One Number

What do the numbers 4 or 7
feel like to a bird
with four or seven notes
in its invariable song?

Imagine
being able to count
without knowing anything
of those empty placeholders
the numbers.

Imagine going
only by your pulse
& a feeling of completion
when the 4 or the 7
have been sung.

Imagine being able
to know
one number

with the body,
never with the mind.

A door opening
only to the right key.

The right forest
complete with mate
& nest & young
waiting beyond.

28 Comments


  1. i like this. the last stanza especially. plus, as someone not friendly with numbers, i enjoy work that reminds the world just how abstract numbers really are. :)

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    1. Thanks. That’s where I was coming from, too. But it occurs to me that the common meditation practice of counting the breath might aim at a similarly direct experience of quantities as I’ve posited here for birds.

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  2. I am so taken with this I have no words to tell you so.

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    1. Really? Wow. Sounds as is you’ve contracted acute vianegativitis.

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  3. The mockingbird steals everyone’s key, fumbling at the doors to other lives, other woods, other nests.

    World-expanding, as always.

    And because I cannot resist:

    It’s the wrong song, in the wrong style
    Though your lips are lovely, it’s the wrong smile
    It’s not her smile, but such a lovely smile
    So it’s all right with me.

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    1. Good point about mockers, and thanks for the Cole Porter lyric!

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  4. Dave, this is astonishing. I’m infected as well (with vianegativitis) and I’m hoping it stays long.

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    1. Hey, thanks. Never heard “whopperjawed” before — I love it!

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  5. Hmm… numbers as abstractions are specifically human, but any number of creatures recognize small numbers as direct experiences!

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    1. Yes, I’m sure that’s true. I used birds because they’re what came to mind. (This poem started as a line that wouldn’t fit into my Morning Porch post.)

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  6. I played the flute for so long, and so much, that I know a lot of numbers with my body.

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    1. Actually, I had a line about human musicians in the first draft of my poem. I took it out because I wanted to keep things simple, but I’m glad to have my inkling confirmed.

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  7. This is as perfect a little thing as I’ve seen come along in some time. So enjoyable.

    The second stanza does a lot of work, and it does it manfully. The next stanza — just beautiful — and the rest of the poem take flight from its shoulders.

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    1. Peter, if you like this kind of poetry, you should check out my main model here: the Argentinian poet Roberto Juarroz, sections of whose Vertical Poetry (the single collection he’s been working on his entire career, like Leaves of Grass for Whitman) have been ably translated in two English volumes, the first by W. S. Merwin and the second I believe by Mary Crow. Juarroz blends the philosophical and metaphysical with the lyrical better than any other living poet I’ve read.

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  8. Well, yet again I’ve turned to Via Negativa in an idle moment… and I don’t get many of those these days… only to be nailed to the spot by a new thought. And as if the thought alone were not enough to send me out into the garden with scales fallen from my fifty-eight year old eyes… no mean feat that, on your part Dave… but the execution of the vessel conveying the thought is so immaculately constructed, so beautifully rigged.

    Here, where our world is layered with birds at every level, from the wrens darting like mice in the leaf litter to the red kites and buzzards keening far above the valley, I often wonder what things look like from their varied perspectives. (Lately I’ve been making myself dizzy imagining what the dozens of swallows experience visually while strafing the lawn at high speeds. Jack careers about, seemingly oblivious of anything other than the pursuit of his frisbee, while they in turn weave a cats-cradle of flight paths around him practically grazing his whiskers in the pursuit of insects. And never a collision nor a pause in the liquid slicing of the air by birds and dog. Perfect traffic control! And perfect harmony too, as our terrier has a gentle, bird-loving nature.)

    However never before reading your poem have I thought about the meaning of numbers to song birds. And so not for the first time at Via Negativa, I walk away from the ‘idle moment’ having found that my perception of the natural world has been changed by a poem, and I know that I am going to have to memorise it so that it can stay with me. What a gift. Thank you.

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    1. Thanks for that glowing review, Clive. But thanks even more for your second paragraph, which has all the makings of a poem in its own right. It is surprising how seldom creatures collide in nature — no wonder so many people see the hand of an invisible choreographer. But for me, the dance is more beatiful for being improvisatory, and having no director beyond chance and evolution.

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  9. THIS IS SO WONDERFUL.
    I have read that crows can count to eleven. Perhaps that’s why they can’t sing.

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    1. What a great comment! Have you considered writing a blog, sarah b? (Though some great commenters prefer not to write blogs, I understand.)

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    2. Thanks, Sarah. Crows can sing, though. They wait until no one’s listening, then — being brainy — launch into Mozart.

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  10. It is pleasing to know that the number of petals in most flowers conform to the Fibonacci series.

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    1. Yes, but fortunately for the flowers, they don’t know anything about it. It might spoil their nectar if they did.

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  11. I have thought about this before, but never as articulately as this. I wonder what need counting the breath rather than simply following it fulfills. I’ve thought too about the notion of numbers as visual and heard things—eight as its shape and look and sound rather than that number of heartbeats. It’s like the flip side, maybe, of what you wrote.
    I love “Imagine being able/to know/ one number/with the body,/never with the mind.” You quantify that number but don’t name it. Interesting.

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    1. Thanks for commenting. Not being a regular meditator, I can’t tell you what extra benefit the counting might confer. I think I’ve read poems about numbers as glyphs and sounds; for sure I’ve read such treatments of letters. (Which of course shouldn’t discourage you from writing such a poem yourself, if you have an idea of how to do it.)

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