When leaders disappoint … there is always poetry

“You should have been there to hear and counter the rhetoric about our self-inflicted failures”, one of several disappointed callers said after the presentation of NSERC’s President in Edmonton.  Madame Fortier’s take-home message? It was the mathematicians problem: That $700K were skimmed from our 2011 Discovery Grant budget, that too few people are interested in mathematical research, that too many of us are in the top bins (which cost money), that we don’t use and appreciate the wonderfully accessible RPP programs, that fundamental research doesn’t sell anymore in Ottawa, that blogs and public letters to ministers don’t help, etc …

“I am not immune to mental fatigue, disillusionment and discouragement, you know. I am all ready to give up”, I said Then came this email.

A collection of poems, a gift, from a former UBC Math student

Dear Dr. Ghoussoub:

I hope you get a kick out of these poems.
Dan Lukiv, BSc, 1976 [Mathematics, Dean’s Honour List, UBC]
For the Math Gyze (a collection of poems)
To the Mathematics Department, UBC: Thanks for the good times (1972-1976)


He stops, mid-
Equation-jumble, mid-thought,
Eyes staring upwards,
Scratching his Garfunkel head
With one end of a chalk stick,
Releasing white dust into his

Snow builds up on plaid shoulders,
Even on cracked leather shoes,
Until he jerks into action,
Filling the green board with
Further hieroglyphica.

This, in the auditorium of many seats,
For a little clump of fourth-year
Hyperbolic experts,
Who have grown unmoved by these
Blizzards that come
And go.


Trigonometric orbs
And Fourier green-waves partly filled
With Greek letters of
An expanding universe too distant,
For the moment,
In his brain that seems to hurt,
He thinks.

The physics student,
His eyes glazed–
Too much adrenaline and thyroxin
In cerebral arteries?–
Determines to reach the bus stop
On time,
For the cross-town trip
Amongst sweat-smelly homo sapiens;
Well-gaited, he walks headfirst into a university
Telephone pole,
Bounces immediately backwards,
Stands shaking his head,
Clutching his notebook and
Hieroglyphic text
As if they were dwindling provisions
On a space station; he has not yet
His mismatched shoes–

One brown, one black,
One with no heel.

But he makes it to his bus
On time,
Trying not to rub the Cyclops-blotch
On his forehead.


When I showed him 7 pages
Of calculations bobbing, I suppose,
In that stormy sea of Calculus,
That revealed, I said, how far
Milton’s teeming heaven stood from
Minuscule earth,
Given, of course, the devil-liar had taken
3 days to accelerate
Before landing–
7 pages smack in the middle of 15
Called “The Mythology of Paradise Lost”–

The literature professor sat looking, looking,
Looking up at me. I felt my heart too much
As I exposed my handiwork engraved
On the most expensive vellum
I could purchase.
He didn’t actually notice, I think,
That he was shaking
His head.

“I’m trying to show that the arts and sciences
Aren’t really that far apart,” I said,
But he just kept looking,
Shaking his head even harder.


The second-floor, glass-and-steel walkway
Between the English the mathematics buildings
Had cut-outs of crows on clear walls
To discourage little birds from crashing
To their death.

Sometimes it worked.


Gulliver didn’t know about
The speed of light,
He hadn’t heard about the
Fundamental Theorem of Arithmetic,
And he was too early for Einstein’s
E = mc2
Or his bigger find that
“The most incomprehensible thing
about the universe
Is that it is comprehensible.”

Gulliver didn’t know that
Feasting bacteria die
In their test tube-waste,

But he could have known that
A family of 2 has 1,
A family of 3 has 3,
And a family of 5 billion has over
12 quintillian (*)
(You know?)

He could have told
The Yahoos
About that.

(*) n(n-1)/2


It’s the key,
Or the axe–

Words might lack
The clarity of
y = x2,
But only the polyglots
Or complain,
I cogitate


And Ezra Newton–
Do you remember him?
He was no linguistic prude,
Or prune;
He tossed Cantos-salad,
Like a juggler tossing
Like Robert Lowell
(Scoundrel, poet, or both?)
Juggling fidelity
And freedom
(Whose Imitations
(“Reckless with literal meaning”)
Sang its own songs?),
Carving sculptures
With chisel and Bly’s 8 steps,
Aiming for “rightness of hand,”
Like a trembling archer
Aiming for the deer’s

The let’s-stop-smoking
Workshop leader had
Lots of red hair
And purple nails:
“My name is Professor Thompson,”
She said.
“I’m a psychologist.”

The first question came from
Someone called Jack-the-math guy
In a muscle shirt:
“When,” he asked bluntly,
“Do we get a smoke break?”

Remove the spiral:
No rope
To tie down ships,
No corkscrew
To unleash wine.
Remove the sunflower
And seashell
And pine cone
And cochlea.
No rose,
No spider web.

Remove eyespots.
Make bland
Butterfly wings,
Fish scales.
Remove these
Orbs of courtship,
These attacker repellents,
These reminders to
“Leave me alone!”

Remove the circle
Of sun and Mars
And all sunround
All beebread
And colour.

Remove the sphere of
The fruits
And berries
Of more colour
And size.
Throw away
Throw away these curves
For all things straight.

Turn man
Into lines.

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