A New Music

Sarah Howe is a British poet, academic and editor. Her first book, Loop of Jade (Chatto & Windus, 2015), won the T.S. Eliot Prize and The Sunday Times / PFD Young Writer of the Year Award, and was shortlisted for the Forward Prize for Best First Collection. ‘A New Music’ was commissioned for the ‘Deconstructing Patterns’ exhibition/project.

A New Music

Each generation needs a new music.

—Francis Crick

A Alphabet of us, cipher deciding the exact moment T

G genes flip on and where. An ovum’s moon divides in sync— C

G gaining distinctness, a spine’s pale curl, the body’s fabric C

G grows symmetrical. At first the code will seem chaotic: C

G gleaning sense means tuning our ears to another music C

A archived deep in our being, filtering out the ancient rust T

A and scrap abandoned across its expanse. Imagine the first T

C cell nudging its notes to form carbon’s accidental song— G

A alchemical soup in some blackened, deep-sea vent T

A angling towards life; a ladder of atoms beginning to twist… T

A Ancestral patterns persist, seams laid down in a deep past T

A all species share. Time and chance brought Babel’s drift T

A acting along the genome’s twining reach—its script T

G glitchy from the start, given to stuttering error. Antic C

A alternatives born of these flipped letters, variant T

T traits proliferate down eons, an improvised cadenza A

A at evolution’s frontier: without it we’d be extinct. T

T Think of a biological Bletchley, churning Enigma A

T through its whirring servers; chinks of a digital vista A

T that only computers can reveal in the blur of data. A

A Archaeologists of cancer are searching for the point T

A a mangled chromosome went wrong. As a palimpsest T

C collects its overwritten glyphs, so tumours will log G

A a layered history, betraying when a skin cell first T

C corrupted in the sun and forgot all limits: its song G

G gone haywire, transforming order into genetic C

C chaos. Still more laboratories are now exploring G

T the vast hinterlands between our genes—their formula A

A as yet a mystery, like outlines glimpsed through mist. T

G Glossary lost, their unknown language conceals a logic C

A as elusive as the proverbial haystack hunt, except T

T the needle’s also made of hay. Picture a Rosetta A

T that lacks a primer, a key hermetic as Cabbala. A

A Analogies help us wrestle with the scale of it— T

G going on for three billion letters long, this epic C

C could fill up twenty phone directories; or be strung G

A along a thread the length of the London tube net T

T that would somehow pack into a rucksack’s stanza. A

T These prospectors sift the living stream of DNA A

A and stare at that Matrix waterfall of code, each digit T

G green-haloed on the obsidian screen, till flat statistic C

A at last resolves into a glowing picture, their eyes reset. T

A As if seeing faces in the moon, secrets in a Rorschach blot T

T trick patterns abound. Descendants of Mendel and his pea A

G generations, today’s geneticists still heed his basic C

C call to count. They suspect the answer rests in how folding G

G gives the genome depth: its three dimensions kinetic C

A and changing—a static page no more—the nucleus a knot T

T teeming with rollercoaster loops. Nature and all its phyla A

C compassed in that speck, the chorus of every living thing. G


Note on the form

I asked Group Leader Greg Elgar to supply me with a resonant section of the human genome that could act as my poem’s structuring spine. I was interested in the Conserved Non-Coding Elements, or CNEs, Greg had described during our interviews as something in his biological work he found ‘beautiful’. These short sequences of DNA lie in between genes and have been so maintained by natural selection that they are almost identical between pufferfish, mice, humans, or any other backboned creature. Greg wrote of his selection, ‘I’ve chosen this section of a key conserved DNA element because we know that it is important in patterning many neural tissues such as brain, spinal cord and sensory organs, and it’s also 95% conserved across all vertebrates.’ A snippet from this sequence of nucleotides gives my poem its form: each line begins with a letter representing one of the DNA bases (adenine, thymine, cytosine, guanine) and ends with the corresponding letter on the helix’s opposite strand (A always pairs with T, C with G). The result is a weave of repeating sounds and rhymes the listener’s ear will pick up, perhaps half-consciously, in the pod. The nature of the pattern—the poem’s molecular backbone—will only be revealed when the visitor walks over to the display cases and sees the printed text.



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