25 April 2008

Enchantress of numbers

A few days ago, while I was at work, the phone rang. Which isn’t that odd, because people do call me at work from time to time – though mainly Sean and my mum. But when I picked it up, it wasn’t a voice I knew, so I presumed it was someone put through to me accidentally.

But no, it turns out she was after me. She wanted to talk to me about my poetry – well one poem in particular, which she is going to use for her speech and drama exam. As I understand it, this means that she’ll perform it and be asked questions about it.

I am terribly chuffed. I’m always delighted whenever anyone is interested in my work because, let’s face it, not that many people are very interested in poetry.

The poem is ‘Enchantress of numbers’, which is about Ada Lovelace, who was Byron’s daughter and a bit of a mathematician – enchantress of numbers is what computer pioneer Charles Babbage called her. It’s one of the biographical poems that’s going to be in My Iron Spine. It was published in Poetry NZ 32, but I’ve tinkered with it a teeny bit since it was first published. The most up-to-date version is below, and after the poem is a little bit of biographical info.

Enchantress of Numbers
Ada Byron King, Countess of Lovelace


On the table
is a dancing girl
made of silver, spun by gears
and cogs she pirouettes
she arabesques
and when she begins to slow
I wind the key again
let her go

My father the poet, my mother
the parallelogram
two lines
that should never have crossed
Passion and
reason, frenzy and logic
It’s no wonder
it ended as it did


She said she was protecting me
from his blood, my blood
and the poison that was waiting there

Sitting at my desk
my books open
she wrapped me, laced me
in numbers, equations
like a whale-bone corset
to keep my back
straight, my spine aligned
and threaded through my mind
little lines of logic
a program for equilibrium

And so you see
it was my mother
who first programmed me

But maybe the software
doesn’t work
I think, in the dark summerhouse
with my tutor
Maybe a line of code
is incorrect

as I feel the lick
of his eyelashes
against my shoulder

He is dismissed
I walk five miles
to find him
but he has already gone


A present from my mother
and today not even
my birthday
I am twenty years of age
I am safely married
I am waiting
for my own first child
I am no longer an accident
waiting to happen

She sends me
something dangerous, something
Behind my composure
I faint as I tear
the corner of the paper
rip away
the shield, the protection
and there he is
within the gilt frame
turban knotted around
his noble head
I see in him
my own eyes, my mouth
the cleft of my chin

and I can see
why she kept this
kept him
from me


I never met him, my father
but I grew
in his shadow, in his light
What he was with words
I would be
with numbers
An alchemist, an enchantress
I promised myself

I first saw the dancing girl
in Babbage’s studio
A toy, a fancy
My eyes lighted
on a plainer set of
cogs and wheels
engraved with numbers
The Difference Engine
The other ladies scattered
their tinkling laughter but I
asked, ‘How does it work?’

He told me
and I understood


The Analytical Engine
was harder, because
it didn’t exist
except in our minds
But I can explain it
share it
It will change

I am a prophetess, a seer

In me
the twin streams meet
His blood, not drained
but flowing with her reason
I have watched for it
waited, afraid
of the madness, the badness
the danger, but now
I think I may be
the answer to the equation

Numbers dance
to the beat of the iamb
trochee, spondee
numbers make music
if you listen
with the right ear

And so you see
I am his daughter
after all

Ada Byron (1815–1852)
Daughter of the poet Byron and his wife Annabella Milbanke. Her mother left Byron when Ada was one month old, believing him mad and immoral. He was never allowed to see Ada again. Fond of mathematics herself, Annabella had Ada trained in maths in the hope it would discipline her away from any poetic or deviant nature she may have inherited from her father. Ada is best known for her notes to her translation of a scientific paper explaining Charles Babbage’s design for the Analytical Engine, a precursor to the computer. She has been called the first computer programmer because one of the notes contains what is generally considered to be the first (albeit theoretical) computer program.


Dr Betty Alexandra Toole said...

Excellent job, Helen

As the author of Ada, The Enchantress of Numbers and Ada, Prophet of the Computer you readers might be interested in my web site http://www.well.com/user/adatoole

Tim Jones said...

That's a fine, fine poem. I admire your ability to construct a long poem that has (true to its subject) both a logical and a poetic flow. It's also good to see Ada get such a positive treatment, which hasn't always been the case in other literature featuring her, e.g. Gibson and Stirling's novel The Difference Engine.

This further whets my appetite for your new collection!