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Page 196

When I was small, numbers and letters,
like the fronts of cars and houses, had faces.
We didn't have television,
no cartoons or Sesame Streets to give us numbers
with eyes and mouths and expressions, so I
contributed them myself.

Zero looked surprised, perhaps astonished
at having been ferreted out by the Arabs
after centuries of avoiding capture by the Romans
(and yes, my loyal workshopper, the child I was
knew nothing of Arabian and Roman mathematicians;
Pardon this distraction I could not sacrifice
for the purity of poetry and point of view.)

1 seemed earnest and dull, perhaps standing
on a country road, sucking his thumb.
2 seemed innocent, simple, with a high, reedy voice.
3, I thought, was sincere, good-natured
(nearly all my numbers were friendly; I felt no need
to create villains, though 7 seemed sharp and sneaky).

Three was, more complex than 2, a bit
anxious (the "ee" of "three" influenced my view
of their forms). 4 was sturdy, honest, stubborn.
(The full sound of "four" hid from me
the semblance of a sagging pennant, as the snippiness
of "six" added pertness to bottom-heavy 6.)

When I learned to write 4 with the top opened,
I saw a whole new 4, more square, and yet,
more free. Five, six, seven – each had faces,
personalities, not worked out – I don't recall
thinking about this, just being aware
of personalities. Sometimes the look of the number,
the sound of the number and the look of the word
for the number would each have a personality.

I suppose I could have given them each a color,
a voice, a melody, but I remember only faces
and personalities. I must have had a scarcity
of faces and personalities, a boy, after all,
not allowed dolls, nor did we have a pet dog or cat.
I did have lots of younger brothers and sisters,
but not until I was three, and by then I'd filled the world
with faces and good will and personalities.

There was little (if anything) in my childhood world
that didn't look at me out of eyes much like my own.

Note: I'm told the number zero was filched by the Arabs from Hindu mathematicians. It is generally agreed that the Romans, though stupendous engineers, were limited in science and math by their lack of a zero in their number system. Though a system beginning with "I" may be said to begin with zero, for am I not the zero of my universe?

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