## 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.

S-s-s, S-s-s, S-s-s
Twelve!
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?

Six!
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 amazon.com

Things to Count On

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.