Tiddliewinked into the inkwell, – that thimble of pale enamel like an egg’s shell, nesting
in an ancient wooden eye –
they were the counters
and we counted them: one two, three – but who was this crosslegged abstraction – 4?
We added them into a column which leaned towards infinity before it spilled and scattered its random pattern on the floor.
Soon they’d have us lined up
in columns: human logarithms chanting an ugly prayer
to the god of Multiplication.
The chaos we came from would always be there – whatever was done
with the counters.
Those bright buttons of colour we placed on our tongues,
to taste the smoothness
the thinness of 1.
Mary Somerville 1780-1872
The strain of abstract thought, her father feared, might injure her tender female frame. It did not. It was more the needlework, the pianoforte
at Miss Primrose’s Boarding School for Girls
in dreary Musselburgh which fettered her spirit. When she left, she said she felt like
a wild animal escaped out of a cage.
Then there were the endless parties
and balls and concerts and visits – all
those ‘harmless flirtations’ bored her stiff.
The private painting lessons at least
dealt in perspective, the Elements of Euclid,
and Nasmyth, with his painter’s eye, saw
that her talent was less for landscape
than plotting how the vanishing point
might move with the picture’s spectator.
He referred her to Leonardo, Brunelleschi. Meanwhile she did her brother’s algebra
by the light of a hidden candle in her room. When it had spluttered and gone out,
she worked by the light of the moon.
Out there, the night sky seethed with riddles and she ached to explore its perspectives,
its vanishing points, its spectator.
What she couldn’t work out today
she would understand in the morrow.
Soon something had to be done
to bring about the rights of women
to study the mechanism of the heavens,
for example the orbit of Uranus.
What is its perturbation were caused
by a hypothetical planet? What then?
How difficult it was to be a young lady
and midwife to the birth of Neptune.
ama suva, ama lulla, ama quella*
I am chosen by the Quipucamayoc the keeper to be the runner from our village the last runner to Cuzco itself where it is said dreams are lived
and the knots are stored like sacred treasure
it is undoubtedly an honour to be the last along these long roads which have been laid for this express purpose to direct me
through such vast lands strange and wild
with unnamed plants unnumbered beasts towards order and the naming of all things
and more importantly the counting of them perhaps at last even I will be named or counted in any case I am chosen I have no choice
ama suva, ama lulla, ama quella
my father sacrificed a goat for me my mother
tied a necklace of tomatoes round my neck
a bladder of water on my back I will need them
the meat of the fruit the water I am grateful for them my duty to deliver the quipu may be rewarded maybe not in lima beans or maize but in coins maybe gold coins like the sun itself my father
has told me not to trade them for women
or boys but I may trade one for chicha
and drink to Pacha Mama Pacha Tata
Mother Earth Father Earth I am your servant rewarded if not by the king then by the keeper
of the quipu or a servant of the keeper in any case
ama suva, ama lulla, ama quella
the green may be cattle the blue babies born the yellow those tried or waiting to be tried
the tallow threads those punished or pardoned the orange those put to death I don’t know
the white may be peace the red war
in any case it is not for me to understand
what each thread each knot represents
tens no doubt hundred no doubt thousands
in the end all things must count and be counted I was chosen because I am a good runner
I have faith I will be rewarded if not in coins
I will be sacrificed and my death recorded
in any case it won’t have been for nothing
ama suva, ama lulla, ama quella
* Inca moral dictate: ‘Don’t steal, don’t lie, don’t be lazy’.
It was no wonder that the servants at Gartness
were loth to speak their master’s name; it was itself
a rum conundrum: Napeir, Nepair, Neper
Napare, Naper, Naipper. Lord Merchiston it was. They had seen the castle fields fertilized,
using common salts for the manure, sprout
corn and crops of all sorts. More than once
at his bidding they had to shut down the mill
not to silence the cascade – which, he said, soothed his thought – but the clack of the wheel which interrupted the flow of his calculation.
They heard him speak with Auld Nick
of spherical triangles, of tables made from numbers. One reported that he could make a thing occur
by predicting it would not. She heard him say:
‘Mr Briggs will never come now’ whereupon,
in a coach and horses all the way from London, who do you think should draw up at the gate?
Some even swore he could make numbers multiply themselves; those who’d seen his ‘bones’ cut from ivory and marked with numbers
like the keys of some satanic piano
dared not doubt that fearful fact,
for at full moon they had often watched
their lord go abroad into the night
wearing but his nightgown and his cap
and under his arm – for they knew not what
dark necromantic act: a cockerel, black.
997: The Reckoning
This is what you have to do: write their numbers in this book.
The taking away of the living the adding up of the dead –
a strange arithmetic isn’t it? They were numbers in life too.
Something I’ve noticed: orifices. Human beings have nine.
Ten, if you count the umbilicus.
This one is nine nine seven His only significance now
is his number: the last prime before a thousand.
I don’t suppose it matters to him that he has that distinction.
You’ll get used to it. I did.
Go on from where I left off.
After the next two, of course you’ll need another column.
Now I have to go over there to count the living.
All those men who went to Mow, went to mow a meadow –
were they mad?
Had nobody told them
that their job was pointless, that the meadow was endless?
One thing is clear:
they did not go by choice.
They went because they were sent.
Maybe it was no co-incidence that they place they mowed in was called Mow.
No doubt it was named after its reputation: all that mowing day and night, neverending.
The problem was the grass kept on growing and growing and the owner despised daisies.
Then one man – deafened
by lawnmowers – shouts to his dog: ‘I’ve had enough! Let’s go!’
Then two men – the two
who followed him to Mow – stop, wipe their brows and go.
Three men, four men, five men…. Very soon there is an exodus
of men from the meadow.
Before leaving, the dog cocks his leg at the infinite and pisses a zero in the grass.