Madhur Anand’s Catastrophic Worlds

by Rudrapriya Rathore

Rudrapriya Rathore lives in Toronto, where she is working on her Creative Writing MA at U of T. She recently completed her undergraduate degree at Concordia University and won the Irving Layton Award for Fiction in 2014. Her work has appeared in Headlight Anthology, HOOD, and Black & Blue.

As I sit down to write to Madhur Anand, a poet, professor, and the author of A New Index for Predicting Catastrophes (McClelland & Stewart, 2015), an unseasonably warm winter day spits rain outside my window. This is the kind of weather that, aside from being the subject of a friendly comment or two exchanged at the bus stop, would usually disappear into the blur of the past few weeks. But I’ve just finished reading Anand’s collection, and I find myself thinking that the strange temperatures are a result of global forces—a particularly strong El Niño, greenhouse gas emissions, Arctic Oscillation—and have global effects even beyond those that current scientists can measure.

As a professor of ecology and an internationally recognized researcher, Anand builds her poetics on the kinds of concurrences that create natural events. Facts emerge from her work the way patterns emerge in plants; the “geometry of rhizomes, dirt, gossip, antioxidants, memory” mingles with the “predictive power of petals.” Her scientific training enables her to see correlations and connections that may be totally invisible to many of us, sometimes simply because we have adopted indifference or ignorance as a way to function in our everyday lives.

We watch the news, hear the warnings, and intellectually understand what experts, according to a Guardian article written earlier this year by Larry Elliott, have articulated as the “biggest potential threat to the global economy … exacerbating more risks than ever before in terms of water crises, food shortages, constrained economic growth, weaker societal cohesion and increased security risks.” But when we hear the words “climate change,” most of us still feel that it is something that happens at a certain distance from us, in other parts of the world, to other people.

This, of course, is where poetry can make an intervention.

Aside from their carefully woven surfaces, imagery, and often deceptive simplicity, Anand’s 81 poems also imbue natural events with an awareness of social crisis. Over the last year, disasters like the California drought and the Flint water crisis—to name only a couple within North America—have served as striking reminders that social hierarchy and natural environment are inextricably linked. Popular culture has often framed environmentalism as a movement that ideologically separates the issues of endangered species and rainforest destruction from involuntary mass migrations and political instability.

“Facts emerge from her work the way patterns emerge in plants; the ‘geometry of rhizomes, dirt, gossip, antioxidants, memory’ mingles with the ‘predictive power of petals.’ ”

Today, however, it is impossible to fully understand the problems caused by the rise of carbon dioxide emissions without tracing the trajectories of neoliberal development projects all over the world. It is impossible to reasonably explain the levels of pollution someone is exposed to while living in Delhi, as opposed to Toronto, without examining India’s colonial, industrial and economic history. Once we open a new way of thinking—a way that acknowledges that social, personal, scientific, and political structures are not only continuously intersecting but also continuously constituting each other—the possibilities are endless, both within and outside of literature.

Before it compelled me to think about the deliberate mingling of different knowledges, or even its representation of natural environments, one of the first things that struck me about Anand’s collection was its usage of scientific terms. In the first of four sections, “Cantharellus” and “Vaccinum angustifolium” serve as the titles of poems that feature mushrooms and blueberries. Headings from papers that Anand has co-authored and published in scientific journals appear at the bottom of several pages. Talk of recurring disturbances, sequences, and interventions populate a text that is otherwise poetically concerned with aesthetics. The reader is required to enter a different register of language, one that is generally seen to frame things with an objective distance, and think of it instead as capable of generating subjective beauty.

Interesting, too, is the way that the foreignness of such terms is employed as a kind of code to illuminate different dimensions of the piece at hand. “Betula papyrifera,” when translated as “paper birch,” unveils its mathematical correspondence to dimensions of human life:

Something native, sequenced, compiled, dying to be recalled.
White encoded with black dots and vascular dashes
from the rented cottage on Ahmic Lake to plastic
bags in our hatchback. I stole a branch the length of two
phone books. Gorgeous and genuine against the living
room pine shelves, its bark hospitable to pale crustose
lichen and first-century Buddhists writing down how
to survive: await the ringtones of light and moisture,
length inversely proportional to the frequency
of occurrence, on-off clicks directly understood.

The branch is coded, first, by its naturally occurring “vascular dashes” and its receptiveness to lichen. It’s coded a second time by the linguistic self-awareness of the poem, which highlights a relationship to the first-century Buddhists who wrote upon similar bark, and a third time by a biological description. Its perfectly communicable proportions, the “on-off clicks directly understood”—these collapse the supposed separation between natural and scientific logic. Rather than being irreconcilable languages, these layers function as various systems that collaboratively write the “paper birch” into significance.

A similar point of collapse occurs in “Pink Cyclamen, The Economist, Beijing Airport”:

My attention is drawn to the vulva understory
of a palm in a plastic planter. Upswept petals
rooted in black, aerated by Styrofoam-white balls.
In the Mediterranean, tubers lie dormant
every summer and seeds only germinate in
limestone crevices. I flip lip glosses, wristwatches,
awaiting flight. Time is a latent variable.
To become endangered by scanty dispersal skills
or eye candy blessed by Adam Smith’s invisible hand.
Everywhere markets scream in sans serif. I carry on.

Here, capitalism’s dispersal techniques overlap with those that fail to scatter the seeds of pink cyclamen. Valued for their “upswept petals,” the flowers circulate in a marketplace that requires their germination and “screams” to calibrate supply and demand. The horticultural trade turns plants into “eye candy,” and thus into things that appear not only in limestone crevices but also in airports, alongside lip glosses and wristwatches. The tension of endangerment, rather than regulating the system, points to a place where economy and environment can simultaneously fall apart.

