A Christmas Wish To A Worst Enemy

‘Tis the season to recall a “fun assignment” we had in Grade 9 English for Christmas — the assumption of ubiquitous landlines shows its age. I never did hand it in, but I sure had fun with it. (The final pastiche on “Have A Very Happy Holiday,” my friends and I had made up back in Grade 5 or 6.)

A Christmas Wish To A Worst Enemy

After you’ve dragged in the Christmas tree
(Outside it’s minus fifty-three)
And set it up all prettily
With all those glass balls and doilies too,
All fragile as Cinderella’s shoe,
And take a step back to the side
To admire it with a smile of pride
And have everyone round say “Ooh!”…
May it just wobble round and round
And finally come toppling down
Complete with a crashing sound
To wake all in the nearest town.

May every two minutes by the clock
Your phone ring in a tone designed to annoy
To find Great Aunt Melissa Crock
Exclaiming in great bliss and joy:
“Oh, you must hear about my find!
This little darling of delight!
To tell you I’ve got half a mind…
But no! You must wait for the sight!
It is just right for Uncle Joe
And Cousin Cindy! Can’t you see her?!…”
You let out a moan of anguish and woe
As you slam down the receiver
Only to be forced again to talk
In two more minutes by the clock.

When all of this seems to be over
May a dreadful howling ensue
And: “Oh no! Listen! Poor dear Rover!
Who’ll take him outside? Oh, you!”
And off you’ll trudge into the dark,
Into the blizzard, dark and drear,
With poor dear Rover to the park,
Enjoying some more Christmas cheer
While snow never seems to cease
(I told you it was minus fifty-three degrees.)

After Rover answered Nature’s call
And you crawl in, all frozen dumb,
May you think outside best of all
For now – COMPANY HAS COME!!!
You put up a valiant, losing fight
But you are forced to sing “Silent Night”
Accompanied, when it comes to that,
By Uncle Joe’s bass (four tones flat)
And Aunt Ann screaming like a scalded cat.

Dinner fills the house with its smell –
You’d rather face all Dante’s Hell.
The dining room’s adorned with Christmas cheer –
“Abandon all hope, ye who enter here.”
“Turkey’s on the table, look!”
Yes, and Cousin Cindy was the cook,
It is therefore safest to stay
Fifteen kilometres away
But you have to eat it anyway
(You must eat all before you set
According to the rules of etiquette.)

By the time Aunt Melissa’s lemon tarts are seen
Your stomach feels like it has gangrene,
You turn a shade of bread-mould green,
You choke on the bowl of your spoon
And tumble to the floor in a swoon.

And when you’re lying in bed with an aching head –
I hope you realise, all the same,
That all this tormentation
Is all for calling me a name
Unfit for publication.

Have a very dreadful holiday,
May your home be filled with awfulness,
May your Christmas be a dreadful day
For everyone you hate and curse,
May your troubles be enormous ones,
May your faults be much worth mentioning,
May your New Year be the very worst it possibly could be!

— Tamara Vardomskaya, December 1999

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Quoth The Raptor

Silly Verse Series, 3/?

This pastiche is more recent, composed for the second issue of the Ecdysis fanzine in 2014. I decided to be ridiculously silly and write a pastiche of Poe’s “The Raven” involving dinosaurs, time travel, Doctor Who references, and the opportunity to rhyme “Saurornitholestes,” which does not come every day.

Quoth The Raptor

Once upon the late Cretaceous, when the theropods predaceous
Roamed the plains of vast Alberta for delicious hadrosaur,
I was bending, groaning, drubbing, but my time machine was stubborn,
And despite all of my rubbing, it would not return to war.
I was growing quite concerned now, for I feared tyrannosaur.
Only that, and nothing more.

Ah, distinctly I’m recalling, it was spring, the rain was falling,
The corythosaurs were calling to the mates they would adore.
Eagerly I wished repair, but alas, I lacked a spare
Flux capacitor to bear the load of going yet before.
“Cursed piece of junk!” I glared. “Will I feed a carnosaur,
Or be choked by meteor?”

