Zero

Andrew Motion

This is not the point,
but you had only to look at your soft red atlas
to have it fall open where years ago you had written
PERSIA for some reason, AFGANISTAN and KASHMIR,
adrift in your schoolgirl dream of ancient and modern.

The point is, rather,
that once you had shown me the way into those places,
perched on slabs of frost-shattered rock then floating
on eagle-thermals over the tawny desert, with oasis-lights
like embers dying in ash – when that was done you began

getting back what was lost:
how the Arabic system of counting first made its mark here,
those straggling numerals flocking then freewheeling down
from market towns until they confronted the Romans
in open combat, and won, and all, to start with at least,

without zero.
I can’t really think of the world without nothing to show.
On the other hand, calling to mind some hill-backed place
with a ship-filled river curled into a port, the port itself,
and traders lifting their eyes to the hills is easy – as easy

as looking at you
while I bend again to the atlas with blood running into my face
and think of a naught like a ball bouncing out of the street
and into their books for a time, appalling, but coming to rest
at last between profit and loss, a silence, a breathing space.