Poetry and Science – A New Index for Predicting Catastrophes (review)

Some time ago now, I raved about Caribou Run: a book of poetry about – no, not about, but heavily referencing – science*.  Ever since I’ve meant to write about another book of poetry that crossed my path around the same time: Madhur Anand’s A New Index for Predicting Catastrophes.  The books are totally unalike, except for two things: the way they explore connections between poetry and science (including scientific writing, a pet interest of mine), and the fact that I enjoyed each very much.

Caribou Run is the work of a poet fascinated by science.  A New Index is the work of a scientist who is also a poet.  The fact that I can’t decide whether this contrast makes a difference seems like good evidence that the boundary between the arts and science is porous from both sides. Madhur Anand is a climate-change ecologist at the University of Guelph, and her scientific background and work permeate the poetry.  That last sentence might lead you to expect a book of climate-change poetry, but A New Index isn’t that.  Instead, it’s a book of poems about life – but life observed and narrated by a poet who is also a scientist**.

The most obvious sign of the scientist in A New Index lies in its vocabulary and in its copious references to biology (and chemistry).  There are poems titled Normality Assumption, Sole and Plaice (On the Mathematics of Flatfish), and Rhizome Logic, for example.  And a few poems really are “about” science – like RuBisCO, which is about, and even uses the phrase, “the most abundant protein / on earth”.  But more of Anand’s poetry spans, or wanders back and forth across, that supposed boundary between science and everyday life.  Take No Two Things Can Be More Equal:

In undergrad I learned about the identity
matrix.  Ones on the main diagonal and zeros
elsewhere.  Anything multiplied by itself is itself.

Then later, to love that way, and the definition
of Buddhist from a Tibetan girl across from me
and two bowls of steaming breakfast noodles in Lhasa…

Still other poems could almost have been written by anyone – except for the trace of Anand’s background in her choice of words.  A Proposal on Cedar Street, for example, is a word painting of a maple key blowing into a room – but it’s tinged by technical terms like samara, trait convergence, sealed with hypotheses.  Seeing our technical vocabulary in poems makes interesting suggestions about language, science, and the arts.

Speaking of A Proposal on Cedar Street: Anand’s poems mostly give glimpses of situations, stories, or occasionally people.  They rarely tell complete stories or resolve the tension they create.  Sometimes that intrigued me and fuelled my imagination; other times, I found it frustrating.  Depending on your taste in poetry, you may have either reaction, or both of them.

My favourite thing about A New Index is its “found poems”.  Each of these is a poem constructed entirely of words and phrases from one of Anand’s scientific papers.  These are fascinating, and they can be evocative, as in Successional Correspondence:

….We do not thrive
in the open

Summer may act
as a nurse, reconstructing
canonical human needs

But ecologists
recommend sowing
while the ground is covered
in snow

Does this mean that scientific papers (Anand’s or anyone else’s) are also poems? No.***  But of course both papers and poems are built from language, and there needn’t be as rigid a wall between aesthetics and scientific writing as we’ve constructed.  Anand’s found poems aren’t direct quotes from her papers, but they’re constructed of them.  To me they suggest an intriguing potential for beauty found – if not, perhaps, deliberately inserted – in a paper.  (I’m tempted to look for found poetry in my own papers, but I’d be disappointed if I discovered it wasn’t there.)

There’s much to enjoy in A New Index, and if it sometimes left me with more questions than answers, perhaps that’s one of the functions of poetry.

© Stephen Heard September 20, 2017

Want another perspective?  A few other (and more professional) reviews here: Toronto Globe and Mail; The Puritan; and Publishers Weekly.


*^In particular, the zoology and ecology of the Porcupine caribou herd in the western Arctic.

**^Scientists can be poets, just as they can be musicians, artists, novelists, or indeed anything else.  The notion that scientists are somehow other, apart from society and only ever coldly clinical in their lab coats, is a stereotype that’s unfortunately widespread.  I’ve speculated elsewhere about its impact on the artistic landscape.

***^Although see Bunnett and Kearley 1971, which is both a paper and a poem, albeit in my opinion neither a good paper nor a good poem.

6 thoughts on “Poetry and Science – A New Index for Predicting Catastrophes (review)

  1. Catherine Scott

    Sounds like a lovely book!

    One of my favourite classes as an undergraduate was called Math and Poetry, co-instructed by professors from the mathematics and English departments. It wasn’t about writing poems about math, or mathematically analyzing poetry, but studying both and drawing connections between them. It was so much fun! Our assignments included making found poems.

    I’m also reminded of a really useful assignment we had to do in Basic Skills for a Career in Science, a course for 1st year grad students at SFU. We spent a whole class talking about how to write an abstract, and analyzing published ones to learn about the structure and necessary content. In addition to writing our own abstract for a published paper (for which we hadn’t read the authors’ abstract) we had to write an abstract as a poem (anything from a sonnet in iambic pentameter to a haiku). I chose a limerick, and it was a great exercise in how to distill the story of a paper down to the important points and essential elements of an abstract while following a very rigid prescribed structure (as one often must while writing scientific papers, grants etc.). Fun!

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