As I nodded, nearly croaking, suddenly I heard a knocking
As of some strong avian critter rapping on my Tardis door.
“Surely,” sighed I, “surely best is it’s some Saurornitholestes,
For velociraptors rest in peace in Asia, long before.
Bird or beast, I dare not test this wall’s resistance any more.
Grab my gun; unbar the door.”

Open then I flung the shutter when, with many a flirt and flutter
In stepped a dromaeosaurid of the Mesozoic of yore.
Not the least obeisance made he; not an instant stopped or stayed he,
But, with mien of lord or lady, strode up to me, where he bore
Dragging in his terrible-clawed foot, — a flux capacitor!
I was mute for minutes more.

Much I marvelled this ungainly fowl to bear me gifts so plainly
Which had no possible place in Mesozoic days of yore.
Was there some ill-starred Time Master whom unmerciful disaster
Followed fast and followed faster to this time and to this shore?
To help my posthuman kindred, if they live and aid implore,
Or to flee the carnosaurs?

The door shut; and yet this raptor bore no ill towards its captor
When I asked it, “Worthy theropod, whence came you to this door?”
Trying to process this strange vision, I was plagued with indecision —
Was it stolen from my humans, this advanced device it bore?
But I heard an altered Anglic voice from the dromaeosaur:
Quoth he, “6034.”

“Far into your future ages, dino uplift all the rage is.
I’m a time traveller too, though you’re three thousand years before.
I came back for my kin’s traces, to bring them to the sentient races
And my time machine is parked over on yonder river’s shore —
And your primitive machine could use my spare capacitor…
So I brought one to your door.”

Much I marvelled at this greeting and the wonder of this meeting.
But there was no time to lose, this time when yonder treads tyrannosaur.
With Saurornitholestes lifting, my machine got humming swiftly,
Though he muttered at how primitive I and my people were.
I asked how could I return his loan of flux capacitor.
Quoth he, “Time cap—“
Then, a roar.

The tyrannosaurs were here, and they had no sense of fear,
But believed that we should show respect to elders ever more.
Promptly, then, I floored the pedal, with no thought to pause or settle — And ignoring that the setting was to 6034.
I awoke. Above me waiting, smiling, my dromaeosaur.
’Twas his time. I was of yore.

The uplifted beasts are flitting; in the Tardis queue I’m sitting,
But ’tis years before I get my flight to 3054.
I try being staunch and stoic; but I miss the Mesozoic
Where the culture shock was lesser, and the simple beasts were more.
Six millennia of practice making bureaucracy a chore —
I’d rather face a tyrannosaur.

—Tamara Vardomskaya, February 2014

Ode To The Sine Wave

Silly Verse Series, 2/?

Due to demand, I will pull silly poems I have written up from my archives. This one was composed in Grade 11, while helping a friend with a frustrating math unit project on sine waves (which involved attempting to plot them in Excel, and getting nonsense due to some trick of Microsoft). I went and wrote a hyperbolic ode. I am still fond of it.

Ode to the Sine Wave

Glorious sine wave! Thou art the most fair
Of functions engraved on the Cartesian plane,
Reminding all those in the Trough of Despair
That the Crest of Good Fortune will uplift us again.

Your rule is imposed on the waves of the ocean,
The moon and the galaxies up in the sky,
History, money, the heights of emotion –
They all salute you as they cycle by.

Blessed is thy look and name to our reverent lip and eye
And only immortal hands may frame thy fearful symmetry.
Great are by thy beauty graced axes where you dwell,
Even when you are ravaged and defaced by the brutish Excel,

With grace you entwine
The horizontal line,
At no point do you end and at no point begin.
Glory be thine,
Function serpentine,
Wave of the sine,
Image of SIN!

— Tamara Vardomskaya, March 2002.

God Rest You Merry, Math Teachers

Silly Verse Series, 1/?

