Thursday, July 11, 2013

Counting on numbers

Alan Michael Parker's anthologized and highly regarded poem "Family Math" begins in the style of a typical word-problem from Algebra -- and continues with a weaving of the ways that numbers describe our lives.

Family Math     by Alan Michael Parker

I am more than half the age of my father,
who has lived more than twice as long
as his father, who died at thirty-six.

Once a year for four days
I am two years older than my wife,
until her birthday.

In practical terms I am three times older
than the Internet, twelve times
the age of my obsolescent computer,

five times older than the new century
and only now a half-century old.
I have taught for more than half my life.

Most afternoons of teaching
follow unfinished mornings.
Yesterday I held a book seven times older

than I am.  Twenty-eight hours
and a few minutes later, I still recall the smell,
a leathery, mildewed tang.

Seventeen and one-half years ago, my son
was born, which took twelve hours.
His delivery came two weeks late.

The smell in the delivery room
seemed primordial, iron in the blood,
and shit, and another kind of smell--

more abstract, if that's possible,
Twenty-six years ago I studied
abstract ideas in school, and I still don't know

what's possible.  Now I teach.
My mother taught for twenty-nine years
until she retired to read.

My friend remembers all he reads--
so when does he finish a book?
I can't remember when I stopped counting

on my fingers:  where was I in language?
I feel older than all the wars going on,
but I'm not; some are very old.

Sadness remains the source of my politics.
In my home, very few items I own
are older than I am, and almost none I use.

We say, "the wind dies down."
Is that what we mean?  The wind has lived?
When babies are born, they don't know

either night or day.  We teach them.
Tomorrow is not my birthday
but all the math will change again.

More to busy me, more to figure and record.
More to have.  More to let go.

Parker's poem "Family Math" comes from his collection Long Division, (Tupelo Press, 2012) and is used with the permission of the poet and the publisher.  My post for 11 January 2011, "Self-portrait with numbers," features a poem by Geof Huth that also explores ways we use numbers to focus a poetic narrative. 
More and different sorts of "number poems" may be found in this most recent posting of  Bob Grumman's Scientific American Guest Blog.

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