Saturday, October 16, 2010

`All That It Needed to Do in This World It Did'

For thirty minutes each morning I help a fifth-grade girl with arithmetic. Her grasp of the subject is eccentric, which may be true for all of us. The number nine stymies her. She counts readily by tens and knows her addition and multiplication tables – that is, she sees the answers in a flash, without calculation – but only through eight. With nines she resorts, laboriously, to her fingers.

She asked how to calculate the area of quadrilaterals and when I mentioned square inches and feet, she asked what that had to do with square roots--a subject she has never studied. She told me her favorite number is one hundred forty-four because it’s the product of multiplying twelve by twelve. When I told her a dozen dozens is called a gross, she giggled. She has a taste for numerical symmetry but she can’t multiple nine by three.

She was absent for two days and her mother told me her daughter’s five-year-old cousin had been diagnosed with a brain tumor, probably inoperable. My student hasn’t experienced severe illness or death. She’s sweet-natured, a genuine innocent. When she returned to school, she assured me her cousin is “just fine,” they had brought her home from the hospital and “hooked her up to a bag of stuff that goes in her arm.”

I thought of Janet Lewis’ “For the Father of Sandro Gulotta,” to which Lewis appended a note saying the poem was “written for Vicenzo Gulotta of Milano whose son was dying of leukemia”:

“When I called the children from play
Where the westering sun
Fell level between the leaves
of olive and bay,
There where the day lilies stand,
I paused
to touch with a curious hand
The single blossom, furled,
That with morning had opened wide,
The long bud tinged
with gold of an evening sky.

“All day, and only one day,
It drank the sunlit air.
In one long day
All that it needed to do in this world
It did, and at evening precisely curled
The tender petals to shield
From wind, from dew,
The pollen-laden heart.
Sweet treasure, gathered apart
From our grief, from our longing view,
Who shall say if the day was too brief
For the flower, if time lacked?
Had it not, like the children, all Time
In their long, immortal day?”

Beyond some point, glosses and explications are indecent.

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