I happened to find a document of my old poetry, from late elementary school to early university, and convert it from WordPerfect to cruder and less refined programs that modern computers can actually read. My love poetry of the time shall never again see the light of day, but I am still rather fond of the silly verse. Here is a pastiche appropriate to the season (both the Christmas season and the exam season), inspired by what “let nothing you dismay” would actually mean, and by the events of my high school years up to autumn of grade 12. (It ended up being published in the yearbook of my high school graduating year.)

All examples are based on real events.

***

God rest you merry, math teachers, let nothing you dismay,
For you have witnessed all the horrors one can write or say,
From “seven times seven is fourteen” to limits gone astray…
All you ask is for equations to be true and defined,
And for all the equals signs to be aligned.

God rest you merry, English teachers, let nothing you dismay,
For you have witnessed all the horrors one can write or say,
In rules of grammar and common sense that students disobey…
All you ask is that commas go in their proper place
And that Hamlet’s not misquoted to his face.

God rest you merry, language teachers, let nothing you dismay,
For you have witnessed all the horrors one can write or say,
From misspellings to brutal forms of passé composé
All you ask is not to use vocab whose meaning is in doubt
And to at least get what the story was about.

God rest you, social science teachers, let nothing you dismay,
For you have witnessed all the horrors one can write or say,
From “where is the Atlantic?” to a thesis-less essay…
All you ask is for a clear, logical and balanced view
And for all the facts to be confirmed and true.

God rest you merry, science teachers, let nothing you dismay,
For you have witnessed all the horrors one can write or say,
From graphs on hand-drawn graph paper to vectors the wrong way…
All you ask is for the sig figs to be valid and trim
And for no one in the lab to lose a limb.

God rest you merry, arts teachers, let nothing you dismay,
For you have witnessed all the horrors one can draw or play,
From art not worth the paper to A-flat instead of A…
All you ask is that they practice, — just a little, is that fair?
All you ask is that they work and try and care.

God rest you merry, high school students, let nothing you dismay,
For you have witnessed tortures one can’t even begin to say,
And four tests and a summative set all on the same day…
All you ask is for the answers to be marked fair and right
And for at least eight hours of sleep a night.

– Tamara Vardomskaya, December 2002.

“On The Epigraph to Eugene Onegin” – V. I. Arnold

Samir Khan asked me for a translation of this short paper by the mathematician Vladimir Arnold (1937-2010) on his foray into literary studies: http://www.math.nsc.ru/LBRT/g2/english/ssk/arnold_sll.pdf

News of the [Russian] Academy of Sciences, Literature and Language Series, vol. 56, no. 2, p. 63.

On the Epigraph To Eugene Onegin
V. I. Arnold, 1997

The French epigraph to “Eugene Onegin” goes like this:

Pétri de vanité il avait encore plus de cette espèce d’orgueil qui fait avouer avec la même indifférence les bonnes comme les mauvaises actions, suite d’un sentiment de supériorité, peut-être imaginaire.
Tiré d’une lettre particulière

That is,

Steeped in vanity, he had even more of the kind of pride that makes one acknowledge one’s good and evil actions alike with the same indifference, out of a sense of superiority, perhaps an imaginary one.
– From a private letter

It’s generally considered that this “private letter” is a hoax of Pushkin’s, who made up the epigraph text himself.

Recently re-reading “Dangerous Liaisons” by Choderlos de Laclos, I came across the following line (in letter L [50] from Madame de Tourvel to Vicomte de Valmont):

“Je n’ai pas la vanité qu’on reproche à mon sexe ; j’ai encore moins cette fausse modestie qui n’est qu’un raffinement de l’orgueil…

I do not have the vanity my sex is accused of; I have even less of that false modesty which is nothing but a refined form of pride…”

I was struck by the resemblance to Pushkin’s epigraph. I thought that Pushkin changed “I do not have” to “he had,” perhaps unconsciously bringing the phrase closer to describing himself than Onegin, in a line from a novel “in which reflected was the day / and modern man was there portrayed / clearly enough […] with his amoral mind / churning at empty action’s grind…”*

Tending to hoaxes, he could have tried even more to conceal a borrowing from a novel about which he’d said elsewhere, “a mother would tell her daughter to spit on this book” — out of a sense of caution, perhaps a justified one. A “modest author,” as Pushkin called himself, would let himself translate just half of the “glorious verse” or to delude the reader with hints understandable only to insiders (“I’ve heard they want to force the ladies…”, etc.*)

Someone among Pushkin’s friends and contemporaries could have known the source of the epigraph.