Over email, I ask Anand about the way many of the poems simultaneously create and undo structures of science, nature, and economy. She replies, “I wanted to write in the way that I see the world, which is not made up of distinct structures, even though that is how we sometimes have to live in it. It is a constant struggle to render coherent all the different threads of knowledge and experience, especially in the cases where they have been pulled apart in the world (theory vs. data, environment vs. economy, art vs. science, male vs. female, Canada vs. India, India vs. Pakistan, etc.). The points at their interface are unstable. If you have detected points of collapse, I find that a hopeful sign that I have achieved something.”

Certainly, another one of Anand’s achievements lies in her worldview, which seems to embrace a productive uncertainty. It adapts and accumulates perspectives rather than adhering to one notion of destiny or logic. In “Somewhere, A Lake,” a space opens up between the speaker’s memories of Ramsey Lake in different seasons. “Afterthoughts, the echoes of loons / the chord indefinable since points of reference / are never safe. All potential instabilities.” Something here continually escapes knowledge. How, I ask Anand, does a scientist reconcile herself to that?

“The scientific method is a system we can depend on,” she responds. “But the human spirit wanders. In my worldview I depend greatly on wandering. A scientist colleague of mine reminded me of something that the physicist Richard Feynman said once: ‘I believe that a scientist looking at non-scientific problems is just as dumb as the next guy.’ I wanted to look at non-scientific problems with intelligence. So I became a poet.”

“The scientific method is a system we can depend on … but the human spirit wanders.”

Much of the collection travels over linguistic and spatial distance, expertly navigating emotional landscapes with clear focus. The “saris in Cellophane … haggled over / in Chandni Chowk and Karol Bagh markets” recall the mother elsewhere who “knows silk and rice, grabs fistfuls at Fabricland and Bulk Barn.” The five-year-old who “is wildfire when I tell her God is everywhere” reminds us of the “sweet-like-honey joy” in a name that acts as “an invasion populating the middle names and Saturday morning fields of my own two children.”

The significance of crossing continents becomes compounded by the fact that environmentalist or eco-justice movements have been known to overwrite issues specific to non-Western cultures in order to emphasize their agendas. When it privileges a natural order as the most important principle for organizing humanitarian priorities, environmentalism as an ideology overlooks crucial and intersecting issues of global injustice. How can a writer approach this when also thinking about ethnic, racial, and gendered hierarchies? And when thinking about the vast discrepancies in day-to-day experience created by human diasporas?

“As a poet, I hope to reveal alternate orderings to those that have become established in ideology, and yet the poems do not aim to reinforce or replace existing ideology. I am immersed in and affected by all the issues you raise and they all play a role in my writing. I also think that many of these issues are not best dealt with when they become entrenched in ideology. I think many of us may fool ourselves in putting our ideologies first and then building our priorities around them. Also, the issues are complex, and subject-dependent. What is environmentalism? Ask me, and it means (among so many other things) craving wilderness and needing, from time to time, to jump in a northern Ontario lake in summer, or walk across it in winter. Ask my mother (immigrant to Canada from India), and you’ll get a very different answer (hint: she tells me to fear wild lakes).”

In an essay published in the Poetry Foundation’s portfolio on ecojustice this past January, John Shoptaw asks, “How can an ecopoem usher us into a new environmental imagination without teaching us a tiresome lesson?” This is precisely what Anand does: insert us into a world that is full of cosmopolitan multiplicities and asserts itself as chaotic and unstable, without sinking into condescension or righteousness.

“What kind of resistance, or interrogation, does ecological poetry as a genre offer? How much of this work is a part of a larger poetic lineage?”

These poems do not attempt to extract from the reader any kind of dejection—the type of guilt or remorse that is often the result of failing to adhere to a dogma. If much of ecopoetry has to do with the impulse to bear witness, to preserve, or to unsettle, as Shoptaw argues, Anand’s poetics aspire, first and foremost, to represent the connections between different forms of knowledge. Because there is no one method of mastery, of total or complete comprehension, catastrophe itself becomes multidimensional.

The diversity of forms in the collection represents this multiplicity, too: villanelles, found poems from scientific articles, and experimentations with computer language are scattered throughout. During our exchange, Anand draws my attention to her unconventional syllabics. “Most of the poems follow a form in which I adhere strictly to 13-syllable lines, which as far as I know does not exist elsewhere. The French are known for using syllabics, but they use Alexandrine, 12 syllable lines. My use of this rhythm could come from the fact that I have found the French language to open up expression in me that is otherwise repressed in English.”

I also ask Anand about different kinds of lineage, and the collective anxiety around what kind of environment future generations will inherit from us. What kind of resistance, or interrogation, does ecological poetry as a genre offer? How much of this work is a part of a larger poetic lineage? And what does she hope the genre will inherit from her own work?

“My poems and poetic practice (including what I read) are involved in a complex network, not a particular lineage. I came to realize this from the diversity of poetic approaches that emerged in the anthology I co-edited with Adam Dickinson (Regreen: New Canadian Ecological Poetry, 2009), where I avoid the (sometimes limiting) term ‘ecopoetry.’ My poetry is ecological, feminist, post-colonial, because those are all within my direct experience. My love poems exist because I have loved and have been loved. But as I have said before, none of these structures exist in isolation. In many of these cases, the assumed position is one of exile. I’m not sure, but it could be the ecologist in me who is able to open up singular positions. These are, for the most part, not poems of exile, but of welcoming, of discovery.”


Rudrapriya Rathore lives in Toronto, where she is working on her Creative Writing MA at U of T. She recently completed her undergraduate degree at Concordia University and won the Irving Layton Award for Fiction in 2014. Her work has appeared in Headlight Anthology, HOOD, and Black & Blue.