I was initially drawn to Charlotte Pence’s Code by its title. I was not sure what type of code she was referring to, but I was intrigued. When I read the description of the book on her website, I was interested in its description: “At its center, Code features a narrative sequence with three characters: a new father, a mother dying young from an inherited disease, and that mother’s own DNA…Ultimately, Code is a book about grief—specifically, how to accept it.”
While I had read plenty of poetry about grief, this would be my first time reading poetry that centered on a scientific concept, specifically that of genetic code. As a person who spent most of my life torn between STEM and the humanities, I was excited to see how Pence would entangle the two.
I found myself enamored by her style and her use of metaphor as I delved into this intricate tale about grief, illness, art, and interpersonal relationships. Throughout the text, Pence uses compelling imagery imbued with metaphor to illustrate the complexities of living and loving in the face of illness, creating an emotional yet hopeful look at the way that our DNA affects our lives.
Code is told in five parts, two of which are highly narrative. Part III tells the story of A and T, a pair who fall in love and have a child together called U. After A gives birth to U, she is diagnosed with a genetic disorder. The rest of the section is dedicated to how A and T navigate their relationship with one another and their child as A’s health rapidly deteriorates. Cleverly using A and T to represent adenine and thymine, a nucleotide pair that is part of the DNA sequence, this section of the text most heavily deals with the theme of genetics. Pence’s skill with stylized narration shows through in the poems from A’s perspective, which become increasingly freeform and more incoherent as A grows more ill. Witnessing A’s decline through these stylized poems is extremely compelling, and it is quite well-executed. T also narrates several poems, which highlights the way that he and his child are processing his wife’s illness. This section provides an interesting look at how illness affects a family while smartly exploring issues surrounding genetic illness including the genetic modifying technology known as CRISPR.
The other largely narrative section of the work is Part V, which tells the story of a husband and wife exploring intimacy and grief after the birth of their child. This narrative is very interesting when read against A and T’s story, because, while the mother in this story does not have a disease, she also has a deeply complicated relationship with her child and her husband. I particularly enjoyed “How to Measure Distance,” which highlights the fear involved in mothering. Read together, the stories of A and the unnamed mother create a compelling look inside the grief and sacrifice inherent to motherhood.
There are a few interesting aspects of this work that make it a bit atypical for a poetry manuscript. First, Pence includes two essays in the text, the first about her friend and fellow poet Shira Shaiman, whose work she includes in the text, and the second about a trip to view cave paintings which reflects on the relationship between art, grief, and history. These essays provide an interesting change in pace for the text, yet they still read with the same poetic artistry as the rest of Pence’s work. These essays are a welcome addition to the text as they provide context for the other pieces in the work while remaining artfully executed in their own right. Additionally, Pence intertwines quotes from various texts about genetics and history such as the work of Richard Dawkins and Siddhartha Mukherjee which provide further insight into the role of genetics in human life and history.
Finally, I want to highlight Pence’s decision to include poems by the aforementioned Shira Shaiman in the work. Shaiman’s work again emphasizes the theme of motherhood as she reflects on her mother’s cancer and how losing her mother impacted her. The inclusion of Shaiman’s work adds another layer of meaning onto the narratives of illness, motherhood, and grief that sits at the center of the text. While I am not a mother myself, I have always been fascinated by literary explorations of the complex emotions involved in motherhood. The interplay of narratives in this text, including that provided by Shaiman’s work, provides a unique perspective on motherhood that stood out to me as I read.
Charlotte Pence’s Code cleverly intertwines narrative poetry, essays, extracts from other texts, and the work of her dear friend to tell a compelling story about the way we process illness and grief through art and our relationships with one another. In a time wrecked by illness and grief, this book is a touching and hopeful look at the ways we can work to heal our bodies and minds through love and relationships.
Sydney Peay is a senior studying sociology and English literature at the University of Tennessee. In addition to interning at Sundress Publications, they serve as the social media coordinator for the Voices Out Loud Project, an LGBTQ+ archive of East Tennessee. They are also a student library assistant at Hodges Library, and they hope to pursue a master’s of library science after they graduate.
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