Tuesday Poem

Pure Mathematics

I’ve been told it is all theory in the end, no letter
…. applying to number
That stands for a thing, no principal accruing interest
…. in a practical account,
Only the pure joy of theory and the theory of theories
…. I heard
My drunk mathematician friend try to explain one night
…. in a Country & Western bar,
Collaring the few who’d listen, truckdrivers and ex-jocks,
…. to show them proof
That followed some premise they didn’t care to understand.

We might have been crabs comprehending opera or sibyls
…. poking the blue entrails of frogs,
And still his logic accumulated napkins in an orderly pile
…. that the red-haired waitress,
Who finally asked him to leave, swept away and dumped
…. under the counter in a barrel.
And driving home later on that icy farm-to-market road,
…. he was still
Expounding, jubilantly, maniacally, as the way weaved
…. and the universal values
Of arbitrary points unrolled an infinitely expanding line.

It was the clean relish of his mind that made me forget
…. the hard curves, the trees
That loomed from snowy shoulders down to the creek.
…. My mind was never like that.
What I liked best the year I studied calculus was chance
…. error, my lame prayer
That I might arrive like Columbus, who came by wrong
…. to the right unknown. Nothing applied.
O hypothetical mind, we many who are left behind know
…. we can never know. We
Stand grounded under the twin wings of the infinite sign.

But in the banking offices near the train station in Rome
…. where the currency
Is exchanged—Kroners for deutschmarks, yen for lire—
…. at all applies.
A button is pushed and the great curve flashes onscreen,
…. reckoning all commodities,
All livestock, grains and ores, all modes of production,
…. all strikes against management.
And all mismanagement, all mines, ships, wells, and guns
…. represent and are represented by
The fluctuation of that curve against the undeviating line

That neither gold, nor oil, nor missiles banked in silos
…. will ever turn to theory.
In one of the white lies that numbers tell, I stood there
…. while dollar went
Down on its knees and prayed to the Allah of the Saudis
…. and the Buddha of the Japanese
To rise changed into millions of lire, to sing in the grotto
…. of the vendor’s palm,
O wherever I went that day, not knowing the language,
…. and no difference too
Small, no knowledge that would not be turned to advantage.

by Rodney Jones
Transparent Gestures
Houghton Mifflin, 1989