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On "Front"

Merton Lee

With its ambiguous title, Randall Jarrell’s “A Front” seems to play the coy modernist game of encouraging misreadings and interpretive errors. Though this is a poem of witness, there is no particular person who witnesses. Instead, the narrator is some impossible persona who nonetheless is the only point of entry for the reader’s own subjectivity. Thus, we can’t be sure exactly what we’re seeing in the poem, despite the specificity of the things described.

The poem reads as a kind of mystery with a cumulative logic. The first line “Fog over the base: the beams ranging” evokes an obscured home and the unfocus of blindness. The second line enforces the idea of home. Then, from this far perspective, line three closes in on the personal: “The crews cold in fur…” Jarrell’s association of “fur” with his pilots is surreal; and though in elliptical poems like “A Front”, the presence of one strange image doesn’t necessarily stand out, here “fur” does convey a sense of both uncanniness and the surreal surpassing of reality. Fur’s echo in “The Death of the Ball Turret Gunner” with its womb imagery to me carries an aura of the sexual, which is very faint and somewhat perverse. Fur implies the tactile but also the animal which can be variously innocent or helpless. And in the poem’s general contrast of scope from wide angle to close up, the line feels almost intimate. So, the full line, “The crews cold in fur, the bombers banging”, moves to the human, to touch, and to the hard contact of like bodies.

But this eroticism can only be hinted at; so immediately we shift again to the fog-shrouded exterior and half-obscured images of an alienated machinery. These images, “lost trucks down the levels of ice” (4), “tires and turrets” abstracted from their machines (7), an isolated wail (8), achieve a high loneliness, so that although the paraphrasable content might be hard to frame, the emotional content definitely builds up from these images.

Ultimately, the humanized perspective barely touched in line three comes back in the poem, when the explicitly human “voice” returns in line thirteen. Here the voice “keeps on calling” – implicating some other in loneliness with its plea. The last lines’ desperation comes as the dénouement to a whole poem’s isolation casting it as futile and ominous. The effectiveness of this lightly-touched moment of humanity is made possible by the impossible narrator’s slightly increased proximity to this one subjectivity.

However, the overall obliqueness of this poem is matter-of-factly clarified in Jarrell’s short explanatory note that explains the title. Read with the note, the poem’s ambiguity is grounded in a concrete narrative so that what would otherwise read as almost surreally opaque pure image decodes to some correlative element of the story. Which is to say, the note effectively guides us into an airtight “correct” reading of the poem.

Jarrell’s Complete Poems does not feature his note for “A Front,” which begs the question of what use the note is. The note and the poem are separate texts, written in different voices and accessible only by the visual acrobatics of swinging from the top of the page to the bottom and back again. This very motion implies that the real effect of the note is not to condense one text into another, but the fact of the intertext.
Alternatively, the relation between the poem and note can be conceptualized by the phallic metaphor. Is the penis merely a nozzle for urine, or does it play some more dignified role in insemination? According to Slavoj Žižek we arrive at the more dignified phallus only by choosing the mistaken “vulgar empiricist” concept of the penis as piss-tube. Then, the phallus’s other role can enter on the higher plane of speculative meaning, based on the noncoincidence of the phallus with itself. In other words, if we ascribe to the penis the role of insemination on the elementary level of empiricism, then a baby is something that is pissed out by men and menstruated out by women.

So read with the note, “A Front” boils down to this gap in identity: the insight that the tautological relationship really is empty, which paradoxically imbues the poem with a meaning apart from the merely denotative. So, to reconsider the homoeroticism of the “bombers banging,” isn’t this image’s power the eroticization of the minimal difference?



Žižek, Slavoj. The Parallax View. Cambridge MA: The MIT Press. 2006.


Copyright © 2007 Merton Lee


Phillip Ernstmeyer

Randall Jarrell’s “A Front” poeticizes an event described by Jarrell in a note:

A front is closing in over a bomber base; the bombers, guided in by signals from the five towers of the radio range, are landing. Only one lands before the base is closed; the rest fly south to fields that are still open. One plane’s radio has gone bad — it still transmits, but doesn’t receive — and this plane crashes.

In many ways, the poem is obscure and difficult to fix. Objects, such as the bomber that successfully lands, are insubstantial: “A glow drifts in like a mist [ . . . ].” The crash concluding the poem is conveyed not only aloofly, as if being witnessed from a distance, but with a splendor incommensurable with its horror: “All the air quivers, and the east sky glows.” For this reason, perhaps, Jarrell appended the poem with the annotation. It does effectively explain and coordinate the events represented in the poem, affording opacities in its narrative clarity and coherence. However, the poem — due in part to Jarrell’s note — is more complex than this narrativity. “A Front” is caught in the middle of multiple reciprocal but competing cell systems, and it can be read as a series of affronts, or confrontations, which seem to make sense of the wreckage.

“A Front” — as the sign which subsumes the poem — suggests multiple readings. First, it can designate shifting weather conditions and the boundaries separating these conditions. In this sense, a “front” is an atmospheric “transition zone” between cool and warm air masses. When a cool air mass replaces a warm air mass, atmospheric pressure spikes, producing virulent winds, heavy rains, and sudden drops in temperature. In Jarrell’s poem, exactly such an atmosphere is represented. For the pilots and traffic control, there is low visibility: “Fog over the base.” They encounter relentless precipitation: “[ . . . ] the flights drone southward through the steady rain.” And the rain that falls freezes: “[ . . . ] the bombers banging / Like lost trucks down the levels of the ice.” The atmosphere is dangerous and menacing; the weather corresponds to the season which devours “lives the season quenches.” In this way, “A Front” designates and reproduces the weather conditions of a cold front. However, the “front” is not merely an atmospheric transition. It is a gap, a rift, a divide demarcating the space betwixt ‘n’ between two frontiers: an unnamable elsewhere in process.

