Hoping the Circles are Gyres

Margaret Atwood’s Selected Poems 1965-1975 begins with a section entitled “from The Circle Game.” Not surprisingly, the dominant symbol in this section is the “circle,” a complex symbol that seems to have at least two distinct meanings for her. First, as used in the title poem, it seems to represent community, a group of children holding hands while going round and round. Second, as used in “A PLACE: FRAGMENTS” it seems to represent an inner unity that gives meaning to life. And, of course, these two definitions are interlinked.

While the title poem is a little too diffuse for my taste, I do like many of the images and lines in it. Her use of the image of children playing merry-go-round goes beyond the mundane when she states “We might mistake this/tranced moving for joy/but there is no joy in it” and “the whole point/for them/of going round and round/ is (faster/slower)/going round and round.”

I can certainly identify with this image of an activity that is supposed to be fun but ends up merely being another way of going round and round meaninglessly. She extends this symbol to an old fort and asks, “Why is it…that in this time, such/ elaborate defences keep/ things that are no longer/ (much) /worth defending.” It is hard to let down our defenses to others, even when the secrets no longer seem very important. From here, it’s only a short step to the description of someone significant in her life who is “…glad/ to be left/ out by himself/in the cold/ (hugging himself). Being a manly man, and an introvert, I can certainly identify with that image. Luckily, though, I’m also sensitive enough to identify with the ending lines of the poem, “and as we lie/ here, caught/in the monotony of wandering/ from room to room, shifting/ the places of our defences” … “I want the circle/ broken.” I love the subtle placement of “lie” at the end of the line to suggest the kinds of defences that people use with loved ones to protect that inner self.

Although I prefer sections of the longer poems to any single poem that appears in this section of the book, “Journey to the Interior” suggests one of the major themes in this section of the book:


There are similarities
I notice: that the hills
which the eyes make flat as a wall, welded
together, open as I move
to let me through; become
endless as prairies; that the trees
grow spindly, have their roots
often in swamps; that this is a poor country;
that a cliff is not known
as rough except by hand, and is
therefore inaccessible. Mostly
that travel is not the easy going

from point to point, a dotted
line on a map, location
plotted on a square surface
but that I move surrounded by a tangle
of branches, a net of air and alternate
light and dark, at all times;
that there are no destinations
apart from this.

There are differences
of course: the lack of reliable charts;
more important, the distraction of small details:
your shoe among the brambles under the chair
where it shouldn’t be; lucent
white mushrooms and a paring knife
on the kitchen table; a sentence
crossing my path, sodden as a fallen log
I’m sure I passed yesterday

(have l been
walking in circles again?)

but mostly the danger:
many have been here, but only
some have returned safely.

A compass is useless; also
trying to take directions
from the movements of the sun,
which are erratic;
and words here are as pointless
as calling in a vacant wilderness.

Whatever I do I must
keep my head. I know
it is easier for me to lose my way
forever here, than in other landscapes

I generally prefer a sharper focus than this in poems, but I find the overall metaphor interesting, and this sounds a lot like the trip all of us must take. Most of us that have started the trip would agree that “travel is not the easy going/from point to point” kind of travel. I particularly liked “a sentence/ crossing my path, sodden as a fallen log/ I’m sure I passed yesterday” for I find those kinds of sentences all the time in my writing, especially when looking in past journals. Atwood even manages to give another meaning to circles in the line “(have l been / walking in circles again?). Certainly we would agree that it is easier “to lose my way/forever here, than in other landscapes.”

Atwood seems to come as close to “breaking the circle” in part seven of “A Place: Fragments” as she does anywhere else in this selection of poems:


An other sense tugs at us:
we have lost something,
some key to these things
which must be writings
and are locked against us
or perhaps (like a potential
mine, unknown vein
of metal in the rock)
something not lost or hidden
but just not found yet

that informs,
holds together this confusion,
this largeness and dissolving:

not above or behind
or within it, but one
with it: an

something too huge and simple
for us to see.

The reason the people in the circle go nowhere is likely because they don’t understand themselves enough to ever break out of that circle. Without this understanding, they are incapable of conquering that feeling that life is just going round and round in endless circles.

How can you have a sense of direction if you don’t know who you are and what you want? Of course, it’s easier to sense that this “key” is missing than it is to find it. Perhaps, Atwood will give more clues to its location in later sections of the book. I’ll keep looking for it there for the next few days.

Loren Webster