The Mathematics of Missing Socks

April 17, 2014

National Poetry Month. 17

Three tulips plus a fraction of another

Three tulips plus a fraction of another

by Mary Cornish, from Poetry 180: A Turning Back to Poetry, ed. Billy Collins

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
garden now.

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.



2 Responses to “The Mathematics of Missing Socks”

  1. shoreacres Says:

    This is wonderful. I don’t know the poet, but her poem is perfect for someone whose relationship to math has been ambivalent, at best. Your tulips are pretty, too.

    • Rosemary Says:

      I loved math all the way up to calculus, and then I couldn’t get my brain around it anymore. This poem calls to mind my daughter, who never liked math.

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