Friday, October 1, 2010

Nursing--and other vital applications of counting

     Although counting is one of the basic activities of mathematics, its importance also extends to the highest mathematical levels.  We count the solutions to systems of equations, the crossings in a diagram of a knot, the intersections of surfaces in multi-dimensional space, the necessary repititions in a circuit covering the edges of a graph. Counting likewise imposes order on some of life's difficult and non-mathematical tasks.  In Veneta Masson's poem, "Arithmetic of Nurses," we have a vivid picture of the careful alertness required of those who cares for ill patients.
     Following Masson's poem, is "Things to Count On," one of my own poems of counting--a prose poem describing the way that numbers order the life of a frugal farmer and his family, working to make ends meet in Pennsylvania in the middle of the 20th century. 

     The Arithmetic of Nurses          by Veneta Masson

     S-s-s, S-s-s, S-s-s
     Bennie Smith is trying to speak.
     I am counting out cookies
     from a faded blue tin.

     S-s-s, S-s-s, S-s-s
     Are twelve cookies enough to hold
     a sick old man for thirty-six hours?
     Twelve cookies and one can of juice?
     Twelve cookies wrapped in a towel
     tucked under a pillow where roaches
     ply a brisk trade in crumbs?

     He blurts it out
     face lit up by the restless flicker
     of the television screen.
     No, twelve, I muse.
     Unless someone comes
     that’s all he’ll have
     till I get back again.

     S-s-s-six thousand!
     He strains under the weight of the words.
     Clearly he has something important to say
     but I am caught up with my own calculations—

     The number of minutes
     it will take a rivulet of urine
     to reach the screaming bedsores
     on this back

     The number of degrees
     his temperature will rise
     as infection sets in

     The number of days
     it will take him
     to let me call the ambulance

     The number of times
     I must walk the long hall
     to this dim little room
     the width of a bed.

     His stiff body straddles the low bed
     like apiece of plywood on a sawhorse.
     Push down on the feet, up comes the head.
     I tilt my ear toward his mouth
     to catch the stutterings.

     S-s-s-six thousand nurses…
     on strike today…
     Meh- Meh- Meh- Minnesota!

     Half his face breaks into a grin
     for if there’s one thing Bennie understands
     it’s the arithmetic of nurses
     and old, abandoned men.

"The Arithmetic of Nurses" is found in Veneta Massom's collection  Rehab at the Florida Avenue Grill, (Sage Femme Press, 1999) .  "Things to Count On," below, appears in my 2010 collection Red Has No Reason --available through Plain View Press,  and at

Things to Count On            by JoAnne Growney

I want to say how beautiful it was — but it was not. Each animal, each shed, each acre was useful; we kept them with good care and counted them, counted on them. One hundred forty acres, seven sheds. A white frame house, eight tall rooms and bath, a cellar with a dozen shelves for canned goods and four lines for laundry, a truck room for junk. We five in three bedrooms, four beds. One extra room for guests — my aunts. Our dining room with seven doors plus closets. A shed beside the corn crib with space for three wagons and a Plymouth. The barn with two mows for hay, a third for straw, a granary, a bathtub for livestock drinking, and six private stalls. Nine cows with two for milking, which I did. In seven days no minutes to be happy, no hours to be sad — not even when my father died. My mother's a good woman, worth three good women. For sixty years everyone has thought so, and more than a hundred have said. I've stopped counting.

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