(Toronto, Ontario: McClelland & Stewart, 2015)
Fibonacci numbers were, I think, my first formal introduction to the idea that math and science are essential to the beauty of the natural world. I was in early elementary school when I learned about this sequence via the golden ratio, and although I was more the type of girl who wanted to blend colors in the ice cube trays in the corner of the room than learn about fractions or practice kid-friendly science experiments, even then I understood that there were rules to the magnificence of both art and nature. For example, if I mixed the wrong colors, the result would be some terrible garbage-like hue. So, with trees in mind, I learned that blue and yellow make green; thinking of the sun, I found that red with yellow results in orange. So on and so forth.
Decades later, I keep these foundations in mind. And I’ve noticed that amidst the anxieties over climate change, non-organic foods, and other environmental concerns, dialogues between the arts and sciences seem to be increasingly recognized and deliberated. For example, Peter Schulman of Old Dominion University and Josh Weinstein of Virginia Wesleyan College have recently opened what they define as a journal of ecological thought in literature, philosophy, and the arts. The mission statement of their Green Humanities calls out the “perceived schism between the humanities, seemingly on the sidelines or in an ivory tower, while the natural sciences frequently take the public spotlight and are thought to lead on environmental issues.” The editors continue, “We at Green Humanities believe in the power of the humanities—a book, a poem or a work of art for example—to influence public opinion and inspire engagement with ecological issues and causes.”
While it does not seem that Madhur Anand’s A New Index For Predicting Catastrophes was written in a vein of any sort of didacticism, it certainly seems conscious of its own educational elements. Anand, who holds a Ph.D. in theoretical ecology, titles many of her poems by scientific names such as “Cantharellus” and “Cosmos bipinnatus,” terms which I most certainly had to deduce or, more frequently, look up.
Somewhat like research scientist Katherine Larson’s poetry in Radial Symmetry, another contemporary collection doing the important work of bridging the gap between our understanding of science and art, Anand’s New Index uncovers beauty through science. While Larson, however, often writes of dissection, and although both books contain observations and moments of discovery, Anand’s collection seems to be more of a field guide.
I recently read a thought-provoking article by David L. Pearson and John A. Shetterly in the American Entomologist titled, “How do published field guides influence interactions between amateurs and professionals in entomology?” Among other intriguing topics, these experts discuss the effect technology has had on the formal field guide. For example, despite the advent of smart phones with professional-grade cameras, and, therefore, the dramatic increase in the overall number of photos available, there are shortcomings in using such media for identification purposes because “an unmanipulated photo will show only one aspect of the specimen, taken at a single instant and in a specific pose.” On the other hand, illustrations have the ability to “show all the pertinent identification characters simultaneously with just enough detail.” Anand’s masterful descriptions, seem almost as though they could replace these illustrations. For example, in “Betula papyrifera,” which is a species of birch, the poet describes the tree as “white encoded with black dots and vascular dashes.” In “Vaccinium angustifolium,” referring to the lowbush blueberry plant, Anand portrays the flower petals as “pale white lampshades, designed to keep all the good light in.”
While Anand also writes poems with other types of titles, such as “Rhizome Logic” and the “Bell Curve,” oftentimes even the bodies of these pieces seem to, in refreshing ways, provide definitions for their titles. Here, for example, is one of the three tercets found within “Three Laws of Economics”:
There’s a dead space between mouth and lung. It’s the volume
Of inhaled air that does not take part in gas exchange.
Benefits can accrue. For example, inflation.
Similarly, “The Strategy Of The Majority” is defined as:
pre-existing tendencies, cooperation
from the public,
a vector for the spread
of catastrophic programs
…and much more. In fact, some of Anand’s poems, such as “The Strategy Of The Majority” are composed only of phrases found within single scientific articles, which are noted at the bottoms of those pages.
The entire collection has delicateness and a lyricism, which reminds me of the work of more traditional nature poets. And even the poems within Anand’s A New Index For Predicting Catastrophes that do not remind me of field guide entries abide by a disciplined form. In case, like me, you fail to notice, Anand, our benevolent guide, explains in the collection’s notes:
The majority of the poems in this book are written in 13-syllable lines. Of the three naturally occurring forms of carbon, only those with atomic mass 12 and 13 are stable, and they occur in a proportion of 99:1, respectively, in the natural world.
And so I think back to my elementary-school lessons and beyond about the rules of math and science and art and nature, and how they are all, most likely, interconnected in ways that we’ll never fully understand. Perhaps the mysteries are what draw us to nature, what render us fascinated. Madhur Anand’s A New Index For Predicting Catastrophes, however, is a gentle yet exquisite reminder that exploring what we do not understand is at least as powerful and at least as important.
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Heather Lang is the Managing Online Editor of The Literary Review
This review also references the article “How do published field guides influence interactions between amateurs and professionals in entomology?” by David L. Pearson and John A. Shetterly (American Entomologist 52.4)