The Big Wheel

Here is a poem by Robin Robertson, from his second collection with Picador, Slow Air:

Head Over Heels

for Clare

Holding hands on the big wheel
ninety feet above the Tuileries’
evening jasmine, I loved
your play at fear,
my brave stab at insouciance,
the way the bright circuitry of Paris
lay beneath us like the night sky,
like the plan of our lives.

(Copyright © Robin Robertson 2002. Used by the author’s generous permission.)

Before we’ve even started, the dedication. As John Travolta’s character in Pulp Fiction remarks of foot massages, we act like dedications don't mean anything, but they do, and that's what's so cool about them. ‘For Clare’ is the first thing that draws our attention: in all probability, Clare is the ‘you’, and therefore the ‘I’ is not just a narrator, but the real-life poet; and at once ‘Head Over Heels’ seems more substantial. This did happen, and you, the reader, are being told about it.

And what’s more, the personal situation is as personal as it could be: it’s a love poem. I suppose it’s just conceivable that it is addressed to a child, not a lover, but here we come to the first tiny and superb example of Robertson’s technique: the poem never says anything about romance, but leads us into assuming that it is romantic. ‘Holding hands’, going on ‘the big wheel’, ‘Paris’, the ‘fear’ of falling, teasing each other, the stars: all of these make us think ‘love’. ‘Loved’ is also the poem’s single main verb, and it stands suggestively at the end of the line, daring us to ignore the rest of the phrase – ‘Holding hands on the big wheel / ninety feet above the Tuileries’ / evening jasmine, I loved’. It works because the word ‘love’ operates on a scale – so while ‘I love you’ is a notoriously momentous thing to say, ‘I love WKD Red’ is not. And to love is not the same thing as to love a bit of joking (‘your play at fear’).

But ‘I loved’ applies to the rest of the poem, grammatically speaking, and this creates an intriguing confusion. The further we get from ‘I loved’, the less we believe it. So the narrator – the poet – definitely ‘loved / your play at fear’. But did he also love his own ‘brave stab at insouciance’? That seems improbably narcissistic – but it’s what the words say. In prose form:

I loved your play at fear, my brave stab at insouciance.

So the grammar leads us one way, but our instincts tell us that, no, it’s only the ‘play at fear’ that was ‘loved’. Unless there is a compromise: at the time, the poet loved your play at fear; as he writes the poem, years later, he cherishes the whole scene, including his response. We have time-travelled. This might work as a reconciliation. But things quickly get even less manageable.

I loved
the way the bright circuitry of Paris
lay beneath us like the night sky,
like the plan of our lives.

Again, it’s possible that at the time, the poet did love the view of Paris’s lights after nightfall, and their resemblance to stars in the sky. But can he also have loved their resemblance to something as vast as ‘the plan of our lives’? Even if he was struck by the metaphor, he wasn’t likely to love it, and even if he did love it, it wouldn’t be the same kind of love with which he ‘loved / your play at fear’. The word ‘love’, which governs all of this, has collapsed because of all the different meanings piled onto it.

So the poem’s apparently trite conclusion is in fact what we might call a complete mess. But this is the point. The lights of Paris won’t actually tell the couple – who we can’t help thinking of as Clare and Robin – what will happen in ‘our lives’, because they have no logic to them. Nor do the stars, despite the mythologies of our ancestors. Both are down to random chance. The poem, without ever speaking of things going wrong, has an air of failure, again because of small details.

First, the use of the past tense, which suggests that circumstances may since have changed. Second, the location abroad, with the same effect. Third, the ‘brave stab at insouciance’ which is presumably, like most brave stabs, inadequate, and which leaves ‘insouciance’ dangling rather pathetically, a foreign word that’s the longest in the poem and feels wrong. Fourth, the opening lines of the poem: the repeated ‘h’ in ‘Head Over Heels… Holding hands’ takes an effort to say out loud, and thus makes us think of difficulty. Fifth, the two great images of the wheel and the stars.

In Act IV Scene III of King Lear, Kent claims, ‘It is the stars, / The stars above us, govern our conditions’. In the next Act, Edmund says, ‘The wheel is come full circle’, by which he means that his good luck has turned to bad. Robertson unostentatiously invokes this pair of symbols, with the same suggestion: we are not in charge. Although the poem spins outwards from ‘Holding hands’, the hands themselves hold very little.

- Dan Hitchens

Dan Hitchens was a Foyle Young Poet in 2006, and won second place in the youth category for The Times Stephen Spender Prize for Poetry Translation 2007.

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