Snider's poem brings to mind a view of mathematics that repeatedly bothers me: I wonder why some people -- who would not complain about the fixendess of spellings of "cat" or "dog" or "sum" -- dislike mathematics for the so-called rigidity of arithmetic facts such as "2 + 4 = 6."

**? ? ?**

**The Certainty of Numbers**by Bruce Snider

It’s not the numbers you dislike—

the 3s or 5s or 7s—but the way

the answers leave no room for you,

the way 4 plus 2 is always 6

never 9 or 10 or Florida,

the way 3 divided by 1

is never an essay about spelunking

or poached salmon, which is why

you never seemed to get the answer right

when the Algebra teacher asked,

*If a man floating down a river in a canoe*

*has traveled three miles of a twelve mile canyon*

*in five minutes, how long will it take him*

*to complete the race?*Which of course depends

on if the wind resistance is 13 miles an hour

and he’s traveling upstream

against a 2 mile an hour current

and his arms are tired and he’s thinking

about the first time he ever saw Florida,

which was in the seventh grade

right after his parents’ divorce

and he felt overshadowed

by the palm trees, neon sun visors,

and cheap postcards swimming

with alligators. Nothing is ever simple,

except for the way the 3 looks like two shells

washed up on last night’s shore,

but then sometimes it looks like a bird

gently crushed on its side.

And the 1—once so certain

you could lean up against it

like a gray fence post—has grown weary,

fascinated by the perpetual

itch of its own body.

Even the Algebra teacher

waving his formulas like baseball bats,

pauses occasionally when he tells you

that a 9 and a 2 are traveling in a canoe

on a river in a canyon. How long

will it take them to complete their journey?

That is if they don’t lose their oars

and panic and strike the rocks,

shattering the canoe. Nothing is ever certain.

*We had no plan*, the numbers would tell us,

*at the moment of our deaths.*

"The Certainty of Numbers" is in

*The Year We Studied Women*(University of Wisconsin Press, 2003). Snider was interviewed about writing this poem by Brian Brodeur in Brodeur's Blog, "How a Poem Happens" -- and, in the interview, Snyder mentions the influence of work by Naomi Shihab Nye, some of which treats elements of language as physical objects, animated in the poem. "I just applied that same strategy to numbers," Snider said, "which, because I’d always had an antagonistic relationship with math, provided me with a natural tension for the poem."

A poem that offers affection for mathematics is "Numbers," by Mary Cornish, found at Poetry 180 (a one-a-day collection of poems for secondary students) as well as at The Poetry Foundation. Cornish's poem begins with this stanza:

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.

Cornish's "Numbers" also may be found, along with 150 other poems having mathematical connections, in

*Strange Attractors: Poems of Love and Mathematics*(A K Peters, 2008).

April is National Poetry Month and Mathematics Awareness Month. Celebrate!

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