Tuesday, May 6, 2008

Chalk-Circle Compass

Sandra McPherson (1998)

First comes conscience—
care about the circle,
guilt about the oblong
or the wobble.

Then comes the innocent
to the board to parse the arc,
sketch the wedge,
to breathe onto the slate

as if wholesomeness could set
it free, as one would pat
a bubble from a baby after milk.
A rustic udder,

an orb with fingers,
is a poor example
of geometry. Only
if one were teaching awe

would one approve the hand-drawn
this arm's-length wooden compass
cannot give to the world.

Only if circumference went feral
or was, originally, a wild thing,
would you try your rough unaided hand
at a ring worth teaching.

But you could draw them both, teach
love for unmatching eyes
on the blackboard—one bearing
personality's squint,

the other seeing so well through history
it never fills with history's litter,
the sterling circle,
the one whose tearless shape

hurts the child enough
to—long after the examination—
stay somewhat ideal
in her, in him, like

just what it is, a ripple.

1 comment:

dan said...

from Best American Poetry (1998)

I like the math/technical vocabulary being animated, as in "circumference being a wild thing".

The setting and some of the wording is heavy-handed and (technologically) old-school, but the to-and-fro between the classroom and the abstract works well. (My favorite is probably "personality's squint".) And it's all neatly resolved in the last line/word. All the sprawl on idealism and real things being bungled is finally and tightly packaged into "just what it is, a ripple."