My Dance is Mathematics


by JoAnne Growney

 published 2006 by Paper Kite Press

now available here

Scroll down for poems   –-    those named to the right and a couple of extras





  Things to Count On
  Small Squares /

     The Bear Cave (a poem of Romania)
  A Mathematician's Nightmare
  San Antonio, January, 1993
  My Dance Is Mathematics
  Fool's Gold
  Butterfly Proposal
  Can a Mathematician See Red?




Axes beget coordinates,

dutifully expressing

functions, graphs,

helpful in justifications,

keeping legendary mathematics

new or peculiarly quite rational

so that understanding’s visual

with x, y, z.



Small Squares


Mock feelings

serve as well

as true ones.


When lovers leave,

avoid laments.

Grab a cactus —

new pain forgets.



Things to Count On


I want to say how beautiful it was — but it was not. Each animal, each shed, each acre was useful; we kept them with good care and counted them, counted on them.  One hundred forty acres, seven sheds.  A white frame house, eight tall rooms and bath, a cellar with a dozen shelves for canned goods and four lines for laundry, a truck room for junk. We five in three bedrooms, four beds.  One extra room for guests — my aunts.  Our dining room with seven doors plus closets. A shed beside the corn crib with space for three wagons and a Plymouth. The barn with two mows for hay, a third for straw, a granary, a bathtub for livestock drinking, and six private stalls.  Nine cows with two for milking, which I did.  In seven days no minutes to be happy, no hours to be sad — not even when my father died. My mother's a good woman, worth three good women.  For sixty years everyone has thought so, and more than a hundred have said.  I've stopped counting.



When browbeating fails —

gaudy, hazardous,


bargain-basement shoes

keep women in place.


More than the rapist, fear

the district attorney

smiling for the camera,

saying that thirty-six

sex crimes per year is a

managable number.


The Bear Cave (a square poem of Romania)


Twenty-five years ago at Chiscau,

marble quarry workers discovered —

trapped by an earthquake in a wondrous,

enormous cave — bones of one hundred

ninety bears, Ursulus spelaeus

(now extinct). Cold rooms of cathedral

splendor now render tourists breathless

while the insistent drip of water

counts the minutes. There is no safe place.








The clock goes round —

showing time a circle

rather than a line.

Each year's return to spring

swirls time on time.




Time's not

            as Newton said —

                        the same for all —

for I

            am punctual,

                        and you are late. 

You waste

            the savings

                        I spend on you.



A Mathematician's Nightmare


Suppose a general store --

items with unknown values

and arbitrary prices,

rounded for ease to

whole-dollar amounts.


Each day Madame X,

keeper of the emporium,

raises or lowers each price --

exceptional bargains

and anti-bargains.


Even-numbered prices

divide by two,

while odd ones climb

by half themselves --

then half a dollar more

to keep the numbers whole.


Today I pause before

a handsome beveled mirror

priced at twenty-seven dollars.

Shall I buy or wait

for fifty-nine days

until the price is lower?



The price-changing scheme of this poem is derived from a version of the Collatz Conjecture, an unsolved problem that has stolen hours of sleep from many mathematicians.  Start with any positive integer:  if it is even, take half of it; if it is odd, increase it by half and round up to the next whole number.  Collatz' Conjecture asserts that, regardless of the starting number, iteration of this increase-decrease process will eventually lead to the number one.





Six o'clock does not exist, but at seven

she answers your knock, elegantly dressed

for the nineteen jewel evening you've carefully planned.




At my time’s end I want to rust away

like the graceful iron gate that wore jack-o-lanterns

in October, swung the lions of March winds,

struck the backsides of generations of women

bringing groceries to the kitchen door.





Ah, you are a mathematician,

            they say with admiration

            or scorn.


Then, they say,

            I could use you

            to balance my checkbook.


I think about checkbooks.

            Once in a while

            I balance mine,

            just like sometimes

            I dust high shelves.



San Antonio, January, 1993


A mathematician left the convention

focused on 9, the digit that sits

in the billionth decimal place of pi,

ratio of circumference to width

of the yellow circle that parted the clouds

as she strolled down Commerce Street

to the Rio Rio Café for lunch and a beer.


On fire with jalapeños

she went shopping

for a souvenir. 

She bought earrings —

red-red plastic peppers

with green stems. 


She said, "Hot peppers

are like mathematics —

with strong flavor

that takes over

what they enter."





Fool’s Gold 


Not a cashmere sweater for the moths to eat,

nor a Picasso print to hide a dent in plaster.

No more scarves or earrings or a bread machine,

no crystal perfume vials or precious inlaid boxes. 

Please, no plants I might allow to die.

Celebrate this birthday with numerology.

Select and give a number.  I like large primes—

they check my tendency to subdivide

myself among the dreams that tease

like iron pyrites in declining light.


Consider seventeen.  Its digits will

turn heads when I wear it large and crimson

on a grey T-shirt.  Watchers will wonder

whether I pay tribute to the ancient Flood

that started and drew back on seventeenths

of Hebrew months, or if I count invasions

of northern India by the warlord Mahmud,

or if, like early Muslims, I base the world

on it—the sum of one, three, five, and eight—

basic lower corner of the magic square.           




