Life without Air by Daisy Lafarge review – ecological poetry

A fierce and clear-eyed debut that finds a fresh way to explore humankind’s role in environmental chaos

The novelist and poet Daisy Lafarge’s TS Eliot prize shortlisted debut collection offers a fresh kind of ecological poetry, one that merges a lyric voice and an experimental sensibility to meet the complicated reality of our contemporary moment. Life Without Air makes a multitude of connections between human beings and the world of the non-human. However, unlike with some more traditional nature poetry, Lafarge does not use the environment as just a backdrop, or fodder for metaphor. Rather, this is a work of true interrelation, albeit one that never falls into easy or holistic union. Her long poem “Dredging the Baotou Lake” considers a lake in Inner Mongolia, poisoned by the mineral mining that feeds our technologies. For Lafarge, this site opens up the unsettling and toxic links between human affect, capitalist oppression and environmental chaos:

… lest we forget
the screen of your phone

turned green from the night
you cried into its face, as though

the very pixels could impute
a body’s affects …

and which were the hands of the woman

who built it? the ghost-handed
mother who says there and there

Throughout the non-human is bounced off and responded to, its reality used to widen and expand the speaker’s capacity for understanding experiences and feelings; at the same time as bringing into view the queasy exploitation of vulnerable human beings, and non-human spaces, that enables and creates our everyday reality. Not that this is a sentimental valorisation of the environment – there is no sense of the non-human as an innocent space where we can let go of our worldly troubles. In “aggregate air” we find:

… city skins
grown thick with corporate
heraldry, scabbing the air
tight to wound …
whole flyovers
cracked with growing pains.

As well as emotional and political explorations, Lafarge carefully parses questions of misogyny, considering the ways in which women’s voices continue to be muted. “A Question for Zeno” examines the horrifying paradoxes of financial abuse and coercive control; a link is subtly drawn between the suppression of the non-human world and the muzzling of female being, without ever suggesting these two realities are identical. This link is particularly potent in “Fossil Dinner” where the wife of a cartographer is as controlled and silent as the landscapes her husband fixes to his maps:

I become aware of breathing heavily; my breath comes out in clouds over the territory and each one leaves a contrail, stinking softly of feathers … At a loss I open my mouth and point at it, meaning, the natural world is in here –

Lafarge’s is a fierce, clear-eyed poetry that expresses the sticky relationality between human pain and non-human destruction; the unsettling intimacy of our shared afflictions.

• Rebecca Tamás’s Witch is published by Penned in the Margins. Life without Air by Daisy Lafarge is published by Granta (£10.99). To order a copy go to guardianbookshop.com. Delivery charges may apply.

Rebecca Tamás

The GuardianTramp

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