While at home at Al Purdy’s A-Frame on Roblin Lake near the town of Ameliasburgh, Ontario, Madhur Anand had a particularly disturbing dream. The poet and memoirist, who has a PhD in Theoretical Ecology from Western University and teaches ecology and sustainability courses at the University of Guelph, was at the shelter in early August 2020 to work on her second collection of poetry. As she slept in Purdy’s old bed with her feet pointing toward the iconic poet’s bookshelf, she dreamed that she was being forced to choose between science and poetry.
“I don’t know by whom. By the cosmos,” Anand says over the phone from her home in Guelph, Ontario. “But they said, ‘You’re not going to wake up until you make up your mind.'”
The conundrum is particularly profound for Anand, who was appointed the first director of the Guelph Institute for Environmental Research in 2019. readers of her debut collection 2015, A new index for predicting disasters, will be aware of the extent to which science and scientific method influence Anand’s poetry; The same applies to their successor Parasitic Vibrations (McClelland & Stewart, available now). For a poet so immersed in the world of science and mathematics, it seemed impossible to bear having to choose between two different vocations.
Trained in complex systems theory, Anand values her background as a scientist. “The language of science and the culture of science are anchored in my identity,” says Anand. “I’m not trying to shut down science [when writing poetry]. I try not 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 obvious as long as one can abstract one’s perceptions enough to recognize them. She expresses her dismay at people trying to isolate the two disciplines or force science into the service of art. To her, the two share a much more symbiotic, if somewhat mysterious, relationship. Anand recalls her surprise when an abstract algebra teacher told the class that they were looking at a complex system that exists in 10 dimensions. “You can’t imagine it. You have to imagine it,” says Anand. “This is the space between art and science.”
It is also the space in which metaphor, so important to poetic language, can flourish freely. “If you really, really, really push two seemingly unrelated lines and methods of investigation, eventually they will intersect,” says Anand. “The chances of finding coincidences and analogies that are the fruit of metaphor are higher. If I examine birdsong from an aesthetic as well as a mathematical or technical point of view, I will find synchronicities.”
Parasitic Vibrations draws on the poet’s fascination with ornithology and the nuances of birds’ vocalizations. This fascination, in turn, arose from her chance discovery of an 1873 volume by British botanist Allan Octavian Hume on the name The Nests and Eggs of Indian Birds. Anand discovered the book in a library around the time she was writing the poems that would go on to form her debut collection. Since then she has traveled extensively to view academic collections of birds referenced in Hume’s book; Parasitic Vibrations contains visual poems composed of Anand’s photographs of bird specimens and pages from Hume’s notebooks. Another section contains QR codes that lead to recordings of various birdsong.
The notion of song is an example of the patterns Anand discovers in the spaces between science and art. The title of their collection is derived from electronics and refers to any unwanted sound output, such as the feedback from an amplifier. But Anand quickly realized that singing is also an example of oscillation. Expanding on the analogy, Anand found even more resonances between abstract scientific perception and poetic practice. “The poem itself is a song. And the scientific work is also a song.”
One of the most ambitious sections of the book is the last, modeled on John Ashbery’s ekphrastic poem “Self-Portrait in a Convex Mirror”. Anand’s poem ‘Slow Dance’ contains the same number of lines and stanzas as Ashbery’s – a constraint that paradoxically gave Anand the freedom to let himself go. It also underscored the intersection of their two driving impulses. “When I read [“Self-Portrait”] The first time I studied Theoretical Ecology and Complex Systems Theory. And I found lines in it that basically describe a complex system,” she says. “That blew me away.”
However, it didn’t get her any closer to the decision her dream on the A-frame demanded. “I feel the responsibility of having to articulate the ars poetica of art and science as great. I’m not ready yet,” she says, although she admits that with more time and a greater output of poetic work, she might be able to figure out what the dream was telling her. “I’m afraid my ultimate answer to that question will be, ‘I’m sorry Madhur, but you’re a writer.'”