Zero is the number of yearning

The promised report on the Poetry of Love and Mathematics reading here at the Joint Meetings:

I enjoyed the reading, more for the break from the conference, the eagerness of the readers and the generous appreciation of the crowd than for the quality of the poetry. It was a nourishing experience.

  • Judith Baumel was maybe my favorite poet reading tonight.
  • The best poems read were not from the readers present, but were others included in the anthology Strange Attractors, whose editors organized the reading. The selection from Eryk Salvaggio’s “Five Poems about Zero” might have been my favorite treatment of mathematical theme.
  • Bob Grumman’s visual poetry in the form of long division problems was unpretentiously clever formally, I thought.
  • A poignant moment was the reading of the late Ron Mosier’s “Finishing the Math” in which he contemplates sleep and death as great places to enjoy doing math free from the worries about correctness.
  • And the most entertaining moment was Israel Lewis’s reading of his “Cantor: Not Eddie”, a poem for two voices. The poem is a mid-intercourse conversation between two lovers about cardinalities of infinite numbers. Israel, who is an elderly white man, was missing his usual co-reader; her spot was ably and amusingly filled by Deanna Nikaido, a young and attractive asian woman.

But the best and most interesting poem of all was read by John Vieira, who very astutely chose a word problem from Bhaskaracharya‘s Livati, a 12th century Indian treatise on arithmetic. It was the most beautifully written piece read all night! Here it is. Enjoy and solve with memory and longing!

Whilst making love a necklace broke.
A row of pearls mislaid.
One sixth fell to the floor.
One fifth upon the bed.
The young woman saved one third of them.
One tenth were caught by her lover.
If six pearls remained upon the string
How many pearls were there altogether?

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8 Responses to “Zero is the number of yearning”


  1. 1 JoAnne January 8, 2009 at 7:41 am

    THANKS for attending the poetry reading — as an organizer of the reading (and an editor of the anthology, STRANGE ATTRACTORS: POEMS OF LOVE AND MATHEMATICS), I appreciate your recognition of the poets and their poems. I hope you will continue to enjoy reading the anthology’s more than 150 poems. JoAnne

  2. 2 withastone January 8, 2009 at 8:42 am

    JoAnne, thanks for your comment, and thanks for pulling together such an enjoyable evening and such an interesting group of poets.

  3. 3 Karren Alenier January 9, 2009 at 6:57 am

    I greatly appreciate your frank and well written response to the Strange Attractors reading. I am also glad you found Salvaggio’s treatment of a mathematical theme sufficiently like-able if not my surreal poem “Dialectic of the Census Takers.” I was particularly drawn to Salvaggio’s theme because of my recent paper on Gertrude Stein who said zero was nothing except for one. She creates in her short novel “To Do: A Book of Alphabets and Birthdays” a binomial romance between zero and one. Thank you for taking the time for the review. In the absence of your blog post, I had nothing as to feedback except my own dangerous reactions.

  4. 4 Bob Grumman January 10, 2009 at 1:28 pm

    “Bob Grumman’s visual poetry in the form of long division problems was unpretentiously clever formally, I thought.”

    Whaddya mean, “unpretentiously!?”

    Chee.

    Irately yours, Bob Grumman

  5. 5 withastone January 11, 2009 at 12:30 am

    @Karen: Thanks for the pointer to the Stein piece; it sounds interesting. My preference for Salvaggio’s treatment of a mathematical theme, however, shouldn’t be taken as not finding your poem like-able. I enjoyed many poems that I didn’t mention, including yours. (My memory is just not good enough to recall and react to more than a few.)

    @Bob: You would prefer ‘pretentiously’?

  6. 6 Bob Grumman January 11, 2009 at 8:26 am

    Egad, Withastone, do you not know that I pride myself on being The Most Pretentious Poet in the History of the World?!

    (Actually, I was very pleased to see my name in your entry–and did like your calling my poems unpretentious since they can seem to some to be pretentious, though not as pretentious as some of my explanations of them–which even I have to admit can be pretentious. So: thanks!)

    –Bob

  7. 7 Kaz Maslanka January 12, 2009 at 8:36 pm

    I have to agree with you about John’s reading it was wonderful.
    Thanks,
    Kaz

  8. 8 withastone January 19, 2009 at 10:16 pm

    In case anyone who was not at the reading is viewing this post, you can get a sense of the festivities via the pictures here.


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