Pushkin’s borrowings (“Faust,” “Angelo”**, Tatiana’s letter — in the West, they think the whole of “Onegin” is a re-working of Byron’s “Don Juan”) are never exact translations. The epigraph’s text resembles the text of Madame de Tourvel’s letter no less than does Pushkin’s “Novel in Letters,” evidently inspired by “Dangerous Liaisons” (although not just by them).

Not being a literary scholar by profession (and even less a Pushkinist), but a mathematician, in my work I must constantly depend not on proofs, but on sensations, guesses and hypotheses, moving from one fact to another by means of the kind of insight that lets one see commonalities in things that an observer may think completely unrelated.

A correct guess goes hand-in-hand with a feeling that further proofs would be completely useless, an almost painful feeling that’s unforgettable, but difficult to convey.

Above, I’ve tried to make the reader relive the sense of having seen this already, similar to what I felt on reading Letter L of “Dangerous Liaisons.”

Translator’s Notes:

I’m referring to “Madame de Tourvel” following the English translation rather than “the presidentess Tourvel” (la Présidente Tourvel) as she is called both in the original French and in the Russian translation.

*Arnold was almost certainly working from memory, and this is actually a slight misquotation from Chapter 7, Verse XXII of Eugene Onegin: the original says that Onegin, though mostly tired of reading, had kept “two or three novels / in which [plural; Arnold has the singular] reflected was the day / And modern man was there portrayed / Clearly enough, with his amoral soul / Self-loving and dry / Infinitely given to fancy, / With his infuriated mind / Churning at empty action’s grind.” (I’m not going to try to make it all rhyme and scan.)

** This is also a slight misquotation of Chapter 3, Verse XXVII: “I know, they want to force the ladies to read in Russian. Horrors, true! Could you imagine ladies holding / ‘The Well-Intentioned’ in their hands?” — in the section when he explains why Tatiana wrote her letter to Onegin in French, Pushkin mocks the poor Russian grammar of contemporary noblewomen, as well as putting in a dig (according to his own footnotes) against a notoriously poorly-edited magazine of the time.

(I Googled the original text in both cases, and found that both of these are misquotations, but very common ones.)

*** Pushkin’s re-write of “Measure for Measure”

 

Concert Notes – Beethoven’s Violin Sonata 5 and Violin Sonata 10

I take notes at classical instrumental concerts. Mainly to later be able to tell apart when in my life I had heard what performed by who, for the early concerts I had gotten dragged to as a child blend together in my head and I wish I could reconstruct them. I do not take notes at vocal performances, because the words interfere. I do take notes at jazz concerts, but generally just of the standards played. At classical concerts, I could take notes on the imaginary narrative film this would be the score to, but jazz performances are not a single narrative; they are a panel discussion, held in a language I only have a rudimentary grasp of. 
 
Somehow over the past few years, I lost the habit of getting imagery out of a classical work. It used to be that these images were very clear in my head, that the second movement of Rachmaninov’s Sonata No. 2 is exactly a description of the day after a breakup, and that Debussy’s “Reflets dans l’eau” as performed by Leif Ove Andsnes and by a talented university student pianist are about entirely different bodies of water. But then I grew too fixated on analyzing music, and my notes became, “Now it shifts to minor…and now the bassoon has a solo.” And that, I got told by friends who actually can analyze music that way far better than I can, is far more boring.
 
