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I like the generosity of numbers.
The way, for example,
they are willing to count
anything or anyone:
two pickles, one door to the room,
eight dancers dressed as swans.

I like the domesticity of addition--
add two cups of milk and stir--
the sense of plenty: six plums
on the ground, three more
falling from the tree.

And multiplication's school
of fish times fish,
whose silver bodies breed
beneath the shadow
of a boat.

Even subtraction is never loss,
just addition somewhere else:
five sparrows take away two,
the two in someone else's
garden now.

There's an amplitude to long division,
as it opens Chinese take-out
box by paper box,
inside every folded cookie
a new fortune.

And I never fail to be surprised
by the gift of an odd remainder,
footloose at the end:
forty-seven divided by eleven equals four,
with three remaining.

Three boys beyond their mothers' call,
two Italians off to the sea,
one sock that isn't anywhere you look.

—Mary Cornish

from Poetry magazine
Volume CLXXVI, Number 3, June 2000

Copyright 2000 by The Modern Poetry Association.
All rights reserved.

Reprinted by permission of The Modern Poetry Association. For further permissions information, contact Mary Cornish, PO Box 15667, Stanford, CA 94309-5667 or Poetry, 60 West Walton Street, Chicago, IL 60610 or

Poetry 180

About the Poet

Mary Cornish (1948- ), a former children’s book illustrator, is the author of the poetry collection Red Studio (Oberlin College Press, 2007). Originally an author and illustrator of children’s books, Mary Cornish came to poetry late in life.

Learn more about Mary Cornish at The Poetry Foundation.