The Genome Rhapsodies by Anna George Meek
Review by Kelsey Satalino
Relatives coo over an infant, his future formed by both his drug-addicted parents’ DNA and the words of family members who have already decided who he will be. Father Gregor Mendel, meditating on the death of his father, shucks peas and gleans theories of genetic inheritance. A bride wearing her grandmother’s wedding dress considers the distant women whose heirlooms she has inherited.
These diverse snippets of life and death, of memory and heredity, are just a few of the powerful narratives that comprise Anna George Meek’s latest collection of poetry, The Genome Rhapsodies (2015, Ashland Poetry Press). Meek’s book begins with an epigraph from Gregor Mendel: “What is inherited, and how?” This theme of inheritance—both genetic and material—pervades the poetry in this book, which is ardent, surprising, and deeply refreshing. As the title of her collection suggests, Meek frequently weaves science into her poetry, but it never feels like an afterthought. After reading this book, I was left questioning my assumption that science and poetry were separate fields; the way Meek tells it, science seems like a natural extension of poetry, just as there is a poetic beauty to our genetic makeup.
Meek is a poet who clearly values the power of words to shape our lives, our memories and our bodies, and the complexities of how we write and are written by our own histories. In “The Genome Rhapsodies III: Morphology,” Meek plays on the double meaning of “morphology”—in biology and in linguistics—as she describes an infant:
…I know language
conjures this figure; as I write them here, the letters
in his battered genes will one day try to make him speak
These words carry both possibility and inevitability; the dreams the boy’s relatives express and the expression of his DNA are both heirlooms of those who came before him. You don’t need to be science-minded to appreciate this book—though those who are will appreciate Meek’s clever biological metaphors and references to the history of science. If you have ever lost someone you love, felt disconnected from your body or your past, relished the weight of a well-chosen word on your tongue, or marveled at the resilience and fragility of life, this book will speak to you.
The Genome Rhapsodies opens on a mythical note with “The Genome Rhapsodies I: DNA,” depicting the recombination of DNA as a genetic dance writing bodies, “myths / lit deep in their human skin.” Adenine and Guanine and Cytosine and Thymine all step in time together to create the rhythm of the bodies and the stories we will inherit, like “scrolls / unrolling from within us.” Meek constantly creates surprising juxtapositions likes this, recombining supposedly discrete subjects—like genetic, mythical, and musical compositions—that, upon reading, seem obviously related. Our bodies allow us to inhabit the pasts of our parents and grandparents, inheriting their appearances and their collective histories through the cyclical dance of genetic recombination. And when, in a later poem, Meek observes that “Under the electron microscope, / chromosomes almost seem like / dancers lashed at the middle,” it’s hard to unsee that image of genetic material as performance art (“Why Objects Appear to Be Outside Our Bodies”).
But Meek’s amalgamation of disparate ideas extends beyond the content of her poems to their innovative forms. Just under a third of the poems in this collection are bricolage—verse consisting only of words and phrases Meek has culled from other sources. She collects words from her dream journals, instruction manuals, Wikipedia entries—to name a few—and expertly recombines them. In doing so, Meek blurs the boundaries between borrowed words and original artistic work, as well as the boundaries between genres, between fiction and fact, collaboration and individual effort. In “Organism, Chorus,” for example, Meek uses excerpts from “interviews with choral conductor Robert Shaw” alongside snippets from “The New World Encyclopedia entry on organism” to create a poem that boasts its own permeability: “The boundaries of an organism are nearly always disputable.” Similar to genetic inheritance, it is unclear where one’s predecessor’s words stop and where one’s own words begin. One poem in this collection is entirely composed of lines from Meek’s father’s poetry, aptly titled “The Voice That Is Mine and Not Mine,” and Meek further demonstrates the disputable boundaries of language by intentionally leaving out words and crafting poems as bullet-point lists and annotated bibliographies.
Meek fully embraces the conflicted and often contradictory feelings we have toward our bodies, the truth that our skin can be both an heirloom and a burden. The human body can simultaneously act as a sanctuary and a warzone: “We find our body / sweet, and ominous” (“Songs in a Time of Distant War: Res Publica”). This book explores the myriad ways we can feel alienated from our bodies, even as they are an essential part of who we are. In “A Map of the Breast, with Lump,” for instance, a woman describes her breast tissue as a foreign landscape, “exotic territory / for some stranger to chart, possibly / hostile territory…” The metaphor of body as landscape extends throughout the poem, portraying our bodies as territories we have spent our lives exploring—and, which, still, we cannot fully trust or comprehend. Yet while our bodies are ominous, they are also sweet, and Meek displays a religious kind of reverence for them, speaking to their power. Her poems about the body are filled with references to the mundane and the sacred: safety pins, scaffolding, and toothbrushes feature as prominently as the Dead Sea Scrolls, illuminated manuscripts, and Odysseus. The paradox of the “sweet, and ominous” body is exemplified in the narrator’s statement in “Coil”: “I love you, body of straw on fire.”
The Genome Rhapsodies is a powerful book that will leave readers more aware of their words and their bodies—and the inextricable nature of the two. As Meek’s fictionalized Gregor Mendel observes, “There have always been words, unseen words, uttered / in every creature’s marrow” (“The Genome Rhapsodies V: Father Gregor Mendel Reflects on Authorial Intent”). Our words are an “heirloom” that we live in and pass on to our children, for better or for worse:
is a dangerous story. The body
is finding a library
of letters that the Dead have left behind
This image from “The Genome Rhapsodies VI: Self-Possession” is striking—declaring that our inheritance, the embodied myths of our ancestors, has real consequences. In the above poem, the narrator observes the power that words have to shape and divide us: “On the hermaphrodite, the brown-haired marks / of a man appear in her skin. Pronouns / divide her. Verbs multiply her.” Especially now, it is essential to notice how our words betray our beliefs, our values, our fears—how words can divide, separating “us” from “them,” and how they can unite and surprise and awe. The Genome Rhapsodies acts as a reminder: of what makes us human, of how our past seeps into our present, and of the power of words to act on our bodies and follow us into future generations. Our words and our bodies signify, and the “garment” we weave with our words is important. “The design is undetermined,” complex, and full of pain, but, Meek reminds us, there is hope yet that we “may render it valuable.”
Kelsey Satalino recently earned her M.A. in Literature from Florida State University in Tallahassee, FL, where she is the Assistant Online Editor for The Southeast Review. Her research interests include the intersections between 19th-century literature and science. Kelsey’s own writing has been published in The Sigma Tau Delta Review.