Mapping the Genome

By Michael Symmons Roberts b. 1963
Geneticist as driver, down the gene
codes in, let's say, a topless coupe
and you keep expecting bends,

real tyre-testers on tight
mountain passes, but instead it's dead
straight, highway as runway,

helix unravelled as vista,
as vanishing point. Keep your foot
down. This is a finite desert.

You move too fast to read it,
the order of the rocks, the cacti,
roadside weeds, a blur to you.

Every hour or so, you pass a shack
which passes for a motel here:
tidy faded rooms with TVs on

for company, the owner pacing out
his empty parking lot. And after
each motel you hit a sandstorm

thick as fog, but agony.
Somewhere out there are remnants
of our evolution, genes for how

to fly south, sense a storm,
hunt at night, how to harden
your flesh into hide or scales.

These are the miles of dead code.
Every desert has them.
You are on a mission to discover

why the human heart still slows
when divers break the surface,
why mermaids still swim in our dreams.

Source: Poetry (June 2003).

 Michael Symmons Roberts


Poet, novelist, and librettist Michael Symmons Roberts was born in 1963 in Preston, Lancashire, and earned a degree in philosophy and theology from Oxford. He worked as a journalist before joining the BBC, eventually becoming executive producer and head of development for its department on religion and ethics. His collections of poetry include Soft Keys (1993); Raising Sparks (1999); Burning Babylon (2001); Corpus (2004), winner . . .

Continue reading this biography

Poem Categorization

SUBJECT Landscapes & Pastorals, Sciences, Arts & Sciences, Nature, Activities, Travels & Journeys


Poetic Terms Free Verse, Metaphor

Report a problem with this poem

Your results will be limited to content that appeared in Poetry magazine.

Search Every Issue of Poetry

Originally appeared in Poetry magazine.

This poem has learning resources.

This poem is good for children.

This poem has related video.

This poem has related audio.