Problems of Description in the Language of Discovery ~ Katharine Coles

With apologies to Gillian Beer, from whom I stole this title, and to Ken Golden, Mathematician



First, there’s what you can do with a ruler

Only as precise as your hand that lays it

Alongside inclusions, ice crystals melting, surprisingly


          Similar in the abstract, whatever

          Their particular uniquenesses.  When waves


Move the ship, your hand slips too.  There’s

What you can do in snow, what

In fire.  What you can say about


          Any of it in numbers: say 5, operating

          Its own set of rules, magicked


Feathers fluttering from your sleeve.  The change,

Sudden, where ice becomes not

Quite ice. 


                                  Excuse me:


          The mathematician, not the poet, deployed the word

          Magic, pulling the number


5 from which hat exactly?  Unlike the poet, he’s studied

Theories of percolation for decades, head

Bent between lamplight and numbers, considering


          How everything gives way, at

          What moment.  Crunching the numbers


Again, knuckling them under.  You might say he invents

Nothing, just observes, creates only

Models of what he’s seen, if you haven’t seen him


          Flick his wrist.  Tada!  A moment ago

          You stood on solid ground.  Now


Look down and see water rising

Right over your boots.  Ice

Underfoot seemed just that firm


          Until you looked across to the horizon,

          Bedazzled, and saw it heave.  Measurable


Undulation.  Keep watching the hand turning

You to distraction.  What

With all we know about


          Walking on water, why do we believe

          Our eyes?  In solid ground?  -5° C, say.  A brine


Fraction of 5%.  If numbers appear from thin air, golden,

Anything gives way, ice or earth.  I’m not here

To charm or conjure.  I’m just watching, 


          As if, knowing what the numbers come to,

          I might be able to tell you how they mean.


 Antarctica, 2010