Tuesday, February 12, 2013

Hilary Tham -- Counting a life

     Several of my friends speak with reverent admiration of Hilary Tham (1946  -2005),  noted Washington, DC-area poet, teacher, and painter (whom I never met, for she died a few weeks after I moved south from Pennsylvania).  Born in Malaysia, Tham came to this country as the bride of a man she had met as a Peace Corps volunteer.  In her book-length poem, Counting, Tham's poetic voice interprets her journey from Malaysia to New Jersey to Arlington, from Buddhism to Christianity to Judaism, from beginnings to explorations, from arrivals and departures to blessings.  Here, from Counting, is the opening poem. 

Counting     by Hilary Tham

 . . . what you give away / is all that you own . . . . .  It's like counting 
leaves in a garden, along with the song-notes of partridges / and crows.

                                -- Jelaluddin Rumi  "Acts of Helplessness"

One:  there were Chinese gods
sitting on altars
                          wanting food
and temples with fish ponds.

Two:  came Buddha wanting nothing.

Three:  I found Jesus
       who was love and forgiveness after
       "Bless me, Father, for I have sinned . . . "

Four:  were books that beckoned and I followed
       in half-lit rooms the shadows of Sartre
              and Camus' Stranger.

Five:  I found lamps called poems,
       striking matches, rubbing words to make light.

Six:  I met a light-bearer named Joe
       who asked me to convert
              to Judaism and I said, "What? You want me
to regress to man-made systems of worship?"

Seven:  "For our children," he said.  "Faith is
       the most comforting of security blankets."
Since God rested at seven, I did too.

Counting was published in 2000 by The Word Works.
My encounter with Tham's poem has led me to reflect a bit on the power of mathematics.  Just as the elementary process of counting has great power in this poem, so also do complex mathematical procedures wield power in the situations to which they are applied.  We can count on mathematics!
One of my own counting poems, "Things to Count On," may be found in this posting for 1 October 2010.

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