Sunday, November 3, 2013

Neruda speaks of numeration

The collection, Late and Posthumous Poems, 1968-1974 (Grove Press, 1988) by Chilean Nobelist Pablo Neruda (1904-1973) offers to readers a collection of Neruda's later work, ably translated by Ben Belitt.  Here is a poem that explores the vast world opened by the invention of numeration.

     28325674549     by Pablo Neruda

     A hand made the number.
     It joined one little stone
     to another, one thunderclap
     to another,
     one fallen eagle
     to another, one
     arrowhead to another,
     and then with the patience of granite
     the hand 
     made a double incision, two wounds,
     and two grooves:  and a
     number was born.

     Then came the numeral two, then
     a four;
     one hand kept making
     them all --
     the five, the six,
     the seven,
     the eight, the nine -- zeroes
     like bird's eggs.
     as rock
     printing the numbers
     without wearing away, aind inside
     that number, another,
     and another inside that other,
     teeming, inimical,
     prolific, acerb
     and spawning,
     filling mountains, intestines,
     gardens, and cellars,
     falling from books,
     flying over Kansas, Morelia,
     blinding us, killing us, covering all:
     out of wallets, off tables:
     the numbers, the numbers,
     the numbers.

Thanks to California poet (and former math teacher) Amy Uyematsu who alerted me to this Neruda poem -- it also appears in the bilingual collection The Hands of the Day (Copper Canyon, 2008), translated by William O'Daly.

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