Madhur Anand’s poetry is informed by her scientific knowledge – and she wouldn’t have it any other way
When Madhur Anand was in residence at Al Purdy’s A-Frame on Roblin Lake, near the Ontario town of Ameliasburgh, she had a particularly disconcerting dream. The poet and memoirist, who holds a doctorate in theoretical ecology from Western University and teaches courses in ecology and sustainability at the University of Guelph, was staying at the property in early August 2020 to work on her second book of poetry. . As she slept in Purdy’s old bed, her feet pointed at the iconic poet’s library, she dreamed she was forced to choose between science and poetry.
“I don’t know by whom. By the cosmos,” Anand says over the phone from his home in Guelph, Ont. “But they said, ‘You’re not going to wake up until you choose. “”
The conundrum runs particularly deep for Anand, who in 2019 was named the first director of the Guelph Institute for Environmental Research. Readers of his first collection of 2015, A new index to predict disasters, will be aware of the extent to which science and the scientific method inform Anand’s poetry; the same is true for its follow-up, Parasitic oscillations (McClelland & Stewart, available now). For a poet so invested in the world of science and mathematics, having to choose between two disparate vocations seemed unbearable.
Anand, trained in the theory of complex systems, attaches great importance to her career as a scientist. “The language of science and the culture of science are inherent in my identity,” says Anand. “I’m not trying to extinguish science [when writing poetry]. I don’t try to ignore what I know, which is sometimes a challenge.
Despite the superficial difficulty of rationalizing the right-brain-left-brain dichotomy, Anand insists that the overlaps are apparent as long as one can push one’s mode of perception far enough into the abstract to recognize them. She expresses her dismay at those who try to isolate the two disciplines or try to force science in the service of art. For her, the two share a much more symbiotic, if somewhat mysterious, relationship. Anand recalls his surprise when an abstract algebra instructor informed the class that they would be looking at a complex system that exists in 10 dimensions. “You can’t visualize it. You have to imagine it,” says Anand. “It’s the space between art and science.”
It is also the space where metaphor, so essential to poetic language, can freely flourish. “If you really, really, really push two seemingly unrelated lines and modes of inquiry, they will eventually intersect,” Anand says. “The chances of finding coincidences and analogies, which are the fruit of metaphor, are higher. If I study birdsong from both an aesthetic and mathematical or technical point of view, I will find synchronicities.
Parasitic oscillations draws on the poet’s fascination with ornithology and the nuances of bird vocalizations. This fascination, in turn, arose from his accidental discovery of an 1873 volume by British botanist Allan Octavian Hume titled The nests and eggs of Indian birds. Anand discovered the book in a library when she was writing the poems that would constitute her first collection. She has since traveled extensively to view academic collections of birds referenced in Hume’s book; Parasitic oscillations includes visual poems composed of Anand’s photographs of bird specimens and Hume’s notebook pages. Another section includes QR codes that lead to recordings of various bird songs.
The notion of song is an example of the patterns that Anand discovers in the interstices between science and art. The title of his collection derives from electronics and refers to any unwanted sound output, such as feedback from an amp. But Anand soon realized that the song is also an example of wobble. Pushing the analogy further, Anand found even more resonances between abstract scientific perception and poetic practice. “The poem itself is a song. And the scientific article is also a song.
One of the most ambitious sections of the book is the last, inspired by John Ashbery’s ekphrastic poem “Self-Portrait in a Convex Mirror”. Anand’s “Slow Dance” poem contains the same number of lines and stanzas as Ashbery’s – a constraint that, paradoxically, allowed Anand to let loose. It also emphasized the intersection of his two motor impulses. “When I read [“Self-Portrait”] the first time, I studied theoretical ecology and the theory of complex systems. And I found lines there that basically described a complex system,” she says. “It blew my mind.”
However, that didn’t bring her any closer to the choice her A-Frame dream demanded. “I feel that the responsibility of having to articulate the ars poetica of art and science is great. I’m not quite there yet,” she says, though she admits that with more time and a greater output of poetic work behind her, she might be able to figure out what the dream was trying to get at her. say. “I’m afraid my answer to that question will ultimately be, ‘I’m sorry, Madhur, but you’re a writer.'”