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
Three miles away, I saw them
burning, saw one
for my phone
was three blocks
away, saw people running
I was across the street
saw people jumping
Well, I had an afternoon meeting planned
Before the broadcast of body bags returning
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
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
And here, the homeless vet on the corner.
Here, the Cottage Grove family's telegram triggering
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.