Surviving a metaphorical suffocation: Daisy Lafarge’s Life Without Air

Alba de Juan explores the intersection of climate anxiety, social breakdown, and the lyrical verse through Daisy Lafarge’s poetry collection Life Without Air (2020)

Metaphorical suffocation: anxiety in poetry

such a boom and bust modality

raises the question of who

is mother to whom, if your method

of resisting an environment

becomes in turn the order that generates its form.” (Lafarge, 2020, 32)

These verses, from Daisy Lafarge’s latest poetry collection Life Without Air, encapsulate the unanswered question of climate change: what does the strength of individual action look like in the face of such large threats? Framed as a constant fluctuation between interpersonal relationships and our relationship with the environment, Lafarge embodies climate-induced anxiety through the symbolic imagery and compositional properties of air.  Published by Granta Poetry in 2020, the collection shows the intimate connection between human and non-human suffering. Through the lyric voice of humans, nature, and cities, Lafarge creates a bodiless narrator that blurs species-boundaries, highlighting a shared vulnerability to environmental destruction.

Lafarge’s collection is inspired by French microbiologist Louis Pasteur’s observation that, while most organisms could not survive without oxygen “some [microorganisms] were able to thrive as ‘life without air”. Pasteur’s theory of decomposition, based on these microorganisms, is transformed into a complex allegory that asks the reader the question: is it worth living under such difficult conditions? Lafarge ponders the elements that are necessary for survival in a society that constantly “suffocates us” both under the loss of human connections and the looming fear of the consequences of climate change. The use of asphyxiation to create an allegory of the emotional weight of these concerns perfectly captures the rising numbers of chronic anxiety in the last few years (Hickman et al., 2021).

A tornado is blowing from right to left on the picture. A tree is pulled up from the ground. The church to the right loses its spire and the house nearby loses its roof.

Published in 1555
A medieval storm, published 1955.

Climate Anxiety: Drowning even before the wave reaches us

Lafarge’s idea of a lack of air, and how this relates to anxiety, is pertinent. If there is one thing that becomes a key diagnostic criterion when anxiety is treated, it is episodes of suffocation. In her poems, Lafarge encapsulates the anxious sense of breathlessness and body-mind disconnection, while navigating the almost brand-new psychological manifestations of climate anxiety. Strongly allegoric, decidedly visual, and filled with complex imagery, Lafarge perfectly reflects the consequences of a new psychological affliction: climate trauma.

We are all well acquainted with trauma and anxiety but, what happens when traumatic feelings are triggered by events that have not yet happened? Psychiatrist Lisa Van Susteren termed such anticipatory climate anxiety as ‘Pre-Traumatic Stress Disorder’, suggesting that is grounded in a sense of present and future helplessness caused by climate change (both ongoing and yet to come).

Scholars like Van Susteren and Stef Craps (among others) have recently been advocating for the inclusion of climate trauma in the DSM-5, since it has taken a significant toll worldwide in the last few years (Craps, 278). The cognitive dissonance between our daily lives and the looming, massive-scale consequences of climate change have caused chronic feelings of aggression, cognitive difficulties, and PTSD-associated symptomatology (nightmares, depersonalisation, hyper vigilance etc.) about events that have not yet happened (Craps, 277).

we have learned to distrust 

both the shell

and its essence 

this 

is why we dredge 

the Baotou Lake

sometimes lightly drowning

sometimes

we surface, clutching

parts we hope

will prove uncuttable.” (Lafarge, 26). 

This extract, belonging to ‘Dredging the Baotou Lake’- the third part of the Life Without Air collection- illustrates the intermittent feelings of suffocation caused by climate-change anxiety. The poem criticises the Anthropocene (our current geological age that places humans at the centre of environmental hierarchies) and the lack of human connection caused by current technology. The choice of Baotou Lake is poignant. As Lafarge mentions in the introductory paragraph, Baotou Lake (Baotou, Mongolia) has been poisoned by “toxic by-products of rare-earth mineral mining […] which are needed for smartphones and flat screen televisions, as well as green technologies such as wind turbines and solar panels” (Lafarge, 18).

‘Dredging the Baotou Lake’ exemplifies the paralysing sensation caused by chronic anxiety. Trapped in a society that forces new forms of communication (mostly online), reinforced by a capitalist drive towards excessive consumption of technical devices, the lyric voice feels suffocated. The verse

“sometimes/ you have to be your own knife/ […] the will to destruct, the unswervable/ collision of self has its own imperative/ no one accuses the atoms/ of nihilism as they speed” (Lafarge, 19).

shows the inherent lack of self-preservation possessed by humans as they willingly destroy the environment. The lake becomes a clear embodiment and visual presence of the long-term consequences of capitalist consumerism. The fumes that the toxic lake emanates collapse the poet’s ability to breathe and restricts them from leaving the cycle of pollution and human isolation, the same way anxiety reflects paralysing sensations. There have been several studies, including Ágoston et al, who examine the anxiety-related condition of eco-paralysis.  This is when an individual feels incapable of responding to climate-change events due to experiencing emotional shock or being presented with many (sometimes conflicting) options for action (Ágoston, 2). The experience of eco-paralysis is similar to the avoidant sensations caused by general anxiety disorders (Hoffman and Hay, 1).

The fear of the destructive capacity of humans and a lack of interpersonal connection is present in other poems in Lafarge’s collection. Paralysing anxiety is transposed into the context of interpersonal relationships: 

“My love for you will last until the sick lake

evaporates

is a thing there’ll be no body

to speak to. Else falling,

lay down in a polytonal

so the sky can make its own shallow sense.” (Lafarge, 27).

