Language of science repurposed in verse

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Governor General’s Award-winning memoirist, poet and ecologist Madhur Anand’s second collection of poetry, Parasitic Oscillations (McClelland & Stewart, 115 pages, $20), takes an ecological approach to the environment, colonialism, art, family and loss.

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Hey there, time traveller!
This article was published 28/05/2022 (191 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.

Governor General’s Award-winning memoirist, poet and ecologist Madhur Anand’s second collection of poetry, Parasitic Oscillations (McClelland & Stewart, 115 pages, $20), takes an ecological approach to the environment, colonialism, art, family and loss.

The collection opens by recontextualizing the language of science. These opening poems are found poems with words taken solely from the scientific papers she cites: “Three roots remain remnant and three roots are born./ Bird, birds, birdsong, songbirds, songbird, songs, song, syllables.”

Not only does Anand repurpose scientific language, but she also makes use of figures, diagrams and photographs to expand the possibilities of the poem. Below a diagram of a phase plane portrait of a mathematical model of birdsong, Anand writes, “Superimposing the concept of diaspora on the movement of bird specimens around the world, tracking the co-movements of natural and cultural histories to bring to light the oscillatory, but ultimately entwined interrelations of humans and nature.”

This grounding in connection leads Anand to shift perspectives, from the human as (always) subject to the human as (sometimes) object.

“Tag yourself,” she writes at the end of Ode to a QR Code, which is set in the ornithology wing of the Natural History Museum. In this poem, the failure to scan a QR code interrupts the usual order of museum-going, like the collection interrupts our expected narrative: “The opposite of a tragedy, set/ in a picture frame, optical illusion messing/ with perspective, the limits of perception.”

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From its opening lines, Michael Fraser’s The Day-Breakers (Biblioasis, 95 pages, $20) troubles the distinction between Canadian and American history. In this, his third collection, Fraser’s sonorous and lyrically dense poems bring the Afro-Canadians who fought for the Union army in the American Civil War to life.

In the opening poem, Proclamation, he writes of how news of the Emancipation Proclamation “breaks the call-answer chirking of women stooped over ribbed/ washboards.” The rhythmic accrual of details propels “their blue-dudded frames/ eager wopse four centuries scrogged to scrimy hell,/ their lives rail-rolling to new metaphors.”

Throughout the collection Fraser uses texture and rhythm to unsettling effect. In And There She Ministers, for example, his use of hyphenations and line breaks create a hitch in the flow of the poem: “Queer how the new/ bullets shimmer-glimmer like a tacker’s/ play-pretties: spiraling in flight, they/ snap bones clean, tunnelling through/ the body’s wet tissue-layers, the way a/ knife never could.” Here, the line breaks interrupt the flow of accruing details to hold the reader in the moment of bodily vulnerability as long as possible.

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In Connectomics, the first section of her third collection Synaptic (University of Regina Press, 73 pages, $19.95), Alison Calder uses the interplay of poetic and scientific language to map the mind’s connections and glitches: “Deletions, insertions, translocations, inversions/ proofreaders’ symbols carve a straight line/ to the minotaur.”

In these poems, the poetic and the scientific methods converge over the shared concern: “How age? How sleep? How want?/ — the fundamental mysteries of biology hidden in plain sight.”

The poems in the second section attend to other unseen, imagined and overlooked states, and the way those brush up against the mundane world. In Warming, for example, while the speaker catalogues the visible evidence of glacier melt, “notebook,/ piece of purple cloth, the snapped branch of a femur,” what animates the poem is the unseen: first the emergence of viruses from the ice and then “Microbes hold themselves suspended in the ice./ No one thinks they’re going to fall.”

Calder holds the ineffable and the practical up against one another, and she approaches that intersection with characteristic wit and with a finely honed sense both of what makes something strange and what strangeness itself can reveal.

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Melanie Brannagan Frederiksen is a Winnipeg writer and critic.

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