May 16, 2012KR BlogUncategorized

Two Recent Publications by Carl Djerassi

The Kenyon Review excitedly notes two publications by Carl Djerassi, famed chemist, playwright, novelist and man of letters. In March of 2012, Haymon-Verlag released a bilingual edition of Djerassi’s poetry collection Ein Tagebuch des Grolls/A Diary of Pique 1983-1984. In September of 2012, the University of Wisconsin Press will release the North American edition, which is now available for pre-order.

Conceived in response to lost and unrequited love, the poems in the collection were composed during the anguish of break-up and the roil of damaged self-esteem that comes when a lover chooses another.  Making can be power in the wake of powerlessness, particularly making art (“After great pain, a formal feeling comes –”), and these earnest and emotionally raw poems must surely have been a balm in Djerassi’s life at the time they were written.  Djerassi had met and courted biographer Diane Middlebrook in 1977, and the initial relationship lasted until 1983, when Middlebrook left Djerassi for another.  (She later returned, and the two were married until Middlebrook passed in 2007.)  Read now, and disassociated from the circumstances of their making, the poems in A Diary of Pique will have a rapport with almost any biography, let alone Djerassi’s.  If the poems were made in a time of anger and grief for love lost to another, nearly thirty years ago, they have been collected and edited now with an elegiac grace for Middlebrook and the tragedy of loss that deepens the import.   Grief written into language can become grievance, but it can also settle the score with fate; one thing lost augurs a new thing, or many new things, made.

A central mode in the book is the act of naming; of compartmentalizing feeling into language.  In this mode, Djerassi is at his most lucid and honest, with a chemist’s precision for taking the complexities of richly felt experience and breaking it down into the requisite and brutally honest parts.  Nothing escapes this decomposition, particularly Djerassi himself.  In “L’uomo”, a seminal poem, he first spells his name carefully for the asker, with simple references (“S as in saccaharin“) to be sure the speaker understands each letter.  In the second half of the poem, he explains the name in the same letter by letter format. The poem continues to move in an incantatory way but this time suggests what the name means–or more accurately, what Djerassi himself had become.  As he lists, he revises, and starts again–his name is both stable and shifting.  Djerassi is in turn nostalgic and vindictive here; the anguish is palpable.  He likens the letters of his name to “darling,” “judgment,” “emigrant,” “researcher,” “alchemist,” “son,” “Sofia,” and “I”, each letter with it’s own history and agenda. He recognizes with rue the ugliness within himself and his circumstance in the final move of the poem:

I as in I.”
   Never impassive, illogical or irresponsible,
   Yet in the end intolerable.

              (“Right, darling?”)

For a visual reference of the work that “L’uomo” does anchoring the collection, one need look no further than the cover of A Diary of Pique, featuring the self portrait “Versunkenheit” by the artist Paul Klee. With it’s pinched-shut eyes and mouth, it as if the likeness cannot bear to see. Klee’s work has been a lifelong love of Djerassi, and Djerassi has collected it extensively throughout his lifetime.

A Diary of Pique is printed in English on one page and translated into German on the next, in verso recto style.  The pairing allows great interplay in the poems between the two languages: it is a distinct pleasure to experience a particularly moving sequence or line and check it against the German to compound the pleasure.

At the time these poems were composed, they were Djerassi’s first attempts at verse and started his parallel career as a writer while continuing as a successful chemist. In this edition, the bald emotion that was the genesis of these poems is intact, and the freshness is vivid: the poems are rife with desire, remorse, self-pity, and the multiple forms of wonder–at both enchantment with the delights of the world and at the consequences of deep emotional pain. Djerassi quotes Middlebrook in the coda on her work as a biographer, and the revealing nature of biography:

“You’re not the first person in the world who had sex–anything said about it is not too surprising. The more that each of us knows about the other human beings in the world, the better off we are.”

This edition of poems is a chance to know Djerassi that much more, to know something of the vexing nature of loss, and know something of the curative restitution that comes with the passing of time. We are indeed better for this book.


Nota Bene: Those interested in A Diary of Pique will also be interested in Djerassi’s recently published drama Foreplay. Foreplay features a cast of characters that includes Theodor Adorno, his wife Gretel Adorno, Hannah Arendt, and Walter Benjamin.

“At once outrageous and beguiling, Foreplay boldly extrapolates from the known facts of its four real protagonists’ lives to create a spirited drama of entangled emotional intrigue and mordant wit. Michael Frayn’s Copenhagen and Tom Stoppard’s Travesties have found a worthy successor.”­
–Martin Jay, Professor of History, University of California, Berkeley