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Congrats to author Liz Howard for her Griffin Poetry Prize win for Infinite Citizen of the Shaking Tent!
When Percy Shelley wrote that “poets are the unacknowledged legislators of the world,” he is understood to have meant that artists make and maintain the mores of a civil society by laying the groundwork for other branches of learning. Had he written his Defence of Poetry today rather than in 1820, Shelley would likely have to support his statement with a little scientific theory. He might have used conceptual metaphor theory from linguistics, which tells us that metaphors organize and express our experiences while creating our realities. Poetry, more than other forms of communication, uses metaphor. Metaphor conditions thought.
Infinite Citizen of the Shaking Tent by Liz Howard and A New Index for Predicting Catastrophes by Madhur Anand blend the languages of science with the aesthetics of poetry. Howard, a cognitive researcher, remixes the languages of neuroscience, philosophy, literary theory and environmental science; Anand, a theoretical ecologist, the language of complex systems theory, mathematics, and evolutionary biology.
Beyond the learned vocabulary, an enmeshment of the ecological and the human, and the implicit expression of the feminist edict “the personal is the political,” the similarities in their poetic styles end.
Difficult poetry, experts tell us, arises out of social dislocation. The poems in Infinite Citizen of the Shaking Tent, Howard’s debut collection, exemplify this. The poems “are reflective of states of doubleness: of my being of both European and Indigenous ancestry, of being formed by a staggeringly wild landscape and then residing in a city, of striving for certainty and exactitude through science and ultimately embracing the expansive potential of poetry,” wrote Howard in a paper provided to rabble.
Howard engages that complexity in dazzling ways through the use of diverse linguistic strategies, such as complicated syntax and sonic intensity, and also through the use of hybrid lyric forms, such as villanelles, sonnets, and free verse.
Some of the poems, like “Bildungroman,” are a deeply personal chronicle of a childhood of poverty in northern Ontario. Others, such as “Of Her / Hereafter Song” perform a more direct decolonial intervention, in this case, upon Henry Wadsworth Longfellow’s “The Song of Hiawatha.”
If poetry is both butterfly and logic puzzle, Howard’s poems are the ineffable butterfly you cannot capture, the logic puzzle where more than one supposition is breathtakingly true; Anand’s are the butterfly named, categorized, and tracked across its migration to places real and imagined, the logic puzzle decoded through close observation, inference, and wit.
Anand’s work as a scientist is key to understanding the poems in A New Index for Predicting Catastrophes, her debut collection. Her lab at University of Guelph examines the effects of stress and disturbance, both human and natural, on ecosystems. Thirteen of the poems are composed solely of words and phrases found in her scientific articles.
The title itself refers to complex systems theory, “when a small perturbation causes a big change and leads a system to a different place, a surprising place or a catastrophe,” said Anand in an interview with IFOA.
The majority of the poems are composed of 13-syllable lines: “Of the three naturally occurring forms of carbon, only those with atomic mass 12 and 13 are stable” (99). During photosynthesis, sunlight and chlorophyll create D-glucose, a carbon diagrammed at the outset of the book. Poetry, it is implied, is a catalyst for similar types of transformation.
The poems, as with complex systems theory, take us to often surprising places, including to her Indian ancestry, her children, birds, and food.
Neuroscientists report that when we read fiction, we tap into the same brain networks as real life experience. At a neurobiological level, we are living vicariously through the characters. (Although more immediate, the voice of a poet is still a character.) Reading literature makes us more empathetic.
Because of reading Howard’s poetry, I might better understand what it is to identify as an Anishinaabe woman of mixed settler-Canadian ancestry, or how the twin ideologies of racism and colonialism perpetuate cultural genocide. This might lead me to read more about native women feminisms, join the Idle No More movement, sign a petition calling for an inquiry into missing and murdered Indigenous women, and sympathize with the desire for Aboriginal self-governance.
Reading Anand’s poetry, I might feel more keenly “Earth overshoot day,” that day each year when our demands on the planet exceed its ability to regenerate. When I read a study estimating the number of trees on Earth to be about 422 per person and approximately three trillion less than when we began clearing forests 11,700 years ago, I might worry for our planet and for restoration ecologists like Anand whose replanting efforts slow down global warming, but cannot completely restore ecological structure and function. I might plant a tree or join a Stop Line 9 protest.
I might do these things. Or I might tramp through the wet grass in my bare feet and reconnect with the earth, the way I feel these books encourage me to.
While no one would consider Infinite Citizen of the Shaking Tent and A New Index for Predicting Catastrophes manifestos for action — lyric poetry rarely is, nor do we need it to be, anything more than a private declaration we feel privileged to overhear — the metaphors they create are powerful.
It’s unlikely that Shelly would have mentioned poets and legislators in the same sentence were he writing under our current government, but metaphor does condition our thoughts. And as we are political beings, thought can shape our actions.
The reviewer wishes to thank Liz Howard and Madhur Anand for their willingness to articulate their poetic intentions in files provided to the author.
Sarah Hipworth is a freelance editor, researcher and writer living in Hamilton, Ontario.