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The poem "Spokes" by Paul Auster (of which you can read the first few verses here, or the whole poem here if you have Jstor access) seems to be about things in nature - birds, plants, eggs. The only mention of a "hub" and "wheel" are in the third-to-last verse:

Into the hub the shell implodes,
Persists in a pun of loam and rock,
Rising as stick, to invade, to drive
Out the babble that worded its body
To emerge, to wait for future
Blows-city in root, in deed, unsprung, even out
Of the city. Get out. The wheel
Was deception. It cannot turn.

I don't really understand the meaning of this poem, either literally or metaphorically, so as a first step to increasing my comprehension and appreciation: why is the poem called "Spokes"? What do wheels, and their spokes and hubs, have to do with the process of nature as described in the poem?

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A key theme of this poem is conflict, or perhaps the gap, between the actuality of nature, our perception of it and the frustrations and disconnects that result from our attempts to describe it with our limited language. A couple of early examples expressing these themes:

Between branch and spire - the word
Belittles its nest, and the seed, rocked
By simpler confines will not confess.
...
Speech could not cobble the swamp,
And so you dance for a brighter silence

This is an echo of the mystical Jewish tradition known as Kabbalah. According to this, God created the universe partly using the 22 letters of the Hebrew alphabet.

"By means of the twenty two letters, by giving them a form and shape, by mixing them and combining them in different ways, God made the soul of all that which has been created and all of that which will be. It is upon these same letters that the Holy One (blessed be he) has founded his high and holy name." - from the Sefer Yetsirah

Kabbalistic scholars believed that since God used language to create the cosmos it might be possible, therefore, to use that same language to divine the will of God. This connects back to the poem's thesis of our problems connecting to nature.

How does this relate to the poem's title? The wheel is a recurring theme in Kabbalistic imagery. Indeed the creation story in this tradition is sometimes portrayed as turning a wheel. The wheel also occurs in other semi-mystic Asian religions, such as the Buddhist prayer wheel and wheel of fortune.

We can infer this from the several references to God and creation in the poem. It mirrors the act of God's creation with the creative act of the artist or poet. Indeed at one point, it refers to the wheel as part of a literal act of creation through language:

But gales nourish
Chance: breath, blooming, while the wheel scores
Its writing into earth.

Most wheels have an even number of spokes. This one, however, has 13 - the number of stanzas in the poem. This is why:

The wheel Was deception. It cannot turn.

An expression of the flaws that arise in using language to try and understand or express nature. The poet is expressing guilt at his inability to use his own creation to accurately do justice to that of God.

Spokes was Auster's first published poem. He would return to its themes of perfect and imperfect language in the plots of his novels City of Glass and The Brooklyn Follies.

References: - Unsaying: Mystical Aspiration and Negativity in Paul Auster’s Poetry, François Hugonnier, Caliban: French Journal of English Studies.

2

On the basis of Matt Thrower's excellent answer, I'd venture to say that "spokes" may even express a play on words: God spoke, and the universe was created.

Spokes also transmit the movement from the hub to the outer perimeter of the wheel, and this could be reminiscent of the Big Bang theory. That initial dense mass from which the universe is said to have originated has been often described as an egg, and this explains the enigmatic egg that appears at the beginning and at the end of the poem.

Only the egg gravitates.

Into the hub the shell implodes [...]

The egg limits renunciation [...]

[...] it carries its own birth, and if it shatters

acclaim its fall and contradiction.

The egg is synonymous with the beginning of life, and conveys the idea of potential being. But unlike the explosive big bang, the "perfect work of God", in the case of the poet, his "egg", his seed of creation, implodes and only reaches the rim of the wheel by means of the imperfect spokes of his wheel.

1

Poetry is subjective but I would say that this poem is a pretty accurate description of Paris. The whole poem reeks of betrayal and warning, perception and reality. This poem is the author coming to terms with his expectations of the city and the reality of what it actually was for him. The alluring perfume if the city has faded away and now he grows bitter with distaste towards it. The city by the authors view is slow to progress and he feels as he has been betrayed for his reasons of living there.

Paris is constructed of a wheel and spoke city layout. Which makes perfect poetic scenes why in the climax of the poem he would warn others that the city is a lie and that the wheel does not turn; it does not progress. If you look carefully at a map of Paris, or an old map, you can clearly view this structured spoke & wheel layout in the streets and around landmarks. There are many other references to the city in the poem as well. From stick (Eiffel tower), bells (Notre Dame), swamps (Paris was built on a swamp), invade, etc.

Paul Auster also lived in Paris for a few years in the early 70's. So I believe the spoke & wheel references are to the structure of the city's layout.

  • Interesting interpretation! Is there any evidence for this (which does fit the facts) above other interpretations which also fit the facts? For example, why Paris rather than another city (was Auster living there when he wrote this poem?) – Rand al'Thor Feb 14 '18 at 12:20
  • Yes he was living in Paris at the time. Spokes was written in March 1972. Auster moved to Paris in 1970 and returned to the U.S. in 1974. – M. Zeal Feb 14 '18 at 12:26

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