Here, the romantic love that the lyrical voice presents is compared to the endurance of the toxic Baotou lake. When the lyric voice asserts that “there’ll be no body / to speak to”, the isolation of the inhabitable area due to the toxic waste is comparable to the loneliness the speaker will feel when the (toxic) relationship ends.

Can love and the earth survive without air?

“Permaculture” (referring to agricultural systems that are meant to be self-sufficient and sustainable) connects the difficulties of the romantic relationship to the destruction of the environment, as the lyric voice appears dependant and unhealthily attached to their partner. The relationship (previously compared to the toxic lake) becomes as suffocating and paralysing as climate change. The chronic anxiety caused by the enormity of climate change and the impossibility of acting towards its alleviation is projected into the relationship.

 “and if the ground falls away, it is still always air

pent between the lines, a chain- throat

contaminant of life, its fingers pollinate,

cleave down the gullet and throng […]

you wake with a breath,

already hooked, the trees haul you on as passive enablers” (Lafarge, 37).

Here, a poem titled “Infrastructure air” again reflects the feeling of disturbance caused by generalised anxiety, which DSM-5 describes as rooted in the “anticipation of future threat” (Ciccarelli and White, 2014). The omnipresent sense of something potentially going wrong (“and if the ground falls away, it is still always air /pent between the lines”) is reinforced by the inherently ungraspable quality of air: how can the individual not feel suffocated when forced to exist in a society that doesn’t offer room for slow-paced relationships? How can they not feel trapped with a government that completely disregards climate change?

The breath of the poet appears hooked and trapped in their throat: more than the oxygen that would allow them to ‘breathe’, its own pollution keeps on poisoning humanity, becoming a strong symbol of systemic ‘suffocations’ towards humans and nature caused by capitalist systems.

The collection ends with a poem that presents the image of a female figure that has been forced to adapt to the new conditions of her existence:

On that same day we first observed a deposit/ Between the mercury and the sides of the tube/ Kept a summer heat, she speedily swarmed with organisms” (Lafarge, 84).

Lafarge creates a new beyond-the-human figure that has managed to survive —but not thrive— under destructive conditions. The creature is described as having “showed every sign of intense asphyxia”, of “having lived without air/ […] she could not be suddenly exposed” and they “were forced to regard her as a distinct species” (Lafarge, 85). 

New human and non-human relationships: breaking the Anthropocene

Lafarge beautifully presents a de-anthropocentric vision of a future “human” that breaks the aforementioned way in which humans hierarchise species and manages to survive under conditions of paralysing, chronic anxiety caused by climate change and isolation. Nonetheless, digging deeper into what this potentially means, it is perhaps more pessimistic than hopeful. The last verses of the poem and the collection present the term “resilience” as bittersweet:

“She possesses unusual powers of resistance

She may be brought to a state of dry dust, and be wafted about by

winds.” (Lafarge, 85).

The resistance and survival of the “new species” is closely bound to the loss of what makes us human. The use of the word “winds” to close the verse reflect how feeble and minute human existence becomes when compared to the enormity of climate change and societal isolation. The “dry dust” that is forced upon humans in a society that exploits them emotionally and physically by destroying their natural environment. This metaphorically reflects the aftermath of anxiety episodes, in which the individual feels physically drained and helpless in face of the enormity of the looming danger.

Lafarge’s collection becomes a de-anthropocentric call for action. By equating the destruction of the environment to the individual and social relationships, she transforms them into companions fighting the consumerist policies that destroy both nature and the creatures that inhabit it — from microorganisms to plants, animals, and humans. Her collection connects living creatures together as co-existing and co-dependent entities trying to survive the rapid and not always positive rhythm of modern times.

In making the connection between human and environmental health,  Lafarge’s poems reflect one global concern with a possible shared treatment: a change in environmental policies that centre a  more compassionate, ethical, and caring relationship across species and nature.

About the author

Alba de Juan is a third year pre-doctoral fellow at the University of Oviedo within the HEAL research group. She is currently working on how transgenerational trauma is depicted in contemporary Irish poetry written by women. Her fields of interest are contemporary poetry, psychology, and medical and environmental humanities. She is on Twitter @redbreezes

References

Ágoston, C., Csaba B., Nagy B., Kőváry Z., Dúll A., Rácz, J., and Demetrovics, Z. 2022. “Identifying Types of Eco-Anxiety, Eco-Guilt, Eco-Grief, and Eco-Coping in a Climate-Sensitive Population: A Qualitative Study.” International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health 19.4, 2461.

Ciccarelli, S. K., and J. N White. 2014. “Anxiety Disorders ” in Psychology: DSM 5, 189–234. Boston: Pearson, 2014.

Coyle, K. J. And Van Susteren, L. 2012. The Psychological Effects of Global Warming on the United States: And Why the US Mental Health  Care System Is not Adequately Prepared. National Wildlife Federation

Craps, St. 2023. “Climate Trauma” in The Routledge Companion to Literature and Trauma, edited by Davis C. and Meretoja H., 275–84. London: Routledge, Taylor & Francis Group.

Hickman, C., Marks E., Pihkala P., Clayton S., Lewandowski R.E, Mayall E., Wray B., Mellor C., and van Susteren,L. 2021. “Climate Anxiety in Children and Young People and Their Beliefs about Government Responses to Climate Change: A Global Survey.” The Lancet Planetary Health 5. 12.

Hofmann, S. G., and A. C. Hay. 2018. “Rethinking Avoidance: Toward a Balanced Approach to Avoidance in Treating Anxiety Disorders.” Journal of Anxiety Disorders 55, 14–21.

Lafarge, Daisy. 2020. Life Without Air. Granta Poetry.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.