Tuesday, July 5, 2011

Mathematicians at work

     About her collecton, The Scottish Café (Slapering Hol Press, 2002), Susan Case offers this note:
     This series of poems is loosely based upon the experiences of the mathematicians of the Scottish Café, who lived and worked in Lvov, Poland (now L'viv, Ukraine), a center of Eastern European intellectual life before World War II, close to the area from which my own ancestors emigrated to the United States.  A book, known as the Scottish Book, was kept in the Café and used to write down some of their problems and solutions.  Whoever offered a proof might be awarded a prize.
     Here is "Fixed Points," the opening poem from Case's collection:

   Fixed Points    by Susan H. Case

   At first they meet at the Café Roma in Lvov
   on Saturday nights to discuss mathematics
   and drink cognac
   but Banach lives beyond his means
   and is annnoyed that he can't work out something
   with the proprietor about his debt
   so he persuades the others to move
   across the street
   to Zielinski's place--the Scottish Café
   where the food is not as good
   the cognac is not is good
   but the music is good
   and the credit is better
   and they begin to meet each day around five
   Banach -- Mazur -- always the center
   at a little table with a marble top
   where they talk and write
   and stare silently at the spaces in their minds
   filled with even more formulas
   than those written down on the marble table top
   some of which later get written down
   ino a school notebook with a marble-pattern
   cardboard cover
   that Banach's adored wife Łucja
   buys for two-and-a-half zlotys
   at a drugstore in Lvov and into which Banach
   who does not like to write things down
   enters the first problem in nineteen-thirty-five

   problems go on odd pages
   solutions on the opposite pages
   filling up the Scottish Book -- it is chaos sometimes --
   arguing and writing and thinking
   but chaos is better than order  -- says Auerbach --
   you can't lose anything in chaos
   (or find anything either)
   but a lot of mathematics
   is found
   at the Scottish Café
   and lost too -- one session lasts seventeen hours
   and results in a proof of a theorm
   about Banach spaces
   but no one writes it on paper
   only on the table top
   which is wiped off later by the janitor
   after the Café shuts for the night
   which still today no one can reproduce

Case's poem "Raisins," from the same collection, is available here (and a .wav file of the Case reading it is available here A Polish-English version of The Scottish Café, Kawiarnia Szkocka, was published by Opole University Press in 2010.  Thanks to poet Stephanie Strickland, a former editor for Slapering Hol Press, for alerting me to Case's work.

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