March Poem of the Month: Numbers, Mary Cornish

JV Icon Poem of the Month

March is Women’s History Month.  Celebrate!

I loved the Academy Awards, especially the surprise twist when Moonlight (the film I thought was the most deserving of Best Picture) ended up winning, even after I long ago resigned myself to a sweep by LaLa Land (which I also enjoyed). But my favorite movie of 2016, for its deft storytelling and utter feel-goodness that lasted long after the lights came up, was Hidden Figures, the story of three smart women who each made major contributions to the 1960s NASA space program.

As a “wordie,” I don’t fully comprehend the experience of those for whom math and science are driving passions. To immerse myself in that world was a treat. This month’s offering is is my thank-you to all who light up with equations the way I light up with poems. Such cross-cultural understanding can only help build bridges–so let’s also invite the engineers!

Numbers

I like the generosity of numbers.
The way, for example,
they are willing to count
anything or anyone:
two pickles, one door to the room,
eight dancers dressed as swans.

I like the domesticity of addition–
add two cups of milk and stir–
the sense of plenty: six plums
on the ground, three more
falling from the tree.

And multiplication’s school
of fish times fish,
whose silver bodies breed
beneath the shadow
of a boat.

Even subtraction is never loss,
just addition somewhere else:
five sparrows take away two,
the two in someone else’s
garden now.

There’s an amplitude to long division,
as it opens Chinese take-out
box by paper box,
inside every folded cookie
a new fortune.

And I never fail to be surprised
by the gift of an odd remainder,
footloose at the end:
forty-seven divided by eleven equals four,
with three remaining.

Three boys beyond their mothers’ call,
two Italians off to the sea,
one sock that isn’t anywhere you look.

—Mary Cornish

(c) in the name of the poet. Used for educational purposes.

Journal Prompts

  • Following the poet’s “formula,” write your own ode to numbers. It might help to put yourself in the mindset of someone you know who deeply loves the poetry of mathematics. (This prompt is affectionately dedicated to Jayne.)
  • “Even subtraction is never loss,/ just addition somewhere else:” Think about a loss you have experienced. Write about how it might represent “addition somewhere else.” What in your life has opened up either as a result of the loss or in spite of it?
  • Write about things you might forget to count.
  • Write a story about a time, perhaps in school, or later in life, when math was magic.
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