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Poem of the week: ‘The Circle Game’ by Margaret Atwood

It’s more difficult than ever to stay connected with people and run from the isolation that has been imposed by our current lockdowns and social distancing. But while the COVID-19 pandemic has distorted our ways of living, removing physical touch from the way we function, it has also allowed us to critique old behaviours and unite in combatting racial and gendered discrimination. 

Margaret Atwood’s poem ‘The Circle Game’ challenges the systems and routines we experience as children, suggesting they constrain us into secluded beings in our adult circles. She creates a circle motif showing how children are taught to behave, which if unaddressed produces adults restricted by conformity. 

We can see (arm in arm)

as we watch them go

round and round

intent, almost

studious (the grass

underfoot ignored, the trees

circling the lawn

ignored, the lake ignored)

that the whole point

for them

of going round and round

is (faster

slower)

going round and round

The playing of ‘Ring a Ring o’ Rosie’, moving “round and round”, touching “arm to arm”, on the surface shows unity and connection. However, Attwood suggests this simplistic pleasure is superficial as the natural surroundings and other children are ignored, as they almost play cogs in a machine with only one purpose. Instead of understanding the enjoyment of each other, their focus is playing into a routine that concerns only the actions of oneself.

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.

Atwood suggests the fragile nature of adult relationships with her focus on “glass” conveying the idea that they need to be nurtured and understood, or they might break. Her attention to reflective imagery and mirrors is contrasted by “gelatin”, which creates a feeling of confusing isolation and suggests the systems in which we live are no longer penetrable. Atwood criticises our institutional thinking by showing us its divisive nature in a couple who are supposed to share intimacy and transparency.

This poem couldn’t be more pertinent during our experience of the pandemic. Our old interactions have been distorted, forcing us to reflect and reconsider ways of connecting with people. Alongside Zoom calls and advancement in virtual communication, we have seen a surge in activism, aiming to eradicate racial discrimination through the Black Lives Matter movement, LGBTQ harassment, climate change, and violence against women. Our understanding of mental health issues has improved and education has created a more united and compassionate society. Therefore, our ‘circles’, routines, structures around race and gender, have been fragmented and arguably reconstructed in a time of tragedy and fear.

Although we have now created a space for conversation, we haven’t succeeded in breaking down conventional attitudes and inequalities. We must continue to understand different people’s needs and lived experiences in order progress further.

Atwood’s warning to challenge our current values has been understood through the physical separation of our world. Let us continue to learn and listen to others, remove contentious thinking and continue to develop as a cohesive society.

Image: Wikimedia Commons