Introduction to Algebra








If X = your heart, and Y = the time away, what is the distance Z you still need to travel?

Your brother used to say about your father: “If he talks for more than five minutes, he starts speaking algebra.”

If algebra is a foreign language, can you solve the country for Y?

In summer school a math teacher throws a desk at a student. If the desk weighs fifteen pounds, the teacher two hundred and ten, what is the internal pressure of a hot day trapped inside window panes and chalk lines?

Engineers and architects love it, you hear. And musicians. You think about music, about beat and count and the scrolling notes on the page. How many beats per minute of a butterfly’s breath, how many arpeggios inside your lungs? You’d like to build a house and a bridge, you imagine the coefficients arcing into place elegantly, like a circular staircase.

You love geometry, the building of triangles, the circumscribing of paths. Water to air, hand to mouth. But the alphabet has abandoned you here. These symbols cannot lead you home.








Photo by Ben Clinch on Flickr


About Author

Jeannine Hall Gailey is the Seattle-area author of Becoming the Villainess (Steel Toe Books, 2006) and She Returns to the Floating World (Kitsune Books, 2011) which is an Eric Hoffer Montaigne Medal finalist. Her poems were featured on NPR’s The Writer’s Almanac and on Verse Daily; two were included in 2007’s The Year’s Best Fantasy and Horror. Her work has appeared in The Iowa Review, Prairie Schooner, and Crab Orchard Review; she reviews books for The Rumpus. She volunteers as an editorial consultant for Crab Creek Review and currently teaches part-time at the MFA program at National University.


  1. You have a new fan. Your poetry rocks! Accessible, tangible, visual, with a good sense of humor to boot. I’ll hope to see more of your poems here and elsewhere. : )

  2. A delightful and precise celebration and condemnation of the algebraically inclined. Why can’t “the coefficients [arc] into place elegantly, like a circular staircase”? Isn’t it life that is wrong?

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