The American Journal of Poetry
"Strong Rx Medicine"®


Heather Altfeld

Calculus for Insomniacs



The sheep have been wandering in and out
of your sleepless nights for years, pirouetting
through the rocky pasture in their little foggy coats
before you can drift off and dream a faultless terza rima

so try counting memories, a memory for each boy
you ever kissed and then a memory for the ones
you didn’t, count the ones who didn’t kiss back,
the impetuous ones and the ratty ones,

each an erect hominid with his grunts
and his murmurs, exuding the smell of old Keds,
his inner life a reproductive diorama,
streaked in pink across the walls of Lascaux.


Then count the times you did acid
or broke a bone or lit a cigarette,
the number of kids in third grade
exiled to juvie for setting Fedco on fire,

then count the fires you yourself built,
begin with your debut as a Bluebird,
snuffing a chimney full of bats, ponytails
screaming, swiped by dirty wings.


Remember each shining pine needle burned
for each of your cold fingers, each match,
each lump of wood gone to jeweled flame.
Then estimate the number of fires burning

right now between Paris and Delhi,
the faulty toaster fires and the Rockwell fires,
the trash can fires and the crematories,
and when you run out of fires,

count the battles that occurred between the fall of Troy
and the treaty of Locarno, count the pilgrims to Mecca
from Mohammed to the present, the flights
they take over San Francisco or Tehran,

the number of planes hanging out in the clouds
above your bed between midnight and three
the number of mothers on each plane,
each time each one offered a breast to a child

each of those children and each drop of milk,
it is no lullaby, lonely poet, last bard awake
preoccupied with the little packets of time
cronons in the night air you breathe

in and out while counting your breaths
in the Kundalini fashion.


                        Return to things
that belong to you, arguments going backward
from the angry marriage, name the bitter dreams,

the regrets. Count the seasons from now
to your birth, count the rains you can remember,
then the rain itself, estimate the number of drops
that fell in the moment you tied a velvet ribbon

in your daughter’s hair. Imagine the unimaginable
infinitude of drops that downed Houston
and Western Louisiana and Bangladesh,
even just the drops in the odd-numbered years,

divide by the average number swallowed
by one person before their lungs closed,
no remainder. Probably within a tenth of a percent
of the number of refugees floating at sea on a Saturday morning

which roughly equals the number of stars in the firmament
you can see through the ring made between your thumb
and your index finger on a cold clear night.
The sheep have long fled your aimless sheparding

so tally the ark of all extant animals,
first by kingdom, then order,
then by the finer Linnean taxonomies,
an oracle to the order of demise, add the beasts

whose fangs once sharpened the stones
of caves and those who knived the reefs
with their saw-teeth, the lizard-hipped quads,
the Silurian fish, the trilobites and their cryptic whorls,

dream a translation of the Cambrian poem
encrypted in their spines. Add what is left,
their names and their tusks and their bones,
chart each on the quadratic parabola of longing.


Make piles of the tiny tertiary snails
encased in the amber of Prussia
count them and sand them and emboss them
in cheap sterling for the sixty-two women

who will stop at the stand at the corner of 5th
and 59th on Friday just before lunch at Bergdorfs
to pay a hundred bucks apiece, for which
each snail, if traveling back in time to its birth

will net a profit of approximately 0.00001 cents
per century. Count your children.
You should get the number three.
Then divide this number by the parenthetical

dreams, nightmares, and accidents, multiply
by the power of ten and then again by the square root
of the number of screws Archimedes designed
for his first ship, and this will give you

the precise number of moments
you have worried they will die before you do.


Soon you will feel the violent tremble of sleep
arriving like a cattle car in the darkness

of what was once Prussia, rattling the tracks
as it pulls into the station of you.
The door slides open. Every passenger
is one of your ancestors. The cantor

and the beadle, the cobbler
and the tinsmith, count the days they lived
before the fires and the rains, count
the number of spoons they used

for their soup, how many footsteps
they took in their lifetimes,
how many pounds of potatoes they buried
in their cellars, how many nights they lay awake

on this fierce and glittering planet,
counting and assembling with tape and glue
the cells that now form your eyelids,
pressed against the white pillow

as you drift off, your lashes fluttering at last,
the millions of downy feathers beneath you
dreaming the geese who now shiver without them.




HEATHER ALTFELD's first book, The Disappearing Theatre won the Poets at Work Book Prize, selected by poet Stephen Dunn. Her poems appear in Narrative Magazine, Pleiades, ZYZZYVA, and many other literary journals. She is the recipient of the 2017 Robert H. Winner Award with the Poetry Society of America and the 2015 Pablo Neruda Prize for Poetry, and she received second prize in this year’s Literal Latte contest. She teaches in the Honors Program as well as for the English and Humanities Departments at CSU Chico, and she is at work on two more collections of poetry as well as two books for children.



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