Charting by simple feel I measure myself according to sundials constructed from portions of vapour.
—Will Alexander, Across the Vapour Gulf
Come, gentle gas
—Fleur Adcock, “Gas”
These nights we can smell the deer. A parcel of does is hanging around the inner yard of our housing complex. The village feels empty, is empty, but we’ve fared well in the pandemic. They’re becoming brazen, the deer. A doe and her fawn have joined the finches and squirrels near the bird feeder. The corn is gone, but the shrubs are thick for them. They float between the dead stalks.
Fleur Adcock’s “Gas” is a speculative poem in ten parts from the collection Hide Tide in the Garden (1971). The speaker recounts the arrival of an alien gas to a quaint English village, killing many residents and perplexing others. Some wildlife survive this onslaught: insects, reptiles, “most of the birds”, and larger mammals. Not cats, however. Some dogs, but the gas exempts the “landlord’s Alsatian”. In the first instance, a fifth of the village survives; the rest are culled “scientifically / within a fixed range, / sparing the insignificant / the chosen strong”. Those who live through their first encounter with the gas slumber deeply for fourteen hours, “not caring / whether we woke or not, in a / soft antiseptic silence”. The cloned survivors tend to their tender dead, untainted by decay. They comb their hair.
Today, the air is distressed with shorn shrubs. The students cleared out when the college closed, and they didn’t return. Have not. Not yet. We are several still in the village, a crow’s throw by stone from the state hotspot of Columbus, but we’ve fared well in the pandemic. Despite the closures, we still sit outside the village café, where we drink our coffees and talk about how hot it is, what bread we’ve baked, how we’ve updated our wills. On the way home, we nearly hit the friendly doe with our car when she unexpectedly bolts across the road. Her dawdling fawn looks upon us with mild annoyance. She ambulates into the woods.
Adcock’s poem is a weird birth narrative where the mother can never be positively identified. The main effect of the gas is duplication. Selves fracture. When the living find themselves doubled, quadrupled, then octupled, they lose their sense of personhood, their individuality. Their skins no longer mark a boundary but a dispersal. Is the speaker the source of her duplicates? Or, is she a derivative? “How was she torn out of me,” the speaker wonders.
…Was it the
urgent wrench of birth, a matter of hard
breathless shoving (but there is no blood) or
Eve from Adam’s rib, quick and surgical
(but there is no scar)…
Indeed, it’s not clear if the speaker is the same person who begins our narrative. While the mechanism behind the cloning remains undetermined, the duplicates uncover an eerie familiarity in their forced persistence. The survivors multiply but reduce their names to single letters in order to distinguish themselves from each copy. Duplicates share the same history, the same voice, the same willingness to forget. Eventually, they share the same death drive as they experiment with new ways to end their common suffering.
We parade ourselves as outsiders when we visit the supermarket, the next town over, because we are the few who fearfully wear our masks. Until germ theory gained popularity at the end of the nineteenth century, miasmata were generally held responsible for epidemics like cholera and the bubonic plague. Miasma theory proposed that a noxious vapour — or bad air — caused by rotting organic particulates fostered ill-health. By controlling environmental conditions, which were usually unsanitary in urban settings, city planners could alleviate the severity of infectious diseases or prevent them spreading all together. Florence Nightingale heartily endorsed this theory. “The [f]irst rule of nursing,” she wrote, is “to keep the air within as pure as the air without.” The air within the supermarket is robotic and cool. We touch the floss skin of peaches. We smell the soft scent of antiseptic and wax. We walk spitefully down the aisles. We shun close contact between the pastas and beans. Like gas, our fear is “a kind of octopus or spider”. Today, the store is selling deer meat.
In “Gas”, the bad air brings “a faint odour / of furniture wax”. One of the symptoms of the virus is the loss of sense of smell, but so far, we’ve fared well in the pandemic. The heat is cruel, the shrubs are sparse. The smell of deer doesn’t dictate us.
In retrospect, “Gas” is about strange kinship. The duplicates seem detached from life, but they also don’t want to embrace their deaths alone. In groups, they deliberately place themselves in “dangerous places” — in trees, in the snow, on ladders — should the gas arrive and render them unconscious. Bad air overtakes the sleepy village, but for us anticipation is in the air. Adcock’s speaker(s) surrenders to the terror of their lost individuality, whereas our exceptionalism has made a building of us.
We have missed the doe and her fawn for several days. The garden’s shrubs are blooming bolder, again. More buoyant, in the forceful Ohioan heat.
We had fared well in the pandemic until the 4th of July when an email alerts us to possible cases in the village. Despite the news, we’re given possibilities rather than facts. Somewhere between two to twenty of us may now have the virus after we tested the local wastewater. We remind ourselves of known models: cases will duplicate exponentially each week. By now, we may be one hundred. But it’s also possible we may only be four or eight. It’s the waiting we detest — vaporous anticipation. Like the virus, we are at the edge of life.
The schools will open in the fall. Reassuring us, the governor says we’ll see what will happen.
We understand why the speaker pleads for the gas at the end of the poem, because there is no restoration in the village. The gas replaces the right to individuality with a duty toward the communal good. Was that thought too frightening for the villagers? Was death more preferable to losing their selfhood? Maybe the gas is a metaphor for a perceived breakdown of the English identity in an increasing globalised world. But today, it is a parable for our own reimagining. What kind of community do we want? we ask ourselves. What is our duty of care to each other? We clear the air with pointed questions.
We don’t know how we will heal after the pandemic, but the deer don’t think we need to. The doe stamps her feet when we encounter her on the road, her first appearance in a month, and this time her fawn is gone. We’re not sure if it’s the same doe, but she unhesitatingly heads for the patch of grass around the empty bird feeder. The corn is still gone, but the shrubs are now thick for her. Maybe she’s her daughter.
 All citations are from Fleur Adcock, “Gas,” in Poems, 1960–2000 (Tarset, UK: Bloodaxe, 2000), 52–58.
 “miasma theory,” A Dictionary of Public Health, edited by John M. Last (Oxford University Press, 2007), accessed, July 10, 2020, https://www.oxfordreference.com/view/10.1093/acref/ 9780195160901.001.0001/acref-9780195160901-e-2851.
 Florence Nightingale, Notes on nursing, 1860, accessed July 15, 2020, https://digital.library.upenn. edu/women/nightingale/nursing/nursing.html.
Orchid Tierney is an Aotearoa New Zealand poet and scholar, currently living in Gambier, Ohio, where she teaches at Kenyon College. She is the author of a year of misreading the wildcats (Operating System, 2019) and Earsay (TrollThread, 2016), and chapbooks my beatrice (above/ground, 2020), ocean plastic (BlazeVOX, 2019), blue doors (Belladonna* Press), Gallipoli Diaries (GaussPDF, 2017), the world in small parts (Dancing Girl Press, 2012) and Brachiaction (Gumtree, 2012). Other poems, reviews and scholarship have appeared in Jacket2, Journal of Modern Literature and Western Humanities Review, among others. She is a consulting editor for the Kenyon Review. http://www.orchidtierney.com