Friday, July 23, 2021

Excitement from Finding a Proof . . . and then . . .

Recently I have been revisiting the poems that Sarah Glaz and I collected for the anthology, Strange Attractors:  Poems of Love and Mathematics (AK Peters / CRC Press, 2008) and renewing my enjoyment of them.  Here, from page 146, is  a sample.

The Proof by Theodore Deppe
I could live like this, waiting on the roof
for the great egret that flies overhead
at just this time, measuring the sun's height
with my fingers to see if the moment's come,
Annie studying the horizon as she describes
the last minutes of a show she watched
in which some mathematician -
she didn't catch the name - labours seven years
to solve a proof he's been enthralled by
since childhood, and though Annie tuned in
too late to know the nature of the problem,
she loves the pure joy with which he looks
into the camera and announces, I've found it -
there are tears in his eyes - I've found it.  

A fishing dragger's heading home
with its trailing veil of gulls, the egret's
late in coming, and it turns out that
after presenting his proof to his colleagues,
after being feted for the discovery of the century,
the mathematician sees one day his solution
is flawed. Even recounting this, Annie's face
is radiant. The poor guy buries himself in his room
another year, a friend visits to tell him it's a gift
to be able to make good mistakes, it's harder
than you'd think to make mistakes that lead
to something new, but our hero's unconsolable.
Finally, his wife says the only thing she wants
for her birthday is the correct proof,
but he can't solve it, even for her.
As Annie speaks, gulls keep swooping
close behind her and then gliding up
over the flat upper roof to drop clams
and crack them open, and yes, our mathematician
at last errs dazzlingly and stumbles upon
his new theorem, and no, we don't know
who this gentle smiling man is or what he's found,
but the evening coming on is filled with such
sweetness that we're up and all but dancing
as we dedicate ourselves to making
a few glorious mistakes and watch
one scruffy gull eye us from the gable
as he guards his food fiercely, fiercely.

This poem is found in Deppe's collection Cape Clear, New and Selected Poems (Salmon Publishing Ltd, Ireland, 2002).

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