, the products of fermentation, or the appearance of maggots on rotting meat.
So I imagine that Pasteur in some sense would have been less than happy to discover ‘life without air’ – unquantifiable mobs of microscopic life that wallow at the bottom of a so-called ‘chain of being’. As I turned this phrase over I began to realise how much of the book it pulled together – an idea of life or liveliness persisting where it ‘shouldn’t’. For me this 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.
I also see the phrase as pulling macro and micro environments together across time – the earliest life on the planet was ‘life without air’, anaerobic bacteria that slowly died off when oxygen began to ‘pollute’ the atmosphere and create one that would be breathable for eventual animal life. I’ve read that what most closely resembles these early planetary conditions is the interior of the human body, which obviously coexists with a myriad of viruses and bacteria. I think this is what’s happening when the fictional narrator of ‘Fossil Dinner’ points to her open mouth and says ‘the natural world is in here’ to her cartographer husband (who definitely has a shade of the dinnertime-Pasteur).
Today we know Pasteur for his contributions to the principles of modern vaccination. In fact he created the first vaccines for rabies and anthrax. Given you wrote this collection pre-pandemic, is this just a coincidence? Where did that interest come from?
Kind of a coincidence – I started a PhD focussed around zoonotic diseases in 2016, the first few years of which involved a crash course in contemporary epidemiology, and which I supplemented with research into the history of medicine and disease more broadly. A lot of this was new to me, although it grew from an interest in ecology, the nonhuman, and relations between species in my previous studies. Life Without Air isn’t my PhD project but I think my research and experiences of the latter probably account for the references to contagion, quarantine and things generally ‘infecting’ each other throughout the book.
My research has also fanned an interest in pre-Enlightenment, and non-Western practices of medicine and healing, and how so many of these have been historically coopted, and then rebranded as Western scientific developments. Your mention of vaccination is an interesting case in point, because vaccination built on the much more ancient process of inoculation, practiced for centuries in India, Africa and China. It was introduced to the West in the early eighteenth century by an English aristocrat, Lady Mary Wortley Montagu, who lived for a while in Constantinople, and there witnessed the miraculous results of smallpox inoculation. When she tried to bring the practice to Britain it was widely deemed ‘barbaric’ and ‘un-Christian’. But despite these origins, it was Edward Jenner, Louis Pasteur and Robert Koch that went down in history as the ‘fathers’ of vaccination in the centuries that followed.
And looking at the collection mid-pandemic, do you find new connections in the work? ‘have you ever festered / in your own quarantine, afraid / that your toxins would spread’ – most people were not thinking about quarantines, diseases, infections and ‘chronic abjection’ in the years before 2020. Your collection is teeming with these things. Has your fascination with these things evolved?
For one thing the title has definitely taken on a whole new set of associations; Rachael and I settled on Life Without Air pre-Covid and back then our only concern was that it potentially sounded like an end-of-life memoir . . . Which I think ties in to a broader anxiety that attends the newfound connections you mention: the work having a kind of currency I hadn’t prepared for. That line you quote, from the sequence Dredging the Bataou Lake, was written in 2015, which makes it possibly the oldest poem in the book. But it’s probably the page I’ve seen shared most on social media, I suppose because it seems to encapsulate the affective mire of prolonged lockdown(s).
While I’m really glad that it resonates with people this way, I guess I feel uneasy about it being read as written about this quarantine, which is so particular, real, and unevenly distributed along lines of wealth and race. I haven’t really written any poems since the pandemic started, and while long periods of not writing poems are usual for me, it feels odd to publish what appears to be a pandemic-themed book, while not yet feeling able to write about lived experience of the pandemic at all!
The book presents a series of toxic environments (pollution, patriarchy), and the parallel dangers to climate and psyche. There’s also a sense of faith in the power of resilience that threads through the book. Would you describe the collection as hopeful?
