Publication Date: July 2020


Code features at its center a narrative sequence with three characters: a young father; a young mother who is dying from an inherited disease; and the mother’s own DNA. Considering exciting new developments in genetics such as CRISPR, which would allow us to eradicate certain diseases, this book approaches ethical questions from a poetic and narrative lens, providing an angle that science cannot.

Ultimately, Code is a book about grief—specifically, how to surmount it. The poems attest to how we preserve memory through nonverbal means such as cave art and DNA—as well as through story and poetry.


Reading Charlotte Pence’s breakthrough book, Code, I remember T. S. Eliot reminding us that humankind cannot bear very much reality. Perhaps the best way to bear the reality of our genetic structure, the code of her title, the thing that determines who we are, is to make poetry of it. After all, we want to believe that we have the free will to exist, to live and to love, and to celebrate our lives with our art.  Charlotte Pence with her moving story of birth and loss has enhanced the language of poetry with the discourse of science, with the language of data.  Her poetry reminds us that even as we know more and more about who we really are, life itself remains beautifully mysterious.  

–Mark Jarman, author of The Heronry

Charlotte Pence’s Code is deeply grounded in domestic settings that open onto broader vistas and “time longer than any dream.” For Pence, motherhood holds the mysteries of the natural and human-made worlds—one where “we all began in dark and stars” but where we also wish “for sleep, / for peace, for the coming day to be better.”For this poet, the maternal body and the body politic are closely connected, and Code is rich with urgent lines that pay close attention to the complicities of privilege and the need to shape the next generation’s social conscience. Through a voice both tender and bracingly honest, Pence reinvents domestic tableaux in poems that are provocative, humane, and deeply necessary.   
–Jane Satterfield, author of Apocalypse Mix

With Code, Charlotte Pence attunes both eye and ear, moving from a body in the contemporary urban to drawings on the walls of a cave in Spain. Code traces the death of so many–from strangers to the familiar and intimate: Evelyn McHale of the iconic Empire State Building suicide photograph, a grandfather, the poet Shira Shaiman. As Pence sequences the aftermath of loss in a chord of poems and personal essays, she also embeds Shaiman’s own poems, honoring her late friend. This willful collaboration with the words of one no longer in the realm of the living results in a braiding of grief: each piece mourns for someone lost while also documenting what goes on in and around the mortal body.At its nexus, Code contains a narrative featuring the voices of a father, a mother who is dying from an inherited disease, and the mother’s own DNA (in a prescient turn of poetic adroitness). Never have I encountered such tenderness and scrutiny in the scientific turned elegiac. Each of us originate from unique strands of genetic code, a code “beginning what is and has always been the same story, / but with different names for different animals.” Pence is capacious in her attention to life, calling on us to witness what tinkers above and below surfaces, to carry on the legacies of those lost to us. 

–Diana Khoi Nguyen, author of Ghost of, a National Book Award finalist

About the Author

Charlotte Pence

Charlotte Pence's first book of poems, Many Small Fires (Black Lawrence Press, 2015), received an INDIEFAB Book of the Year Award from Foreword Reviews. The book explores her father’s chronic homelessness while simultaneously detailing the physiological changes that enabled humans to form cities, communities, and households. She is also the author of two award-winning poetry chapbooks and the editor of The Poetics of American Song Lyrics.  In 2020, her new collection, Code (Black Lawrence Press), was cited by The Millions as one of four “July Must-Read” poetry titles. Her poetry, fiction, and creative nonfiction have recently been published in Harvard Review, Sewanee Review, Southern Review, and Brevity. A graduate of Emerson College (MFA) and the University of Tennessee (PhD), she is now the director of the Stokes Center for Creative Writing at University of South Alabama.

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