I think I’ve confessed this publicly before: I am innumerate.
What an illiterate is among letters, I am among numbers. It’s a skill I don’t possess. A magnetic field, or rather anti-magnetic field, surrounds me, and I repel mathematical understanding. Or it repels me.
So that on the rare occasions when I encounter numbers that I find attractive, charming, appealing, sensible, I am thankful. And I remember them. For instance, in this poem by Mary Cornish:
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
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.
“Numbers” by Mary Cornish, from Red Studio. © Oberlin College Press, 2007.
Perhaps it will charm you too — even if you’re a whiz with numbers. I hope so, it will multiply my pleasure and add to my enjoyment. Those are mathematical operations that even I can understand!