Pythagoras in Queens

From certain spots in Brooklyn but
the top can be seen
of that high rise in Queens
Its top, just like a ziggurat
Observing — no, reminding you
of all of your debt
and your servitude
And ziggurat’s from zaqaru
Akkadian for “to be high”
To be high — to be low — below
the bridge which —
as in Babylon –
really ought to be a park
a river-spanning park –
a hanging garden — yes
And there should be a ziggurat
As ziggurats are flat on top
Which you can climb
and sit and watch
The dawn break over Brooklyn
Or the sun stain the horizon pink
the moon — like a balloon — rise
When some distance is needed
from toad-minded neighbors
(Some neighbors, you know,
when you open their skull
instead of a brain
all you’ll find is a toad — a toad
inside whose skull you’ll find
another toad
Mise en abyme —

Pythagoras, Pythagoras
Did he know Anaxagoras?
He knew Anaximander, Anaximenes,
and Thales —
having spent time in Miletus
Then he traveled down to Egypt
Was admitted to the priesthood there
To study math
He knew his share
(Copernicus confessed
it was Pythagoras
Who gave him the idea) but
that thing about the beans
must be rethought
Grow them on the bridges
on the ziggurats
Why not?
Why not make things easy?
Ease —
the skies and seas
are toxic these
Breathing in the poison haze
It changes brains
Deforms them
into toads
It’s so — so
What can you do?
Pythagoras studied
for 22 years
When Cambyses — Cyrus’ son
attacked and banished all
the priests to the east, to Babylon
(Pythagoras from Samos
He discovered some amazing things
The theorem, though
that bears his name
that one’s Babylonian)
A decade with the magi passed
when he was freed at long last
and returned to Samos.
But things on the island
just weren’t the same
his fame was lame
the attention: a drain
a pain in the brain

What’s in an atom?
the neutron, the proton
Pythagoras left
Put his raggedy coat on
and said: Antio
Stepped aboard a ship
Stepped off in Croton.

Not Croton, New York
near the Bear Mountain Bridge
But Pythagoras did talk to bears
Yes, he did.
And to snakes
And a cow
on the far side one time
of the Gulf of Taranto
A cow eating beans — which
Pythagoras found quite disturbing
This thing
with the beans
is a mighty big problem
For all Pythagoreans

Just eat them
They’ll grow on the bridges
in plots
upon the ziggurats
All over the sides and tops of buildings
Chick peas, favas,
painted ponies, kidneys,
pintos, all of those
Pythagoras did not wear robes
but trousers, some say,
like they wore in Thrace
A place named for a sorceress
The home of both Democritus
and his student, the sophist, Protagoras
Did they discuss the Cosmos
Dressed in trousers?

Atoms, relativity, chremata,
the commodity, the plaque
that’ll grow on your soul
preventing any passage
through the tunnels
to the after world
And how to clean it off
by thought alone

These were, inter alia, the topics
under discussion
Sitting there in dirty trousers
Just like those cro-magnon gals
Who skinned the limbs of animals
and wore them on their own legs
Like a pair of jeans

Oh it’s obscene
Xenophanes remarked somewhere
that Thracian gods
have reddish hair
You hear about Tereus, their king
Who cut out the princess
of Athens tongue?
A tongue composed of so many atoms,
Democritus declared
Protagoras says:
though we can’t really know

Pythagoras, Pythagoras
He couldn’t know Protagoras
He couldn’t know Los Angeles
Or eat a lima bean
Not that he would if he could
though they’re good
And Dr. Freud would most likely conclude
That sometimes a cave
is only a cave,
but sometimes it’s your mother
That hole in the world
out of which we all squirmed
And now we’re here
wearing trousers
Oh brother

Freud, of course, would note as well
each bean’s a seed
And the word, as we all know,
for seed is semen –
each bean is a daemon
the bridge between the divine and the human
Entirely consistent
with Pythagorean thought
Or maybe not

We open up a can of beans
it looks like a mass grave
Peeling open cans of sardines
It’s about the same
Walking through the supermarket
Punching open plastic bottles
Oil spreads across the floor
oil spill on aisle four
But do not fear, there’s no risk here
The creatures are all safely wrapped
in plastic, well-refrigerated
Hacked to pieces, sealed in cans.
No more harm can come to them

The night grinds like a garbage truck
And was that you
all dressed in blue
a slab of gum stuck to your shoe
staring out the window of the city bus
Exhorting: do not be a moron
peel your grapefruit like an orange
Is that true? Did you say that?


And was the Buranuna River
so named for the copper ore?
you hear about that one before?
you stand along its shore
and did its level drop
the flow diverted
so Cyrus the Great
and the rest of the Persians
could breach the city walls?
You hear about that thing at all?
Or how about Tenochtitlan’s chinampas?

Why not build a bunch of those
though salty the rivers
could still water things
like beans and greens
from underneath
by way of steam — evaporation
I don’t know though
could you grow
a garden on the Harlem River?
gardens on the Brooklyn Bridge?
What do you think, Pythagoras?
Is that you
collecting your salad?


Elliot Sperber is a writer, attorney, and adjunct professor. He lives in New York City and can be reached at and on twitter @elliot_sperber

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