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My parents and my early childhood

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Vocalissima
Carl Djerassi Scientist
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I, the scientist, 
Who read these words 
And snort 
Without aplomb. 

Today 
Is any scientist 
Pure? 
Especially to poets? 

Is aplomb 
Ever nice 
To the spectator 
Hiding envy? 

Poet-don’t you know 
There is few scientists 
With aplomb 
As there are poets?
So that was the first one. But here comes to what I now call my wife. I called my wife since that time, and that’s the only- I use it the same way as when she calls me chemist. If she- If I call her Diane then she would be startled and think I have some mean agenda on the mind. And that is from the shortest poem that Wallace Stevens has ever written. It’s called "To the Roaring Wind" and the entire poem Wallace Stevens says, what syllable are you seeking vocalissimus in the distances of sleep? Speak it. That’s it. So my poem is called "Vocalissima" instead of vocalissimus-
Vocalissimus Stevens! or is it Wallace Vocalissimus? 
What familiarity do you permit? 

You wrote about women: 
  sweet smelling virgins; trembling ladies; peached and 
      ivory wenches; 
  beautiful bareness sinewy nakedness; 
You call them: 
  Liebchen, mon bijou, mon extase; even a pearly poetess. 
You name them: 
   Carlotta, Eulalia, Flora;
   Mariana, Bawda and Susanna; 
   Bonnie and Vincentine (lean heavenly Vincentine). 
More formally: 
   Mrs Anderson, Mrs Dooley, Mrs Papadopoulos. 
   
Was there a Vocalissima? 

I knew one:
After your death, she lived with you 
Three long years. In 1095 days 
She learned by heart each word you wrote. 
She knew your rose rabbi, your dark rabbi, 
  your doctor of Geneva, 
  even your uncle with a monocle 

These are all titles of Wallace Stevens poems, and then I wrote in French- 

  (Monsieur excusez la traduction anglaise, 
  Mais elle ne parle pas comme une Française.) 
  
In time she collected some men, 
Then many, 
Then one: a modern alchemist.

But he, 
Master of chemical mutations; 
Whose alchemy touched millions, 
Could not transform her, 
Nor transform himself. 

Vocalissime! Speak it! 
How does a modern alchemist 
Transmute himself 
into a Vocalissimus? 
Well, that was still in the revenge phase but ever since then I call her vocalisima. And that is- So that’s certainly how I got my my wounds and emotional hurt, particularly revenge out of my mind. And the interesting part is revenge is a motive that occurs in many of my plays and novels as an example, because I use it again autobiographically, as an example of- It’s probably the most powerful motive we have, and also a bad one. And again that juxtaposition of poison and nourishment, or poison and stimulus it stimulates to do things which you might not either want to even be able to do under ordinary circumstances. At the same time it’s bad and it, it affects you negatively in many, many different ways. So that was just another example of it.

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: To the Roaring Wind, Vocalissima, Wallace Stevens

Duration: 3 minutes, 54 seconds

Date story recorded: September 2005

Date story went live: 24 January 2008