Lament of a Professor

                    at the End of the Spring Semester


I took an extra step to bridge the gap

between us, blind to your matching backward step.

We've moved in tandem until I'm angry

at you, and at me — I thought you needed

lenience, but gentle rebukes instead

would have changed the direction of our cadence

and given you a chance to lead the dance.




My Dance Is Mathematics


Down, down, down into the darkness of the grave

Gently they go, the beautiful, the tender, the kind;

Quietly they go, the intelligent, the witty, the brave.

I know.  But I do not approve.  And I am not resigned.


From "Dirge without music" by Edna St. Vincent Millay*; read by Hermann Weyl in a Memorial Address for Amalie Emmy Noether  on April 26, 1935 at Bryn Mawr College.  Born in Germany (1882) and educated there, Noether fled the Nazis to the US in 1933.


They called you der Noether, as if mathematics

was only for men.  In 1964, nearly thirty years

past your death, I saw you in a spotlight

in a World's Fair mural, "Men of Modern Mathematics."


Colleagues praised your brilliance — but after

they had called you fat and plain, rough and loud.

Some mentioned kindness and good humor

though none, in your lifetime, admitted it was you

who led the way to axiomatic algebra.

Direct and courageous, lacking self-concern,

elegant of mind, a poet of logical ideas.


At a party when you were eight years old,

you spoke up to solve a hard math puzzle. 

Fearless, you set yourself apart.


I followed you.  I saw you forced to choose

between mathematics and other romance.

For women only, this exclusive standard.


I heard fathers say, dance with Emmy—

just once, early in the evening.  Old Max

is my friend; his daughter likes to dance.


If a woman's dance is mathematics,

she dances alone.


Mothers said, “Don't tease.  That strange one’s heart

is kind. She helps her mother with the house,

and cannot help her curious mind.”


Teachers said, “She's smart, but stubborn,

contentious and loud, a theory-builder

not persuaded by our ideas.


Students said, “ She's hard to follow, bores me.”

A few stood firm and build new algebras

on her exacting formulations.


In spite of Emmy's talents,

there were always reasons

not to give her rank

or permanent employment.

She's a pacifist, a woman.

She's a woman and a Jew.

Her abstract thinking

Is female and abstruse.


Today, history books proclaim that Noether

is the greatest mathematician

her sex has produced.  They say she was good

for a woman.



Excerpt from "Dirge without Music." Copyright (c) 1928, 1955 by Edna St. Vincent Millay and Norma Millay Ellis.  Used by permission of Elizabeth Barnett, Literary Executor, The Millay Society.



 Can a Mathematician See Red?


 Consider the sphere —

 a hollow rounded surface

 whose points seen from outside

 are the very same points

 insiders see.


 If red paint spills

 all over the outside,

 is the inside red?


 The mathematician says NO,

 the layer of paint

 forms a new sphere

 that is outside the outside

 and not a bit inside.


 A mathematician

 takes safe pleasure

 in surface mysteries.


A poet

sees red







If you take a rose with petals curled

and put it in a vase beside the clock

that has no hands, someone you thought

was lost returns for morning tea.


If you push hard against your belly wall

and square your shoulders while no one

watches from the pines, you hear

your sister's whisper in distant highway noise.


If you slowly peel an orange after noon

and pluck tomatoes by the quarter moon,

you see beyond obsession to details.


If you walk the river's edge to pick up stones

and pile them to mark a place, tomorrow’s dawn

shines bright upon your broken fingernails.



Good Fortune


is good numbers—

the length of a furrow,

the count of years,

the depth of a broken heart,

the cost of camouflage,             

the volume of tears.



Butterfly Proposal   


The future looks sad and scares you. 

Don’t let forebodings hush the echoes

of old voices—we need the past to build

high spirits.  I’ll write you

into a poem.


A butterfly on your hand proposes life—

a promise drawn at the intersection

of Broadway and Euclid, a fortunate convergence

that counters disillusion.  Butterflies

are transient, illogical


while you wear every sort of rule

impalpable and tight.  You shrink from praise

and flounder in the caramel of fear’s sweet heat.

Your moth-mind skitters everywhere;

your deeds all are polite.


Twist your finger with rubber bands:

the throb will keep you sane.  You don’t

have to fix each broken thing.  Adjust your ears;

hear slowly.  Into the pauses





Of Education


Only a Fool would go to school unless he's not

and seeks thereby to learn to Fool but then, we note,

he is a Fool.  He who'd teach is twice a Fool—first,

to trust a pencil's words because it has a point,

more Fool to join the pool that reason logically,

whom rippling muscles ridicule.


A rule of school is that no Fool can make a sow's ear

from a velvet purse, despite the whirlpool

that spins new thoughts.  The bureaucrat wears motley

when he tries to overrule the teacher who can show

that EXCELLENCE has more E's than FOOLISHNESS.

No pencil scrawls by itself—it’s but a tool.