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Poets Online Archive


May 2000

 Our reading is  "A WORD ON STATISTICS"  by Wislawa Szymborska (from View With a Grain of Sand) which looks rather playfully at numbers.

By the numbers. So much of our lives seem to go that way. The very page you are looking at is just a series of 0's and 1's in the computer's language. I like how Szymborska's voice is so confident in stating the facts here. The confidence of numbers.

Try starting a poem from numbers. A single number. A series of numbers (phone number, identification) numerical idioms (by the numbers, to get your number) whole, ordinal, rational numbers, the Biblical book of Numbers, dates, statistics... the possibilities are, well, infinite. 

For more on all our prompts and other things poetic, check out the Poets Online blog.

In 1951, I

was born first 
in a family 
that would eventually hold five 
where only two 
should have lived. 
Zero children for this couple.

She was seventeen, he, eighteen, a couple 
of teenagers, moved first 
to a single room where we lived 
playing family. 
fists. Five

fingers. Ten knuckles. Five 
bruises. A couple 
of belt welts always on my two- 
year old legs. Hit first, 
talk later in my family. 
Day to day I lived.

One thousand, eight hundred, twenty-five days days, I lived 
alone in fear until at age five 
one more was born to the family ­ 
now four. A couple 
of weeks passed before my mother's first 
move to

him, two 
steps at once, screaming, "I lived 
to give you your first 
breath." She screamed five 
hours at a couple 
of crying kids. Her family

ideas came from her family 
where for too 
long, a couple 
of screaming maniacs lived 
with five 
sons, everyone smacking the little girl first.

The first anyone knew of my family 
was when they hit #5 with her bottle two 
days after she was born. She never lived with the couple.

Diane Hoover Bechtler 


I open mirrored wings 
of the medicine cabinet 
to see 3 me's - 
and on the wall beside them 
a childhood portrait posed - 
the 4th.  My old eyes 
under a smooth brow 
look back at me, blind 
to the sights they are yet to see 
that will put lines at the corners 
of the 6 I look at from 3 sides. 
As I tell the icons in the triptych 
before me, "Age is just a number."

Gretchen Fletcher


I have visited the beautiful caves of number, 
whose first voice sounds the fathomless pulse 
of nullity, 
that primordial diapason, 
terrible tone in the deepest 
register of the divine 
floating like a lethal portal 
who awaits his prey in the hyacinth darkness.

Then, I have taken the stairway down 
to One: 
charcoal pencil, upright and reasonable, 
the prudent father who preaches calmness 
to his agitated posterity.

The successors of One lie, 
imperishable as the chains of love 
along endless logical escalators.

Chasing forever through caverns and shafts, 
they tumble and fall, rise and play 
from blackest red to furious violet, 
adding and multiplying their kin 
as they join to beget immortal families, 
sharply disrupted by the sinister primes, 
prim and purse-mouthed 
mysterious custodians of Reimann's secret.

Here I could starve, 
engorged by the surfeit of riches 
that spill throughout the realm of Pythagoras; 
and I wonder what sublime craftsman 
with what subtle instrument 
could etch these eternal, inscrutable harmonies.

Richard Lubbock

Family Value 

She recalls again and again, 
the same line, as a chant: 
"Seven of seven this one is ... " 
as she points to me, her 
seventh child of ten.

Yes, the seventh child 
of the seventh child and 
from daughter came daughter 
and there is that pride 
she shares with all.

I saw this in his face; 
Grandfather placing son 
with son posing for photo; 
fine generation portrayal. 
This pride that came 
forth while three were 
set and yet, he was 
wishing there were four; 
just like before.

I hang pictures on my wall. 
I place portraits on altars, 
bordering tables and vanities. 
With each nail driven or 
in each frame, I place 
a memory of importance; 
offerings from one to another, 
balancing heritage for 
future reflection.

Numbers as arrows in a quiver 
and in counting them I well up, 
with that pride; the pride passed 
down from mother, from father, 
from family lineage, that's all. 
Then again, this could be the value 
of being the seventh 
from the seventh. 
I'll always remember that quote. 

Connie E. Goulden 

Let's Mess With Mister In-Between 

When one is nothing, there is nothing left. 
We better zero in on such a thought 
so negative; or,  when we sing, we're caught 
within the mesh of song that is bereft 
of reason.  Plus and minus form a cleft 
dividing haves and have-not's (to be bought) 
while weaving everything that can be caught 
into the warp.  But what about the weft?

Let's not "accentuate the positive." 
Computer experts zero in on each: 
the One and Nothing. They train us to live 
in cyberspace - a mighty scary reach 
within the world of take and give. 
We have been thrown upon another beach 
where Nothing matters,  equal now - as sieve 
through which to sift the single strands - they preach 
to not "eliminate the negative," 
that one without the other is a leach, 
destroying everything but the most triv- 
ial.  This newer  practice we must teach! 

