*Wheels within Wheels

By SEAMUS HEANEY, considered to be one of the greatest living poets.

The first real grip I ever got on things

Was when I learned the art of pedaling

(By hand) a bike turned upside down, and drove

Its back wheel preternaturally fast.

I loved the disappearance of the spokes,

The way the space between the hub and rim

Hummed with transparency. If you threw

A potato into it, the hooped air

Spun mush and drizzle back into your face;

If you touched it with a straw, the straw frittered.

Something about the way those pedal treads

Worked very palpably at first against you

And then began to sweep your hand ahead

Into a new momentum—that all entered me

Like an access of free power, as if belief

Caught up and spun the objects of belief

In an orbit coterminous with longing.


But enough was not enough. Who ever saw

The limit in the given anyhow?

In fields beyond our house there was a well

(‘The well' we called it. It was more a hole

With water in it, with small hawthorn trees

On one side, and a muddy, dungy ooze

On the other, all tramped through by cattle).

I loved that too. I loved the turbid smell,

The sump-life of the place like old chain oil.

And there, next thing, I brought my bicycle.

I stood its saddle and its handlebars

Into the soft bottom, I touched the tyres

To the water's surface, then turned the pedals

Until like a mill-wheel pouring at the treadles

(But here reversed and lashing a mare's tail)

The world-refreshing and immersed back wheel

Spun lace and dirt-suds there before my eyes

And showered me in my own regenerate clays.

For weeks I made a nimbus of old glit.

Then the hub jammed, rims rusted, the chain snapped.


Nothing rose to the occasion after that

Until, in a circus ring, drumrolled and spotlit,

Cowgirls wheeled in, each one immaculate

At the still centre of a lariat.

Pepetuum mobile. Sheer pirouette.

Tumblers. Jongleurs. Ring-a-rosies. Stet!


Born in 1939 in County Derry, Northern Ireland, Heaney is best known for such collections as Opened Ground (1999); The Spirit Level (1996); and Sweeney Astray (1984). His recent translation, Beowulf (2000), won a Whitbread Award. In 1995 he received the Nobel Prize in Literature.

The above poem is taken from Seeing Things (Noonday Press, 1993); “A Constable Calls,” excerpted from “Singing School,” from New Selected Poems 1966–1987 (Faber and Faber, 1990).

Our thanks to Bicycling Magazine.