The City Planners by Margaret Atwood is a poem about the changing cityscapes. It conveys the poet’s thoughts feelings and ideas as she passes through a suburban residential area. She takes the reader along with her on the ride with a very common word- ‘these’. This word is followed by the strange phrase ‘residential Sundays’ which suggests routine and boredom. It talks of a group of people who live in their houses and stay away from work only on Sundays which were actually days of mirth and merriment in olden times. When we read ‘dry August sunlight’ the picture is fairly clear. The poet’s sensitivity has been offended by something she saw. She says it is the sanities.
‘the houses in pedantic rows, the planted
The urban landscapes keep expanding into the suburbs and changes take place overnight. Instead of the wild and chaotic growth of wilderness, the city grows in artificial rows. In the name of security and sanity at the expense of wild beauty, an uncanny order is brought into the cityscapes. She is amused and saddened in a way at the area’s orderliness, perfection and uniformity.
The trees which were not planted for the sake of beauty but for sanitary purposes assert the mindset of the people. It is all pragmatic and unaesthetic. We hear echoes of Dylan Thomas’s poem ‘The Force That through the Green Fuse Drives the Flower’ and Robert Frost’s Mending Wall when Margaret Atwood talks about the invisible power against which human aggression seems to have no chance.
The poet is almost feeling intimidated by the perfection of the place. She thinks the levelness of the surfaces is sneering at a dent on her car door, an aberration which she thinks may not be accepted in a place like this. She describes the deafening silence there.
‘No shouting here, or
shattering of glass’
The only sound welcomed here is the mechanical whirring of the motor of a lawn mower which is cutting off the already ‘discouraged grass’ which suggests the insensitive nature of the place. The fact that the place is very quiet adds to its already ‘boring’ atmosphere. Words like rational ’, ‘straight swath and ‘levelness of surface’ suggest an eternally boring place. The silence of the area almost seems to kill the poet. It is too overpowering and unnerving. Shouting is not welcome nor is the sound of a sheet of glass breaking into pieces, however musical that sound may be. Glass is an artificial object but people don’t want to hear it being broken or destroyed while they are happy about a power lawn insensitively mowing down the tender leaves of grass. Even this is done for the sake of leveling and uniformity. This imagery, along with the earlier one of ‘the planted sanitary trees,’ shows man’s futile but dogged attempt to control nature.
The drive ways avoid the wild hysteria of nature by being even and the roofs are all slanted in the same way as if they are unwilling to face the sky directly. However, there are certain things which still keep the wildness of life: the smell of spilt oil, a faint sickness lingering in the garages, a splash of paint on bricks which looks like a bleeding bruise, a plastic hose coiled like the viciousness of a venomous snake.
even the too-fixed stare of the wide windows
give momentary access to
the landscape behind or under
the future cracks in the plaster
Mortar and cement have been thrown lavishly over nature and its beauty and the poet foresees that the past will come out one day in future. Through the cracks in the plaster, the poet sees what has been submerged and is waiting to show its head. She foresees that all these houses which are against chaos which is the golden rule of nature will one day collapse and like a ship sinking tilt to its side and disappear into the earth.
Like the movement of glaciers, the change is slow and steady and hard to see. This idea is something that sprouted from the annoyance and frustration that is lingering in her mind. She predicts the destruction of perfection in the streets at the hands of the powerful forces of nature such as the earth, seas and glaciers. This destruction will come as a consequence of having dared to control nature and not allowing nature to grow wild. Restricted and controlled, nature strikes back. Natures anger brims up and at a certain point will just burst , throwing wildly its unrestrained forces of displeasure and annoyance which is shared by the poet in the first stanza. The image of the ship slanting and sinking obliquely into the clay sea reminds us of Titanic which also was a man made wonder and was famed as the unsinkable.
The poet says that this is what brings in the City Planners, the urbanizers. They have the insane face of political conspirators.
‘…scattered over unsurveyed
territories, concealed from each other,
each in his own private blizzard;
When one world collapses they barge in to build another one right there. They guess directions and make plans which are rigid and stern. Uncompassionate (as wooden borders) plans (transitory lines) for humanity’s future are envisioned by them. The present vanishes like a cloud into thin air. The insane planners bank on the panic of a suburb which has lost its roots. They ring in (order in) the future as maddening sketches on sheets of white paper.
Thus, the poem extols the power of nature to take care of itself and build anew. It mocks at man’s sense of superiority. This is where the poet rises to the level of the great poets of nature who worshiped nature more as a power than as a sensual experience.