Monday, April 30, 2012

What do we do with these numbers?

During March 22-25, 2012 I participated in the Split This Rock Poetry Festival.  One of the fine poets I met there was Oregon poet and teacher, Ingrid Wendt.  Her poem, "Numbers" shows the dramatic impacts that numerical information may have.  It is time to count.  Time to help.  Time to do right.

   Numbers     by Ingrid Wendt

                    Poem ending with words by William Stafford

   Iris says there's safety in numbers, when

   someone else arrives to share the house she won't
   need to lock the door

   When did Iris last read the news? 


   And did you, like me (age nine? age ten?), try

   dividing the total number of babies 
   born in one whole year (how many was it?) by

   all the days in the year, by twenty-four hours,
   by sixty minutes, sixty seconds, oh!

   So many new babies in one single second!
   (Any thought of how many new dead?)


   Now, what do we do with these numbers?

   The five largest airline disasters, in order
   Uncovered, the biggest mass graves to date
   Whoever is leading in thousands killed
   (Iraq, ourselves, Afghanistan, Palestine, Israel)

   How many less were lost in the towers than first

   Numbers being the news.


   Earthquake, Haiti:  two hundred
   thousand dead, government sources say, or maybe

   Two million homeless, three million
   needing emergency aid

   More than the great
   Indian Ocean tsunami, how high

   Reader, must the number be for us 
   to say it's time

   To contribute?


   Three miles away, I saw them
   burning, saw one
   go down
   for my phone
   came back
   the other
   was gone

   Well, I
   was three blocks
   away, saw people running

   I was across the street
   saw people jumping

   Well, I had an afternoon meeting planned
   right there 


   Before the broadcast of body bags returning
   was banned

   Five weeks before "Shock
   and Awe," at least

   Six, the BBC said, and maybe ten million people protested in sixty
   countries around the world on one
   single weekend.

   According to Guinness, the protest in Rome:
   three million alone:  the largest
   anti-war rally in history.


   Sixty-five thousand Iraqi civilians killed
   since 2003, or one hundred seven
   thousand (different sources, take
   your pick).  Our war

   is on Terror, not
   that country.  Repeat, we are not
   at war with that country.

   Is this what the people of that country believe?


   And now, the need for an increase in troops,
   the only question: ten thousand? twenty?

   And now, the suicide increase in troops
   returning, the largest
   percentage ever.


   And here, the homeless vet on the corner.

   Here, the Cottage Grove family's telegram triggering
   earthquakes, aftershocks

   all the rest of their lives


   Imagine life is a great big seesaw and each of us
   a grain of sand.

   Your job:  to put your grain of sand
   where it belongs

   You never know which grain will be the one that tips it
   in the right direction.  (Pete Seeger, in concert.)


   Here's how to count the people who are ready to do right:
   "One."  "One."  "One."

Wendt's "Numbers" is from her collection Evensong (Truman State University Press, 2011).  She also has written about poet William Stafford (1914-1993) who was a conscientious objector during World War II.   I alert you to, in particular, her 2011 article for the National Council of Teachers of English:
"The Unknown Good in Our Enemies: The Poetry of William Stafford and Poetry From the Middle East".  The article contains four Stafford poems, as well as poems from Iraq, Iran, Afghanistan, Israel, and Palestine, and offers an extensive list of recommended books, anthologies, websites, and films, for classroom use. 

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