Wednesday, November 20, 2013

A poet (math-daughter) speaks of math's beauty

I met Minnesota poet Roseann Lloyd when we served together on an AWP (Associated Writing Programs) conference panel on translation several years ago.  There I was considering, as I so often am, the translation of mathematics into representations that poets understand.  Roseann 's father was a mathematics professor and she learned early that "mathematics is its own beauty."  And she has permitted me to offer you this poem.


Once Daddy enthralled his students at SMS --
handsome in his navy blue suit and dusty hands,
chalk clicking out equations lickety-split.
A third-grader, I waited for him every day
in the cool marble hall.  Listened to the rhythm
of the chalk on the board.   Even then I knew
that pure math is an art equal to music, second
only to poetry in the realm of beauty.    

Then Daddy traded in his navy blue
for a cashmere camel overcoat, took to saying,
You gotta go out there -- look sharp. 
Fired one of his salesmen who showed up
with a drop of blood on his collar. 

Once Daddy drove a beater, Sweet Betsy,
the car that hauled us over the Rockies
from the Ozarks and back again.  Then
he traded her for a two-toned Chevrolet,
the aqua & turquoise polished bright as his black shoes.
You gotta look successful to close the deal.

Once Daddy sang gospel in a country hall.
Then he moved us up to Minnesota, joined
the red carpet church of millionaires.  Rich
people didn’t like his simple songs.   We Are
Climbing Jacob’s Ladder.
  Surely, he was
on his way to the Million Dollar Roundtable.

Once Daddy’s church taught him movies were a sin,
then he saw The Bridge on the River Kwai
came home quoting St. Paul:  Slaves, love your masters.

No matter his job, that childhood Bible gave
Daddy all the words he needed to make himself 
master of the house: fornication, heresy, filth,
disrespect and deceit.   Spare the rod...  Flesh
of my flesh, bone of my bone, I will do with you
what I will. 

No wonder we had to act out, hollowed children.
No wonder I’ve spent my life, professing
poetry for pennies.  And the younger ones—
who never heard his chalk sing the blackboard?
One jabbed all his sissy art into his veins,
left the rest of us here on earth. Another bested
Daddy at his own game.  Another kayaked wild rivers
daring the wilderness to take him.

No wonder Daddy sits in the nursing home, destitute,
kept alive by the two things he hates the most:  drugs
and Democrats.  
                No wonder
he paces the halls, speaking from the place
where his joy is still alive, lecturing the other
demented ones on the beauty
of prime numbers.
Written June, 1996, three years before Lloyd's father’s death.
Poets with mathematicians "in the family" have special insights into the nature of mathematics that few other outsiders share -- for more of this see, for example, my July 20, 2010 posting.

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