If you’ve been following Scientist Sees Squirrel for a while, you’ll know that one of my pet topics is the intersection between science and the arts. This intersection is certainly smaller than it could be, but it’s not as small as common (mis)interpretations of CP Snow’s “Two Cultures” essay would have it. So I’ve been happy to discover and share with you some particularly interesting mashups between science and poetry – like Richard Kelley Kemick’s collection Caribou Run, and Madhur Anand’s A New Index for Predicting Catastrophes. We can add to that little collection today, because Anand has a new book of poetry, Parasitic Oscillations, and I’ve just finished reading it.
This is Anand’s third book (after A New Index, she turned to what I’d call creative memoir, with This Red Line Goes Straight to Your Heart). But she’s also an excellent and prolific scientist, with research interests in ecological change, the regulation of ecological systems, and impacts of climate change on ecosystem services.* Anand is superbly positioned for what we might call “ecopoetry”. Her poetry is informed by her science, and explores connections between that science and the society in which we move.
It’s a little bit hard to sum up Parasitic Oscillations. It’s a collection of poems that leans hard on Figures (yes, Figures as in a paper), and that finds links between the mathematical behaviour of systems of coupled equations and – well, and all sorts of things:
Similarity of waves, concerted
and elastic. Resonance between pure physics and
human nature, question and debate.
– from Repertoire for a Restitution
There are found poems (poems constructed from the text of scientific papers – sometimes, Anand’s own; but once, intriguingly, one of Einstein’s); there are short poems; there’s a marvellous long poem. While Anand might say that the titular oscillations are the book’s theme, what came through most clearly for me was the sense of interconnection. Connections between mathematics, physics, natural history, and human lives run through everything. Often, it’s with an autobiographical slant:
I am mathematically modelling birdsong
with Matlab, the software, by day and reading novels
by night. I the new novel Gold Diggers I find
the word Matlab but it appears as the Hindi word
for meaning. Birds embedded in my ordinary
differential equations sing louder, sing brighter.
– from Stray Capacitance of Diasporic Specimens, as Khayal
August tenth, twenty-twenty. Al Purdy’s neighbour said:
But you are not a professional writer. He meant
he could not believe I could be that and also a
full-time ecology professor. The next day, I
was wading tentatively onto the limestone shelf,
perturbing tiny fish and submerged vegetation
who, in truth, could not care less about me, so I was
only perturbing myself….
…but the next day, he asked for my books.
– from Slow Dance
Compared with Anand’s previous work, many of the poems in Parasitic Oscillations are somewhat cryptic; reading, I experienced flashes of meaning in a phrase or a line rather than a straightforward exposition. This will surely frustrate some readers while delighting others. The highlight of the collection for me is the long poem “Slow Dance” It’s inspired by an early poem by John Ashbery and by the “Slow Dance” device that takes advantage of the physics and biology of human vision to generate optical illusions in movement. This poem has the luxury of space to meditate on perception, time, beauty, natural history, human history, family, and more. I wanted to read it over again immediately upon finishing (so, of course, I did).
It’s easy to think that the main concern in Parasitic Oscillations is how science can inform the arts. But Anand deftly illustrates something else, too: no matter how much people insist science is objective and separate from the scientists who practice it, the knower shapes the knowledge. Here, Anand is puzzled by a drawing of bird specimens from the (British) Natural History Museum:
No relation at all to
the photos. It was not a single bird, as I had
assumed. It was one bird being lifted with my right
hand while another specimen of the same species
lay on the tray still in partial view. He had painted
the two birds but had erased my palms, my wrist, the two
gold bangles I wore on them continuously, my
lower arm. But as much as he tried to erase me,
the drawing was an assemblage of human nature.
– from Slow Dance
Take that, all those folks who think science and the arts can be kept in their tidy little separate boxes.**
© Stephen Heard May 10, 2022
Parasitic Oscillation is available from your local library or bookseller, or from
*^Yes, you’re right: I’m trying very hard not to compare myself, right now.
**^I would once have been one of those people. It’s been fun changing my mind.