Ode to a Compass

This entry is part 23 of 31 in the series Odes to Tools


I can still recall
my first encounter
with a compass in
the second grade.
It was shiny & dangerous,
a headless ballerina
with one wooden leg.
How odd, I thought,
that we should entrust
the drawing of circles
to something so asymmetrical.
And what to do
about that pinhole
at the center of the paper?
It seemed flawed
& unnecessary, like a seed
for a stone. I wanted
a way to make
a circle from without,
like shaping a pot
on a wheel. I had seen
hawks spiral
around an updraft
with nothing more
than a slight adjustment
to the wingtips.
Shouldn’t we
who are descended
from the trees
be able to free-hand
perfect circles,
simply by letting
the mind go blank
as a target?
The compass is a crutch.
Restore its missing leg
so it can return to
its first life as
a gnomon:
circled by the sun.

Series Navigation← Ode to a Hive ToolOde to a Shoehorn →

13 Replies to “Ode to a Compass”

  1. I think this is fantastic. The visual images are so strong, and the form of the lines and stanzas seems to spin in light circles. Especially up to ‘wingtips’ – I’m not sure, but maybe I would have stopped there.

  2. mb – Thanks. I’m glad that simile didn’t seem too over-the-top.

    dale – Thanks.

    Jean – I’m glad to hear you say that about the form, because I really sweated over it. At one point in the revision process, it was prose.

  3. I’m glad I stopped by today, after not having visited for a very long time. This captures so beautifully the dissatisfaction I always felt as a child with that pinprick in the centre, that ought to have been unnecessary. I used to flatten it with a fingernail, but it never went away…

  4. A compass captured. Exactly. Even the compass would be pleased.

    You can draw a circle from the outside and avoid the hole in the middle by using a piece of string tied to a pencil. You put your finger holding the loose end of the string on the paper, then with the other hand hold the pencil and draw the circle. Simple!

  5. I have always wondered, why, if one were not an architect, or a pattern-maker or a pre-rule-change ice skater one needed to draw a perfect circle. There are few ‘perfect’ circles in nature. Still, if I ever do have need for a compass, I will have this poem in memory to accompany it..and as the ballerina with one wooden leg pivots one one spiked metal toe, I will think of you, and smile.

  6. andy – Thanks for stopping by. I’m glad I’m not the only one who used to be bothered by that!

    Natalie – Thanks. And thanks for reminding us about that technique, which I’ve seen in action though never used myself. But with all due respect, that’s still kind of drawing it from the inside, don’t you think? One simply substitutes a finger for the point of the compass, and a string for the other leg.

    Joan – Why, indeed. In plane geometry we learned all about the properties of ideal circles, but our lopsided ball-point sketches were good enough for a proof!

    Rose – Hi. Glad you liked it.

  7. I like your essay in a poem, the wonderful images & memories that I share.

    (I’ve been reading Cynthia Ozick. She’s got an essay called “Ladle” in Quarrel & Quandary: Essays that you might enjoy.)

  8. Hi deb, Larry, and Dick – You’d think that having recent comments displayed in my sidebar would remind me to respond to them, but who has time to read one’s own blog? :) Thanks for commenting. I’m always surprised when a poem elicits this many reactions.

    deb, I’m ashamed to admit I’ve never read any Ozick, save for the odd essay in a magazine. I’ll have to keep an eye out for that one.

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