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Authors: Margaret Atwood

Tags: #Poetry, #POE011000

Circle Game

the circle game

the circle game

margaret atwood

Sherrill grace

Copyright © 1966, 1998 by Margaret Atwood
Introduction copyright © 1978, 1998 by House of Anansi Press

All rights reserved. No part of this publication may be reproduced or transmitted in any form or by any means, electronic or mechanical, including photocopying, recording, or any information storage and retrieval system, without permission in writing from the publisher.

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06 05 04 03 02     2 3 4 5


Atwood, Margaret, 1939–
The circle game

ISBN 0-88784-629-7

I. Title.

PS8501.T86C57 1998 C811'.54 C98-931443-X
PR9199.3.A78C57 1998

The sequence
The Circle Game
first appeared as a series of lithographs by Charles Pachter. Some of the other poems first appeared in
Alaska Review, The Canadian Forum, Edge, English, Evidence, Kayak, Prism International
, and
Queen's Quarterly

Cover Design: Bill Douglas at The Bang
Typesetting: ECW Type & Art, Oakville

Printed and Bound in Canada

We acknowledge for their financial support of our publishing program the Canada Council for the Arts, the Ontario Arts Council, and the Government of Canada through the Book Publishing Industry Development Program (BPIDP)

For J


Introduction by Sherrill Grace

This Is a Photograph of Me

After the Flood, We

A Messenger

Evening Trainstation, Before Departure

An Attempted Solution for Chess Problems

In My Ravines

A Descent Through the Carpet

Playing Cards

Man with a Hook

The City Planners

On the Streets, Love

Eventual Proteus

A Meal

The Circle Game


Winter Sleepers

Spring in the Igloo

A Sibyl

Migration: C.P.R.

Journey to the Interior

Some Objects of Wood and Stone


Against Still Life

The Islands

Letters, Towards and Away

A Place: Fragments

The Explorers

The Settlers

by Sherrill Grace

Margaret Atwood's first major book of poetry,
The Circle Game
, won her the Governor General's Award for 1966, and in many other ways announced her arrival as an important contemporary poet. The title poem first appeared in a limited folio edition in 1965, designed, illustrated, and printed by Charles Pachter. Contact Press then published the entire collection in 1966, but this edition quickly went out of print and a new one was published the following year by House of Anansi Press. In her
Selected Poems
(1976), Margaret Atwood included fewer than half of the poems that appear in the original
Circle Game
, and hence the reader of the
has only a limited sense of the book as a unified whole. This Anansi reprinting, then, is especially welcome, for it indicates the lasting importance of the collection and provides an opportunity to reconsider the first major work of one of our finest writers.

Upon publication, the book was generally wellreceived and most reviewers recognized the appearance of an authentic and distinctive voice. However, certain fallacies which have always plagued the understanding of Atwood's work arose in these early reviews: she was labelled an autobiographical writer in the narrowest sense and as a “mythopoeic poet” who followed the precepts of the so-called Frye school. Further misreading of her work was to come later with the publication of
The Journals of Susanna Moodie
Power Politics
(1971), and
(1972), and her adoption by American feminists and Canadian nationalists.

If one compares Atwood's earlier poems — those published in
or in her first chapbook,
Double Persephone
, for example — with the poems in
The Circle Game
, one is struck by
The Circle Game's
maturity, its new assurance of voice, form, and approach. The acerbic wit, the cool detachment, and the authority and control, now recognized as integral to the Atwood voice, are present in
The Circle Game
, as well as the distinctive aural-visual dynamic of the style, and Atwood's intense preoccupation with the double aspect of life. Also characteristic is the spareness of the punctuation (except for parentheses), the controlled patterning of the lines and section breaks. Thematically, Atwood here explores many of the concerns that have continued to intrigue her — the traps of reality, myth, language, and the pernicious roles we play, the cage of the self, and above all, the nature of human perception.

Although one must be wary of forcing too rigid an order upon the poems, the arrangement of
The Circle Game
does suggest a definite pattern. The opening poems present a variety of circle games within which the speaker struggles for an escape. The growing sense of defeat and impasse climaxes in the title poem, “The Circle Game,' when the speaker realizes that she wants to break the circle. Several poems follow in which the speaker tries various escape-routes, until a sense of equilibrium is attained in the final three poems. This balance occurs, in part, through the development of both the reader's and the speaker's perception. The opening poem, “This Is a Photograph of Me,” challenges our perception immediately, asking us to adjust our sights, to find out where this particular voice is coming from. If we can learn how to do this, the voice promises us that “eventually/you will be able to see me.” The ironic double structure of this poem, its emphasis on seeing, and its sharp visual imagery urges
us to rediscover our senses and our relationship with the world.

