The poem opens with a familiar gesture. Few can resist running a finger over a steamy bathroom mirror or the dusty hood of a car. It’s a primitive act as well, given the speculation that human culture began when someone drew something in the sand with a stick. The poem moves quickly line-by-line through a series of associations involving variations on the circle: cycle, wheel, ring, sun and moon. As this circle-game is being played, a melancholy self-portrait emerges. The speaker is emphatically alone with no one to speak to but ghosts, passing birds and a crack in the wall. He is childless, without siblings, and there is only death in the family. And that is why, as we discover in the final line, the poet coats his table with salt, not flour or sugar.
I pour a coating of salt on the table
and make a circle in it with my finger.
This is the cycle of life
I say to no one.
This is the wheel of fortune,
the Arctic Circle.
This is the ring of Kerry
and the white rose of Tralee
I say to the ghosts of my family,
the dead fathers,
the aunt who drowned,
my unborn brothers and sisters,
my unborn children.
This is the sun with its glittering spokes
and the bitter moon.
This is the absolute circle of geometry
I say to the crack in the wall,
to the birds who cross the window.
This is the wheel I just invented
to roll through the rest of my life
touching my finger to my tongue.
Billy Collins is a Senior Distinguished Fellow of the Winter Park Institute at Rollins College and is a member of the American Academy of Arts and Letters. He served as U.S. Poet Laureate (2001–2003) and is a member of the American Academy of Arts and Letters. “Design” originally appeared in Sailing Alone Around the Room by Billy Collins, © 2001. Reprinted by permission of Random House.