Poetry has always used other texts to do more with its small space: biblical allusions, or quotations from pop song lyrics, have been common in poetry for a long time, because they allow a poet to conjure or connote more than a stand-alone image or phrase. But recent years have brought about an explosion of poems wrought exclusively from other texts: centos, which are formed by shuffling together lines from other poems and/or lyrics; erasures, which pick a text and remove selected parts to reveal other messages; and other kinds of mashups, remixes, and found poems. The connection to contemporary musical production seems worth emphasizing – like hiphop sampling, these kinds of poetic techniques demonstrate a different kind of virtuosity, more akin to an archaeologist’s or a collagist’s than a traditional image-maker’s, though you still have to be able to spot a great image or phrase in order to make it work in a poem. If Michelangelo said something about uncovering the angel in a block of stone, then some poets are able to see an aardvark in the angel.
One question that hovers over poems like this is: how does the new incarnation reflect back, enrich, challenge, or renew its source text? I could probably scour the text of Moby-Dick in order to create a shopping list for my weekend (“a draught of a draught… of wet…whiteness…”), but that wouldn’t make it a worthwhile poem. What does the new poem do with its materials?
Madhur Anand has a PhD in theoretical ecology, and her book, A New Index for Predicting Catastrophes, is at home in the language of science – its vocabulary, subjects, and syntactical patterns. “Especially in a Time” is one of a number of poems from the collection that are, as she explains it, “composed solely from words and phrases found” in scientific articles she has co-published. These poems, then, are a kind of re-mix of biological research. In the case here the paper is called “Rapid morphological change in stream beetle museum specimens correlates with climate change,” by Jennifer Babin-Fenske, Madhur Anand, and Yves Alarie, which was published in the journal Ecological Entomology in 2008. Here’s the poem:
Especially in a Time
Wild populations recognize that the linearity,
the relative rareness, the major museums, or any area
which is known, is a surrogate
Stream beetles, Galapagos finches, and Israeli
passerine birds are transformed
into an index of limited
Elytral lengths, slope of the regression,
and mid-latitude precipitation
unravel the anomalies
A prolonged change is also under scrutiny.
— Excerpted from A New Index for Predicting Catastrophes by Madhur Anand. Copyright © 2015 by Madhur Anand. Reprinted by permission of McClelland & Stewart, a division of Penguin Random House Canada Limited.
I read through the study that is being mined here (Madhur graciously provided a copy for me), and what struck me about the paper is how careful and tentative it is. Because it wants to be certain about what it is claiming, the essay is full of qualifications, admissions of speculation and incomplete data, and conjectures about mediating or conflicting factors. This may be a common trope in scientific literature – I admit I don’t read a lot of research papers in ecology – but in Anand’s poem that doubtful precision emerges centre stage.
The poem takes a hold of this idea in the very first stanza: “Wild populations recognize that…” a bunch of things “…is a surrogate / for proximity.” This is a sneaky way to unfold scientific language in order to indict the very sort of scientific project described in the paper. In other words, all of the ways we non-wild populations have to study the world, all of the practices at the disposal of science – isolating anomalies (“relative rareness”), coherent argument (“linearity”), broad comparative systems (“major museums”) – all of these techniques are merely substitutes for the knowledge by “proximity” that the “wild populations” have.
The second stanza continues on this track, noting that the collections of sample data from various species is really just “an index of limited / available information.” It’s worth pointing out here that Anand has picked some delightful examples to illustrate this point – the near-rhyme between “stream” and “passerine,” the quick tour around the world from the focus of her research to the ends of the earth and back to one of the centres of the ancient world. These choices bear Anand’s poetic fingerprints most tellingly — she could have just as easily chosen “gastropod size” or “introduced toad species” for this stanza, which are also mentioned in the article, but they’re obviously not as evocative as “Israeli passerine” or “Galapagos finches.”
This points to another aspect of poems that draw from other texts – as much as forms of archeology, they are also acts of curation, and in that sense they are closer in technique to “regular” poems than they might seem. “Surrogate” and “proximity” are a full paragraph away from each other in Anand’s source text, and so it is Anand the poet who has put them together. In a way every poet is drawing from a similar (if larger) lexicon of possible terms and phrases when she writes a poem, and so the constraint of drawing from a 5-page scientific essay is not so very different than the constraint of, say, forcing each line to fit into a 13-syllable structure or the demands of a rhyming sonnet.
I’m trying to make a point here about how certain recent “experimental” techniques strike me as being very similar in practice to other kinds of constraints in poetry like the use of rhyme, or meter, or syllabic count or whatever. Self-important poets and intimidated readers often see these practices as a radical departure from previous forms of poetry, but for me, “use only words that appear in this essay” is a kissing cousin to the directive, “use only words that rhyme with Innisfree.” This doesn’t diminish the delight at all – on the contrary, the virtuosity required to pull off the conceit enhances our delight, or at least it’s meant to.
Anyway, it seems to me that in “Especially in a Time,” Anand’s skills as a source-mining poet highlight the tension between the search for truth and the barriers to discovering it. I want to be careful, though, about super-imposing too much artificial “meaning” into some of the choices she makes, because part of the fun of a mashup like this is relishing the juxtapositions of scientific and quasi-poetic terminologies that don’t quite cohere. As the poem closes, Anand seems drawn to phrases like “elytral lengths” (referring to the hardened wing-cases found on many beetles), equally for their sonic richness and unfamiliarity as for their relevance for studying the effects of climate change on micro-populations. But we seem to be a long way from unraveling all the anomalies.
In the end we are left with “a prolonged change” that is “also under scrutiny.” It seems like a euphemism for powerlessness – “under scrutiny” speaks to scientific and literary attention, but also to a kind of societal paralysis in the face of tremendous, and terrifying, global trends. Our successes are incremental, incomplete, and qualified, and yet the search for scientific truth and poetic beauty continue. Should we despair because of our inability to discover the kind of sky-opening revelations that will propel the world to change? Or do we keep collecting specimens?