Saturday, December 05, 2009

`A Sluggish Eternity'

The teacher called a birthday party for herself. Students were to provide entertainment, loosely defined. If they entertained, 10 points; if not, zero. My student made an origami crane more elegant and precise than anything he’s ever written. Another boy bravely botched two card tricks. The brown-nosers baked cookies, cupcakes and brownies. On his electric guitar without an amplifier a long-haired boy plucked, almost soundlessly, “Hysteria” by Muse. A violinist valiantly wrestled with Vittorio Monti’s “Csárdás,” and another hinted at “In the Hall of the Mountain King.”

The final birthday present was my favorite. A very young-looking seventh-grader with red hair, a button-down shirt and chinos stood at the front of the room, hands clasped in front of him as though he were praying, and rattled off from memory pi calculated to the fifty-fifth decimal place. He spoke conversationally and enunciated each number. It was poetry, as beautiful and moving as the queen’s final speech in Antony and Cleopatra. Nobody clapped and the flustered-looking teacher asked, “How do we know those were the right numbers?” The kid shrugged his shoulders and said nothing. I never doubted the numbers were correct nor would Wisława Szymborska. Here’s her pi:

“The admirable number pi:
three point one four one.
All the following digits are also initial,
five nine two because it never ends.
It can't be comprehended, six five three five, at a glance,
eight nine by calculation,
seven nine or imagination,
not even three two three eight by wit, that is, by comparison
four six to anything else
two six four three in the world.
The longest snake on earth calls it quits at about forty feet.
Likewise, snakes of myth and legend, though they may hold out a bit longer.
The pageant of digits comprising the number pi
doesn't stop at the page's edge.
It goes on across the table, through the air,
over a wall, a leaf, a bird's nest, clouds, straight into the sky,
through all the bottomless, bloated heavens.
Oh how brief -- a mouse tail, a pigtail -- it is the tail of a comet!
How feeble the star's ray, bent by bumping up against space!
While here we have two three fifteen three hundred nineteen
my phone number your shirt size the year
nineteen hundred and seventy-three the sixth floor
the number of inhabitants sixty-five cents
hip measurement two fingers
a charade, a code,
in which we find hail to thee, blithe spirit, bird thou never wert
alongside ladies and gentlemen, no cause for alarm,.
as well as heaven and earth shall pass away,
but not the number pi, oh no, nothing doing,
it keeps right on with its rather remarkable five,
its uncommonly fine eight,
its far from final seven,
nudging, always nudging, a sluggish eternity
to continue.”

[From View With a Grain of Sand: Selected Poems, translated by Stanisław Barańczak and Clare Cavanagh, 1995]

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