Catherine M. LeGault

One Singular Sensation, Every Lift That You Take

In American-flag colors, 
"Validate Your Highway 50 Survival Kit Map Here" 
and sing the anthem loud and clear... 
United the numbers we stand, 
divided the numbers we fear.

Move to Route 66 - the sunset strip! 
In your lemon-canary mustang '64 
singin' and laughin' and groovin' galore 
Together we play... apart we moor.

Numbered Blue Highways or Red  Byways, 
Where to roam next? 
Hop on 80, Blue 80 for cross-country's best! 
Share we explore... hoard we regress.

Now off the ground and into the air 
with a "Caldwell Ground Cessna 66417  flair 
requesting taxi active" 
Response, "Taxi active runway 27...give! 
Full throttle, rudder control, 
55 r.p.m.'s and yoke back. 
(Check to step on that watermelon seed!) 
Romancing to level flight 
(some sorrowful sigh) 
ground to runway track #4.

Around and around, up and/or down. 
In, out or about we do go. 
Companion your travels, 
numbers will show 
No longer lonely, 
Wait, wait, pick up 
your ONE - 1 - ONE jeweled aquamarine necklace 
from near the nosewheel before we re-fuel, 
and remember how your other shooting-star necklace 
flew off under the wing? 
As a wrap, fasten the trinity ties 
to secure your plane.

Jane Conforti

 Census Taking in the Year 2000 

53 questions 
need 53 answers 
By the first of April 
By April first 
And so I comply

One sixth of the weight of our 
5-year- old pillow is comprised 
of dust mite droppings 
One cockroach has 8 hearts 
15 years is the average life 
expectancy of a termite queen

Living by the numbers is 
Not easy without you, 
my mathematician. 
The universe feels the void. 
Now, I have told you 
Everything you will ever 
need to know. 

Susan Sapnar 

Pushing Fifty

Of late he's whipping through the latex gloves 
All that scrubbing all those fortissimo cleaners 
So far no painful cracks just some raw knuckles 
Though not the four standard ones it's a seasonal cleaning 
A season of change a mid-life experience  not a crisis 
Middle age shrink wraps crises doesn't do them in 
Just packages them for overnight express

You got till sunset to clear outta Dodge cause I'm 
Too wise too mean too experienced too damn old for crises 
Lay some stress on me Baby cause I'll huff and I'll puff 
And I'll blow your whole damn house down and out to sea 
Before you've got time to cut a tinker's fart in a crowded elevator

What he means is he's so tough 
He doesn't know how tough 
Like the little toy in Cracker Jacks 
Is the fifth decade of surprise

Michael Z Murphy 

City Streets

Streets are paved with copper 
some lucky -- heads up 
No one stoops to pocket

Gold was the promise 
when a penny was a purchase 
or a pitch close to the wall 
A pack of vended Camels 
carried two cents change 
only twenty-three more needed 
for three features and 25 cartoons

Two cents plain 
appealing mainly to the old 
Add a penny's worth of chocolate 
a spritz of milk and voilá 
the best egg creams in the Bronx

Gold was Old 
20 to a pack, two cent's loose 
where the streets were paved with silver 
rolled into a ball -- priceless as pure gold 
and the word heard was Thunderbird 
when the only bad copper 
was a "dirty copper."  City joke. 
Heads down -- bad luck 
Fun's over

Young cans kicked away 
like obverse pennies of yesterday 
hoping for the reverse 
rolling on the edge 
landing wrong side down again 
somewhere in the gutter 
like worthless coins that 
pave the street today

Copper, gold, and silver 
bear different reflections when 
ceding to the sun or memory's whim 

Yolanda Gallardo 


4 bodies sit before me. 
2 seem to surround me, 2 in front. 
I wait patiently for each sentence to be over. 
I wait for this 1 half hour to end. 
3 minutes later, it seems more like 3 years have passed me by. 
To make excuses is childish. 
To kiss them is tragic. 
To be patient may be just enough to earn 1 more half hour, 
4 days later if I hurry. 
To be judged or to be a Princess on display? 
1 more time I will think all about it. 
After I thank them for their precious time.

Lori Pender 


It all started when I was two, 
Before I knew 
That she did it all for me. 
And then came the move, 
When I turned three, 
His name was Jim and he 
Was real tall. 
Six-five to be exact. 
He would have to duck his head 
Beneath the crystal chandelier 
In the dining room, 
But sometimes he forgot and, 
I guess he forgot other things 
Like diamond rings, 
And was always late, 
So she did it again when I turned eight. 
Leaving behind the bird feeder, 
And the dog house, 
Though we never had a dog, 
And worked two jobs 
To pay the bills. 
And told me I could be anything 
I wished to be, 
As she changed from one hat 
To the next, 
Doing it all for me.

Jeff Austin 


sixty minutes an hour 
eight hours a day 
seven days a week 
four weeks a month 
twelve months a year 
seventy years a lifetime 
to forget that one sixty second 
good-bye kiss from 
your two lips my love

ray cutshaw