The only other person I’ve encountered who thinks like I did about music, or at least, dares put it into program notes, is Aurelien Pederzoli, a violinist formerly of the Spectral Quartet:
 
“Mice are dancing, with no direction at first, then with as much purpose as a mouse can have. Pastoral scenes pass by. A fair. The only constant is the horse’s gallop. Then everything vanishes, until only the mice are left, purposeless again. Until the horses come back and show them the way out.” (Movement 4, Vivace assai, of Haydn’s String Quartet in F major, Op. 77, No. 2).
 
“Dark. A stage. One light. The dancers from the first movement appear and dance together. Their dance is brutal and mean, more of a bullfight than a tango. The light goes off. Screams. Silence. One of the dancers reappears, limping, covered in blood. She drags the corpse of the other. She looks you in the eye and says, “Even in Arcady, I am.” (Movement 4 of Thomas Ades’s Arcadiana)
 
—from my notes as Aurelien’s program notes were read aloud, November 29, 2011, University of Chicago.
 
So when I went to hear Isabelle Faust and Alexander Melnikov play Beethoven’s Sonata #4, Sonata #5 (Spring) and Sonata #10 in G Major, November 11, 2016 at Mandel Hall, University of Chicago, I was at first influenced by what the pre-concert lecturer said about how he interpreted Sonata #4. Then, willfully, I brought back my own images for my notes for Sonata #5, and #10. I know it is influenced, like night-time dreams, by my recent experiences, the songs I’ve sung, the films I’ve watched — but I do my own dreaming.
 
Spring Sonata, #5
 
Mvt 1: Allegro
 
The approaching of a lady you’ve always admired, her silks rustling. She turns to dance with you, lightly touching your arm with gloved fingertips. But she is impetuous, ordering, and her silks and gloves are pale green.
 
She learns you are not playing along, and becomes more conciliatory. You and she walk out into the garden together, only to break into an argument.
 
Then she comes back — circling around you, many years later, as you tell her the story again. She pulls out a dark secret that’s yours and throws it in your face — and you show her you now have the maturity not to care. She is frustrated and twists her fan.
 
Then walks away. You are left at the window, wondering at this strange relationship between her and you.
 
She knocks the door down, trying to talk to you again, And you two dance in anger.
 
(They have to retune)
 
Mvt 2: Adagio molto expressivo
 
It is summer rain on a lake, the raindrops just starting to fall. A boat appears, alabaster white with a curving, blade-like prow. It pauses. A swan flies off the water in front of it.
 
The boat seeks a mooring as the rain falls. The rain then falls faster, birds flying through it, glinting stark white and almost glowing in the grey threads. The boat is rising in the water as it sails on, also glowing white in the rain.
 
It looks for a messenger, waiting for a letter of returning. It almost thinks one of the birds is the messenger, that rise of hope we know to be deceit.
 
And the people on the boat realize the letter is not coming.
 
Mvt 3: Scherzo: allegro molto
 
A dancing clown — puppets tease each other by the strings. Then they all come running away at the Fire-eater. Then return to their puppet dancing.
 
Mvt 4: Rondo: Allegro ma non troppo
 
This is when the flowers truly open and the green hummingbirds sip. Butterflies argue with hummingbirds over the hibiscus.
 
Wind rises to blow it away. The hummingbird tries to find the flower.
 
Now the wind is tossing the ears of ripening wheat, as the waves pass like ripples in the sun-coloured grain and its stiff whiskers.
 
After the rain, the hummingbird comes back to the flowers, only to find another one there. They have a contest of beauty and grace, each hummingbird trying to outdo the other, but remember, they have dagger beaks!
 
Rather than retreat, our bird is conciliatory, but then they fight.
 
The hummingbird then tells its mate about it (the theme) and becomes more and more angry with the experience.
 
Sonata #10 in G major
 
Mvt 1: Allegro moderato
 
Behold, the winter is past. Snowdrops are coming out. [Yes, I recognize the irony that I read spring images in the one that was not the Spring Sonata.] The starlings fly in and land in a circling wave, followed by another, and the brooks begin to run. The flowers are opening, their petals sprung and elastic. Now it’s the green buds that open, and it’s all a vivid pure green.
 