Part of what appealed to me about Pasteur’s term is that it seemed to imply survival in spite of a perceived lack – which is obviously more to do with a human misconception of the conditions necessary for life. Many forms of life do thrive in airless conditions and ‘anoxic waters’, so I am interested in thinking about what perspectives are at play in our terminology. For me ‘life without air’ is a cipher for holding space for what lives beyond our comprehension at any given moment.
I really appreciate your phrasing – ‘the parallel dangers to climate and psyche’ – as this is so much what the book encapsulates for me. There’s a reductive line of thinking where any sense of emotion or psychology in writing about the nonhuman is immediately dismissed as ‘anthropocentric’. Anthropocentrism is undeniably the way we live in – and harm – the planet, but I can’t get behind the idea that pushing aside our humanity is somehow innately more attuned to the nonhuman. To me that only serves to reinforce the idea of a human/nonhuman divide and smacks of the myth of objectivity.
I really like how Wendy Wheeler, a biosemiotician who sadly passed away this year, defends the Romantic poets against accusations of dangerously ‘romanticising’ the nonhuman, by reminding us that they were actually the first wave of resistance to the Enlightenment’s mechanistic view of nonhumanity as a set of soulless resources. A romantic, experiential view of the nonhuman is obviously far from perfect and rife with anthropic projections. But it might also offer a partial way back to what was largely excised from Europe, but which still exists in other cultures: a sense of all forms of life being innately connected, mutually dependent and vulnerable, moved and gathered by a principle of cycles, rather than hierarchy or linear progress.
On an experiential level, I think of trauma sustained in relationships as being, in a very real sense, environmental experiences, which exist within a much broader and impersonal environmental crisis. I don’t want to make these things seem equivalent to each other, or claim that they have the same roots, but I suppose I see language as a place for exploring the experiential, in which resonances and slippages between categories and scales, or the personal and the impersonal, can occur.
I’m glad that a sense of belief in resilience and hope comes through the book! I wanted it to stay with difficulty without collapsing into hopelessness, which I don’t believe is a helpful political outlook in terms of climate crisis, capitalism, white supremacy, patriarchy, and other forms of oppressions we face. That said, I don’t see the book as a clear-cut manifesto. My relationship to writing (thus far, at least) is that it’s a place for moving through the murk of what I don’t understand or know how to articulate, rather than what I do.
At times you move into an archaic and ecological register, a botanical mode. The language feels as if it’s from another era. What does this register offer you? (You also seem wary of the past, e.g. the ballroom ‘doused in morally dubious nineteenth-century light’.)
I feel quite susceptible to different vernaculars and ways of doing language in general – moving around a lot as a child meant that I picked up a range of accents, which has now flattened into one that I can’t locate in any one place. I still catch myself slipping into other people’s vowel sounds and lilts, and I suppose the same thing happens in writing.
The different registers and modes usually come from what I am reading or thinking about at any given time, a kind of linguistic or syntactic texture that works its way into the writing. Writing poems has always been a side pursuit to what I am supposed to be doing academically, and so I think at times it has acted as a kind of slough or marginalia, a place for the unprocessed language and imagery that isn’t finished with me yet, or that I feel wants to ‘play’ in some way that it can’t in its original context.
And in relation to the last question I find poetry a way of experimenting with a sensibility in language – how do we think/speak/write of the nonhuman, without losing sight of how inescapably human we are? I love how different registers open up different ways of looking at the familiar. For example, the live culture of some fermenting processes is often referred to as ‘the mother’, which may etymologically come from the Middle Dutch for ‘dregs’. This opens up a different kind of familial scene, a way of thinking through those relations as metabolic – what can and cannot be digested by certain members, what is the necessary ‘waste’ produced by being in relation.
That said, I’m wary of too-neat or totalising metaphors which then end up drawing attention to themselves as conceits – instead I’m attracted to that murky state between, where you’re not quite sure if something is literal or figurative, and the polarity of those two things is itself called into question. I’m a fan of how Mary Ruefle describes metaphor as ‘the philosophy that everything in the world is connected.’
Read ‘Fossil Dinner’ by Daisy Lafarge, from the collection Life Without Air published by Granta Books.
Image © Sophie Davidson