The title poem portrays the danger of misperceiving the roles we assume and the games we play in our personal relations. Images of rooms, mirrors, and circles create the sense of claustrophobic entrapment:

Being with you
here, in this room

is like groping through a mirror
whose glass has melted
to the consistency
of gelatin

You refuse to be
(and I)
an exact reflection, yet
will not walk from the glass,
be separate.

Underlying this apparent impasse is the perception that the alteration of things will be destructive for both partners: the speaker is “transfixed/by your eyes'/ cold blue thumbtacks”. But she also knows that “there is no joy” in the game, and that she wants “the circle/ broken”, regardless of the cost.

Most of the poems in the collection focus upon the tension between opposites, whether male/female, order / chaos, day/night, rooms/open spaces, or the larger polarities of stasis and movement, self and other. “Journey to the Interior” explores the labyrinth of the self. It is as if the speaker in the earlier poems, having found escape from circle games impossible, has withdrawn into the self only to discover that she is enclosed in the final, most dangerous circle: “it is easier for me to
lose my way/forever here, than in other landscapes”. The alternative is to abandon the egocentric self. In “Journey to the Interior,” Atwood expands the self-as-landscape metaphor, introduced in “This Is a Photograph of Me” and appearing again in the final poems of the book, because to see the self as other, as landscape, is a possible way out of the circle.

Another path to freedom, in “Pre-Amphibian,” is sleep, where one is

from the lucidities of day
when you are something I can
trace a line around …

But this release is short-lived. We wake soon “with sunlight steaming merciless on the shores of morning”. In “Some Objects of Wood and Stone,” the speaker finds concrete comfort in physical objects, pebbles, and carvings. Through these objects, “single and/solid and rounded and really / there”, she is able to bypass the treachery of words and the limitations of sight. In “Against Still Life,” as the title implies, the speaker is determined to crack silences and force life to unfold its meaning.

Release from circle games, tentative and rudimentary though it is, occurs in the last three poems. In “A Place: Fragments,” the speaker realizes that meaning does exist, not in opposition to “this confusion, this largeness/ and dissolving:/… but one/with it”. “The Explorers” and “The Settlers” depict life pared down to the essentials of bones and salt seas. Perhaps the deaths described in “The Explorers” are both necessary and propitious. At least they point forward to the harmony of “The Settlers,” where “our inarticulate/skeleton” is no longer “two skeletons”, but intermixed and one.
The speaking voice in both these poems is neither trapped within circles nor immobilized by antinomies. This voice recalls the speaker in “This Is a Photograph of Me,' in that it comes from beyond the circle of self and is “one with” the land. Consequently, the final lines of “The Settlers” are both beautiful and reassuring:

Now horses graze
inside this fence of ribs, and

children run, with green
smiles, (not knowing
where) across
the fields of our open hands.

These simple images of happy children at one with nature offer an alternative vision to the earlier traps of self and reason.

The Circle Game
, Margaret Atwood explores the fallibility of human perception and the concomitant dangers of the egocentric self. Whether in our use of language, our relationships with others, or our understanding of history and place, we distort and delimit life; our eyes are “cold blue thumbtacks”, our love affairs are joyless circle games, our words are barriers, and our cities are straight lines restraining panic. Freedom, these poems proclaim, is both necessary and dangerous. Consolation is possible via touch and physical objects, but in order to find that “place of absolute/ unformed beginning” for which the speaker longs in “Migration: C.P.R.,” we must return ourselves to fragments, bones, and salt seas.

The sense of negation in the last poems, however, cannot be mistaken for nihilism. The reduction of self to its elements bears no relation to the tense weariness in “Eventual Proteus” where the lovers are little more
than “voices/ abraded with fatigue”. In terms of voice, image, even form,
The Circle Game
ends by answering the challenge of “This Is a Photograph of Me.” There the speaker promised that if we looked long enough we could see her. In “A Place: Fragments,” we are told that eyesight is insufficient, that “An other sense tugs at us”. The alternative to circle games is

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.

Sherrill Grace is the head of the English Department at the University of British Columbia. She teaches modern and Canadian literature, and specializes in Canadian Cultural Studies. She has written widely on Margaret Atwood

the circle game

This Is a Photograph of Me

It was taken some time ago.
At first it seems to be
a smeared
print: blurred lines and grey flecks
blended with the paper;

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