A female hawk circles a possible mate in the blue, blue sky.
 
A first bee goes seeking a flower.
 
The moles start digging, and pass each other messages. The woodpecker grows more intense.
 
A large bird — a grouse? I’m going to say a grouse — swoops in, its pinions just quivering as it lands on a branch.
 
A deer treads through the woods, on tiptoe, the sun gilding each separate hair of her taupe coat.
 
And the rain comes, spring rain. Birds sing, building and swelling until it seems they have to burst with song.
 
A petal swirls down, then another. Grass grows long enough to ripple. Bouncing from rock to rock, a young frog. The light turns the birches to silver.
 
A fierce fight for dominance between two birds, then a return to the brook.
 
The birds are building more and more of the next, but predators are near, looming, and strike. But miss. We stay in suspense — then the danger passes.
 
With sunset, the birds return. Then with a twist, it suddenly ends.
 
Mvt II: Adagio expressivo
 
Returning to the dusty halls of an emptied school that held so many memories that I, the violin, am about to tell you.
 
Here I had my first love, you know, tense and suspended.
 
Then he answered me, and we shyly ran through green fields, not believing it was real. And then went to sleep, giddy with it being real, and had whirlwind dreams.
 
But a reminder, says the piano, it is over.
 
Peaceful were our days, and perfect. Even as they all must end.
 
Then it trailed off. We do not get it to last.
 
Mvt III (no break; I realize in retrospect this is the movement break): Scherzo – Allegro Trio
 
Was it a war that came? A war that made us giddy with the childhood excitement. I thought of him and me, but interpreted it as us two growing up, the war giving us a chance to be adults, what we desperately wanted to do.
 
Were we fools not to see it would take away our bliss?
 
And — a cry — it did.
 
Mvt IV: Poco allegretto
 
The graceful young ladies file in, doing graceful jetés and glissade assemblé, sissone, sissone. Now me, now you — this is getting serious. Now we are putting on hard shoes and showing off.
 
Now back to being very proper and demure young girls. The instructor reprimanded them all, each by each, as they curtsy meekly, but some more defiant than others.
 
They process, even as they want to skip. Pause to listen — something completely different is ringing.
 
They have discovered something different, not formal dance but stirring love, and they are puzzled by it.
 
They walk alone, trying to figure it out. Returning to the dance, they are changed and pause, forgetting the steps. Then race as fast as they can. Then return, recognizing that love alone won’t carry them through this; they need to work. They seek help, insight, advice as they dance.
 
I did not get such imagery out of the encore, perhaps because they did not introduce the encore, and when I do not know the piece’s name, I try to work it out and do not leave enough time in mind to dream.
 
 
 

“You who’d stayed in my beggar soul…” – K. Pavlova

Russian Golden Age and Romantic poetry translation series, 9/?

I introduced Karolina Pavlova to this series a few days ago, telling about the harassment she faced as a woman writing poetry in Russia in the nineteenth century. She finally left Russia and settled in Derpt — what is now Tartu in modern-day Estonia. This poem expresses her feelings, powerful but mixed, once she settled in her new city and felt free to write poetry again.

***
Salut, salut, consolatrice!
Ouvre tes bras, je viens chanter.
—Musset

You who’d stayed in my beggar soul,
Hail to thee now, my poor rhyme!
My bright ray over ash and coals
Left from my sweet and joyful time!
The one that even the desecration
Of all shrines could not ravage through.
My curse! My riches! My vocation!
The sacred work I’m called to do —

Awake, arise, o word unspoken!
Sound once again from my sealed lips!
Descend down to your chosen token
Again, my fateful tragic bliss!
Still with your hand the mad complaining
And doom again my heart entire
To boundless suffering and pain, and
To endless love, endless desire!

Karolina Pavlova, February 1854, Tartu (Estonia); Translation by Tamara Vardomskaya, October 2016