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Poem: The Tenderness of Mathematics

Tom Brown

April is National Poetry Month, and Lake Effect has been commemorating that observance by spotlighting some local poets and their work. "The Tenderness of Mathematics," comes from Milwaukee poet John Koethe's latest collection, The Swimmer.

God created the integers, all else is the work of man -- Leopold Kronecker

He didn’t do even that, since he doesn’t exist,
And yet they’re there: 0, 1, 2, 3 dot dot dot
Ad infinitum. And if Frege was right
(And certainly he was), they descended from
The basic principles of thought, from what we know
If we know anything at all. And yet they constantly surprise:
From out of nowhere number theory gets reflected
In the properties of automorphic forms, the distribution
Of the primes seems like the distribution of the stars
In their indifference to us, and the Eightfold Way,
That leads from Plato’s paradise to here, starts out as idle
Speculation, combing through some symmetry groups,
Until the quarks pop out and bathe us in the world.
How can something so abstruse and abstract feel so close
And be so far away? “They force themselves upon us,”
Gödel remarked of the axioms of set theory, and he was right:
Like some watcher of the skies/When a new planet
Swims into his ken, we seem to see the units rearranged
Before our eyes, as what had been implicit all along
Suddenly seems clear. It doesn’t happen in life, in real life,
Yet mathematics is a part of life. In high school
I thought I’d proved a theorem about perfect numbers.
The proof contained a fallacy, but for a week or so
I felt like stout Cortez upon his peak in Darien.
The dream of mathematics is of an underlying order
We invented without knowing it, waiting there
Just out of reach, waiting to manifest itself
And for its truths to intrude upon a consciousness
Asleep in its dream, asleep in no one’s dream.

John Koethe is a local poet and Distinguished Professor of Philosophy Emeritus at UW-Milwaukee. This piece comes from his latest collection of poetry, The Swimmer.