Before World War II, the city of Lvov, Poland (now L'viv, Ukraine) was a significant cultural center. Several of the now-famous mathematicians who lived there gathered regularly at a local café to discuss ideas and problems. They recorded their best problems (and solutions, when they had them) in a notebook that came to be known as "The Scottish Book". In The Scottish Café, Susan H. Case uses the story of these mathematicians — and of what happened to them as war approached — as inspiration for a cycle of poems dealing with life in the shadow of great catastrophe.
As the author explains in her note, these poems were written after the September 11 attack. Case uses the story of mathematicians living in Poland as Nazi Germany became more and more of a threat as an indirect way of exploring her own experience of living in New York and wondering whether further attacks were coming. The names are all well known: Banach, Kac, Tarski, Ulam, Orlicz, Schauder, Steinhaus, and several others. Some of their mathematics makes it into the poems, but Case is more interested in their personalities and their reaction to the Nazi threat.
When mathematics does come in, Case does a better than average job of capturing it in her verse. (There is quite a bit of poetry inspired by mathematics out there, but not a lot of it is very successful or very correct!) There is one big mistake, in a poem about the Banach-Tarski paradox: Case says it involves a dissection into an infinite number of pieces, which of course would render the paradox not very paradoxical. But the focus is resolutely on the people, their passion for mathematics and for problems, their lives before the war begins, and what happened to them when catastrophe came.
I hesitate to venture to comment on the poems as poems. Still, at the risk of making a fool of myself, here are a few remarks. Case's open, unpunctuated, verse does a good job of creating an atmosphere of foreboding and of dramatising the mathematical obsession of these men. There are occasional good lines, but the best effects are achieved not with individual lines but with the accumulation of small telling details. There are also occasional clunkers, such as a description of Banach, drinking heavily at a conference in Georgia,
dazzled by the proof in the vodka
the proof in the mathematics
For my money, this isn't brilliant poetry, but it's competently done and captures with nostalgia, respect and horror a significant moment in the history of twentieth century mathematics.
Fernando Q. Gouvêa is Professor of Mathematics at Colby College in Waterville, ME. He is interested in number theory, poetry, the history of mathematics, and football (the real thing, not the American version).