I like the generosity of numbers.
The way, for example,
they are willing to count
anything or anyone:
two pickles, one door to the room,
eight dancers dressed as swans.
I like the domesticity of addition---
add two cups of milk and stir---
the sense of plenty: six plums
on the ground, three more
falling from the tree.
And multiplication’s school
of fish times fish,
whose silver bodies breed
beneath the shadow
of a boat.
Even subtraction is never loss,
just addition somewhere else:
five sparrows take away two,
the two in someone else’s
There’s an amplitude to long division,
as it opens Chinese take-out
box by paper box,
inside every folded cookie
a new fortune.
And I never fail to be surprised
by the gift of an odd remainder,
footloose at the end:
forty-seven divided by eleven equals four,
with three remaining.
Three boys beyond their mothers’ call,
two Italians off to the sea,
one sock that isn’t anywhere you look.
Mary Cornish’s Numbers
I distinctly recall reading this poem for the first time. As I reached the final line, I didn’t allow the last image of a lone hiding sock to digest, instead I returned with haste to the beginning and started again. I remain enamored with the sense of playfulness within the constructs of order in this poem. Sure, we focus on numbers---their rules and processes---but Mary Cornish infiltrates the structure of mathematics with imagination, providing alternate explanations for what we know and accept without question. Most of us would accept 5 - 2 = 3, but she pushes herself to envision the story behind the problem (five sparrows, with two leaving for another garden). When Mary Cornish sees numbers she dreams images; God love her.
Notice how the poem begins with a simple declaration: “I like the generosity of numbers.” How often do we associate numbers with money, bills, test scores, taxes, and other dour subjects? Cornish provides a contrary view; numbers are welcoming, giving entities and she invites us to approach them with curiosity and creativity. Her numbers are democratic, “they are willing to count / anything or anyone.” The link connecting the poem’s stanzas is obvious: these simple mathematical functions are rooted in the act of creating. Addition has a sense of “domesticity,” pulling together ingredients to form a common dish. Multiplication is tied to the natural process of reproduction. Subtraction, where we expect reduction, is actually an act of transfer, embodied in the hopeful notion that “subtraction is never loss, / just addition somewhere else.” And long division is tricky because its creation lies within, just as there is “inside every folded cookie / a new fortune.” When these functions are not exact we have remainders. More often than not, remainders exist amongst us: the stack of papers left on a desk, the pennies between the couch cushions, the blackened banana peel half hanging in the trash can, and the box of folded love letters in the remotest corner of a closet. Rightly so, Cornish ends the poem with a list of remainders connected by nothing but her wondrous mind.
Unlike some of the other writers I will present over the course of this month, Mary Cornish is not a poet of great stature, at least not yet. She graduated from Sarah Lawrence with an MFA in Creative Writing, won a Wallace Stegner Fellowship, and has published one book of poetry, Red Studio. And still, I wouldn’t trade this poem or Mary Cornish for anything or anyone in the great canon of literature and poetics. Just in reading this single poem it’s obvious that she owns and cultivates a freshness that so many of us desperately seek. Her writing is positive and imbued with ingenuity, but also deeply embedded with principles. She has given us a poem that forces us to pause and reconsider something as matter-of-fact as numbers---the way we view them, use them, and create them. Often we are bluntly reminded that science and math have moved beyond myth. While this is true, Mary Cornish’s keen eye and inspired mind prove that art can, indeed, penetrate the rigid boundaries of science.
Numbers is a poem worth treasuring. It is a piece of art that guides us through the world organically, using numbers as our entry point. While, to some degree, it’s impossible to read a poem and not ask ‘What does this mean,’ I believe Mary Cornish expects this reaction. She anticipates our curiosity; in fact, she invites it. The images within this poem could all open up into another poem, story, or essay. There is the palpable sense that the poem will venture into new territories at any moment and that makes for an exhilarating reading experience. Although the poem never explodes, we’re allowed to further the stories Cornish began. We can decide why there are “eight dancers dressed as swans.” We are free to ask where the boat is headed that the fish are breeding beneath. We can formulate a mission for the Italians at sea. And we can search for the pesky sock in places that Mary Cornish has yet to look, yet to even imagine.