Ode to numbers


Pablo Neruda (1904 – 1963)

Oh, the thirst to know

how many!

The hunger

to know

how many

stars in the sky!

We spent

our childhood counting

stones and plants, fingers and

toes, grains of sand, and teeth,

our youth was past counting

petals and comets’ tails.

We counted

colors, years,

lives, and kisses;

in the country,

oxen; by the sea,

the waves. Ships

became proliferating ciphers.

Numbers multiplied.

The cities

were thousands, millions,

wheat hundreds

of units that held

within them smaller numbers,

smaller than a single grain.

Time became a number.

Light was numbered

and no matter how it raced with sound

its velocity was 37.

Numbers surrounded us.

When we closed the door

at night, exhausted,

an 800 slipped

beneath the door

and crept with us into bed,

and in our dreams

4000s and 77s

pounded at our foreheads

with hammers and tongs.


added to 5s

until they sank into the sea of madness,

until the sun greeted us with its zero

and we went running

to the office,

to the workshop,

to the factory,

to begin again the infinite

1 of each new day.

We had time, as men,

for our thirst slowly

to be sated,

the ancestral desire

to give things a number,

to add them up,

to reduce them

to powder,

wastelands of numbers.


papered the world

with numbers and names,


things survived,

they fled

from numbers,

went mad in their quantities,



an odor or a memory,

leaving the numbers empty.

That’s why

for you

I want things.

Let numbers

go to jail,

let them march

in perfect columns


until they give the sum

total of infinity.

For you I want only

for the numbers

along the road

to protect you

and for you to protect them.

May the weekly figure of your salary

expand until it spans your chest.

And from the 2 of you, embraced,

your body and that of your beloved,

may pairs of children’s eyes be born

that will count again

the ancient stars

and countless

heads of grain

that will cover a transformed earth.

Pablo Neruda, “Ode to Numbers”, from “Elemental Odes” (1952 – 1957)