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Writing out of self pity and revenge

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The Clock Runs Backwards
Carl Djerassi Scientist
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At his sixtieth birthday party,
Surrounded by wife, children and friends,
The man who has everything
Opens his gifts.


Among paperweights, cigars,
Books, silver cases,
Cut glass vases,
Appears a clock
Made by Kool Designs
In a limited edition.
A clock running backward.
A clock called Look.

Amusing
Just the gift
For the man who has everything.


How Faustian, thought the friend,
Soon to turn sixty himself.
What if it really measured time?

As the hands reach fifty,
He stopped them.
Books, hundreds of papers, dozens of honours.
Not bad, he thought: I like this clock.

But fifty was also the time
His marriage had turned sour.
He let the clock run on:

Forty-eight years, forty-five years,
Then forty-one.
Ah yes, the years of collecting:
Painting, sculptures, and women
Especially women.

But wasn’t that the time
his loneliness had first begun?
Or was it earlier?
Why else would one collect,
Except to fill a void?

Don’t hold the hands.
The thirties were best:
Bursts of work, success, recognition,
Professor in a first-rank university,
Birth of his son - now his only survivor.

What about twenty-eight?
Ah yes - he nearly forgot;
The year of THE PILL.
The pill that changed the world
No - too pretentious, too self important.
But he did change the life of millions,
Millions of women taking his pill, he thought.

The clock still regresses.
Twenty-seven years:
first time father, of a daughter,
In time his only confessor.
Now dead. Killed herself.
The beginning of his second marriage.
The first undone.

Early stigmata of success to come:
The doctorate not yet twenty-two,
The Bachelor of Arts, not yet nineteen,
And the fallacy of presumed maturity.
First time groom, not yet twenty
Backward: Europe. War.
Hitler. Vienna.
Childhood.
Stop. Stop. Stop.

The pater familias,
Surrounded by wife, children, friends,
The man who has everything
Is still opening presents.
More paperweights, more silver,
More books, ten pounds of Stilton cheese,
And one more clock.

Thank God he’s moving forward,
Thought the friend,
The lonely one,
Who will soon turn sixty himself.

And smiled at the woman at his side,
The one he had met yesterday.
Who yesterday had said,
‘Yes, I’ll come with you to Oslo.’
And come she did,
But not for long.

Now these last two lines are added. They’re not in here. Well, that tells you actually more than you can finish then stop the entire interview. And that shows, of course, the great virtue of poetry because it condenses, it thickens. Which is what the dichter in German and the gedicht means. And anything else that I would tell you from now, if you still want to continue this interview, will be just baggage. Perhaps not garbage, but baggage.

Austrian-American Carl Djerassi (1923-2015) was best known for his work on the synthesis of the steroid cortisone and then of a progesterone derivative that was the basis of the first contraceptive pill. He wrote a number of books, plays and poems, in the process inventing a new genre, 'science-in-fiction', illustrated by the novel 'Cantor's Dilemma' which explores ethics in science.

Listeners: Tamara Tracz

Tamara Tracz is a writer and filmmaker based in London.

Tags: The Clock Runs Backwards

Duration: 3 minutes, 43 seconds

Date story recorded: September 2005

Date story went live: 24 January 2008