The unique amalgam of poetics and physical science present in Madhur Anand’s 2015 poetry collection A New Index for Predicting Catastrophes is present from its very first lines: The rejection of reds, a gap of blues, chlorophyll / absorbing necessary wavelengths. She starts out in the typical sensory medium of poetry, then ushers in scientific language. The two are not at odds. As she demonstrates throughout this book, they are, in fact, intertwined. Both deal in theory, in observation, in proprietary lexicons.
Anand has a Ph.D. in theoretical ecology, and her research findings are alloyed here with more typical poetic subjects–observations of nature, reflections on relationships and mortality. Many of the poems are actually taken directly from the text of papers authored by Anand and her colleagues. Footnoted with the titles and publication details of these papers, these poems expose the beauty in ordinary or even specialized and utilitarian language, reassembling statements on biology, ecology, and chemistry into lines that lead us to ponder beyond these fields.
As both a poet and a scientist, Anand has a curious relationship with the natural world. She cannot simply disconnect her deeper knowledge of what’s happening below the surface when she gazes at an animal or landscape or night sky, but she also cannot disconnect her emotions or sense of awe when she looks at these same things professionally. She exposes the tension in “Evan Said,” in which she discusses the brave new world of vertical food farming and what agriculture will look like in the future. After briefly describing these plans, she concludes the poem And I will still want this: strangers to read these poems. No amount of scientific remove can quiet her poet’s longing–her human longing–to know and be known.
At the same time, her professional sensibilities do not stay in the car when she goes out into nature. In “Grounds for Sculpture,” she meanders through an outdoor art installation in a garden park, marveling at the simulation of nature. It is beautiful. But she recognizes our simulations are sometimes more polished than the reality of the natural world, which is dirty and at times cobbled together by creatures trying to survive, with or without us.
“…rebuilt from the subconscious memory of forest
later we decided it was a peahen’s decoy
egg, infertile, meant only to distract predators
and elsewhere would be the real brood in a depression
scraped in dirt, lined with discarded paper, begonias.”
In “Especially in a Time,” she recognizes any area / which is known, is a surrogate / for proximity. Isn’t poetry the same thing? A surrogate for proximity?
Anand occasionally steps away from her project of synthesizing, or perhaps reclaiming, poetry from scientific language and writes more personally. In the gorgeous and powerful “Suede,” she recounts her first communion (at which she pocketed the host rather than eating it), and her first sexual experience. I was innocent // but not without sin.
A New Index for Predicting Catastrophes is a truly unique collection, one with a profound perspective on the natural world. I picked this up last year when I was in Montreal at the excellent Paragraphe Bookstore. Check it out if you get a chance.