Everything I know about the human genome I learned in my high school biology class and from the weirdly Big Brother data gathering DNA kit commercials that are currently being foisted on us these days. That is, I know next to nothing- or if not nothing, nothing accurate. So I was happy to take use the excuse of reviewing Alexandra Teague’s poem Genome (from Mortal Geography, 2010, Persea Press) to explore the poem and read up some on the topic.
I was lucky enough to see Teague read at the Port Townsend Writer’s Conference last summer, and somehow the poems in Mortal Geography seemed even more vibrant read surrounded by the Salish Sea, on my bunk in my little dorm room, wrapped in a sweater in what seemed to be unusually cold for mid-summer. Mortal Geography is packed with science references (with Geography is in itself a type of science of course), but I was particularly interested in Genome. Is this what/who we are, all in the end? Chemicals represented by symbols, which in the quote from NYT (2001) that serves as the epigraph for the poem, “if unraveled would fill 75, 490 pages of this newspaper.”
Genome is a poem that recounts a dreamy cross-country trip, moving from one home to another, in those days before the news was on your phone’s feed and you could exist somewhere without the headlines. Instead, the “news” consists of the changing flora growing on the roadside: “Live oak, lantana, and one noon, /hexagons of earth lifting from itself, accidentals/ of clovers.” Almost in the form of a travel essay, the couplets and repeated enjambments has the sway of the moving truck and slows the reader down in a way that allows for beautiful imagery of the ordinary to bleed through: “Below our moving van’s fiberglass roof, the bed slats/and cardboard boxes bore the bright, archived glow/ of museum pieces.”
Described as the “genetic blueprint for a human being” , in February of 2001, the International Human Genome Consortium published in the journal Nature news of their mapping of approximately 94% of the human genome. Even then, the scientists were revealing unsettling news about ourselves and the possible and terrible uses for the genome mapping. Teague reveals this to us by reporting the news after the travelers surface from their cross-country trip: “At the KOA’s playground, no one told us/ we were closer to fruit flies and mustard plants than ever. /The human genome had unraveled into 30,000, and soon/ the first rhesus monkey would be be born with a jellyfish gene./He would not glow green as expected. We read all this later./ The genome project also revealed we have fewer genes than we thought, and less than a rice. Yes. Less.
The poem references other unraveling- of the endless roads across Texas desert, Kerouac’s typewriter paper.
Of course, the poet in the poem would also not be aware of or anticipated the 9/11 twin tower attacks, an event that would happen months later, that have led us (backwards) to these days of genetic and national purity; in its way its own unraveling.