The bombers flying above the base, which go south to fields that are still open, reflect this transition zone. In the poem, their decision to alter their course and fly elsewhere is underscored by a language of flux:

                                    [ . . . ] no use for the rest
In drifting circles out along the range;
Holding no longer, changed to a kinder course,
The flights drone southward [ . . . ]” [emphasis added].

Significantly, where the bombers do ultimately land, if they ever even landed, remains unspecified. Indeed, the proximity and appositional relation of “changed to a kinder course” to “the rest / In drifting circles” suggests their new flight trajectory led nowhere. They fly south, but their fate remains unresolved; in the poem, apparitions of their images hang preserved in a hazy sky, going nowhere except in circles. The verb “drone” reinforces this motionless motion. The bombers could soar, surge, or even snarl southward; instead, they “drone,” releasing a monotonous, sluggish, melancholic sough, as if already bereft of hope. (Interestingly, as a noun, a “drone” can also be a “lazy idler” or, more provocatively, an “unpiloted aircraft navigated by remote control”). In “A Front,” the pilots’ status hangs perpetually in limbo, up “in the air.” They are not merely locked in transition; they are caught in the storm, between two masses, off the radar, in the indeterminate elsewhere which is neither one nor the other.

Simultaneously, the bomber who crashes and is given a voice in the poem encounters an analogous limbus and its corresponding gap. Like the other bombers, the plane flies in circles: “its shaky orbit.” (Notably, an “orbit” is not merely a circular course; it is a trajectory that one is constrained to follow. In this way, “orbit” reinforces the nuance in “drone” concerning aircraft controlled from afar, implying that traffic control has abandoned the pilot). But unlike the others, the pilot is cut off, all alone in the sky. The poem focalizes his failed transmission:

                           [ . . . ] one voice keeps on calling,
[ . . . ]
                                                                 Here below
They beg, order, and are not heard; and hear the darker
Voice rising: Can’t you hear me? Over. Over —

Like his fellow pilots, he goes nowhere; he speaks and awaits a reply, but he receives no response, and the duration of his waiting is prolonged. Suspended in this abeyance, drifting “downward in his shaky orbit,” he is left “twisting” — literally — “in the wind.” The irony is almost too bitter to be ironic: traffic control can hear the pilot, but the pilot cannot hear traffic control. He has lost control not only in the gap that marks a cold front’s boundary but in a communication gap. The atmosphere is being produced not only by one air mass pushing on another. “A Front” evokes the atmosphere which emerges when language plunges unto oblivion: the encroaching cold of death, unnamable.

Indeed, “A Front” as a poem is itself caught up in these turbulent atmospheric shifts and pressure changes. It irreducibly comprises two texts, two “masses” of variegated density, which collide, push on and supplement one another, and intermingle to create the muddled, tumultuous, bleak wreck which is “A Front”: the poem proper, versified and figurated, and Jarrell’s annotation, written in the unembellished (though no less nuanced) style of journalism. As acknowledged above, the note clarifies and coordinates the poem’s information and organization, giving greater narrative coherence. Likewise, it demystifies elements in the poem proper, such as “beams / Ranging from the five towers” (radio “signals”) and “the east sky glows” (the “plane crashes”). Additionally, it subjects “A Front” to a perpetual state of flux. The sheer presence of the note — postponing its affects on the reader and the ways they could negotiate it — suggests the poem proper is complete incompletely. Like the atmospheric conditions, like the bomber’s flying southward, like the failed transmission, “A Front” “is” (rigged in quotation marks) in transition. It “is” becoming, stuck in limbo, crushed on the razor-thin threshold between life and death. Whether the transmission from Jarrell’s note to the poem proper is completed, or the poem ultimately crashes and burns, or it just stays afloat “out there,” in space, unable to alight, remains uncertain.

No sign of hope is offered in the poem either. It is saturated with an overwhelming sense of loneliness and desolation. The death of the pilot which the poem records is not the courageous death undergone in war; there are no exploding bombs or crossfire, nor even an enemy in sight. His death is an “accident”: the result of unfavorable weather conditions and the choices made by administrative officials seated behind desks in control rooms. The concluding image of the sky aflame — and the failed transmission — articulate nothing except futility and loss. The poem is neither hopeful nor hopeless; it provides no sign of hope. It is inscribed betwixt ‘n’ between fervor and frigidity, staggering woozily in a dazed state of lassitude and disbelief. Everything is suspended, in transition, moving but going nowhere. It is a poem about things that do not come together, which fall asunder, and which make no sense: things beyond control, such as sudden changes in the weather and airplanes dropping from the sky.

In this way, “A Front” parallels David Perkins’ (MAPS) remark about Randall Jarrell’s representation of pilots in general: “[ . . . ] in his pilots Jarrell expressed the feelings of alienation, helplessness, regression, irresponsibility, and vulnerability that our vastly unmanageable, bureaucratic, technological civilization seems to create.” In “A Front,” the romance and heroism of war are peeled back, and revealed underneath the gloss is nothing subtract absurdity, avoidable error, the surreal. “A front,” then, is also a façade: the false appearance not only of heroism in war but of the difference between one side and the other. It is a site of battlepositioned closest to the enemy — but those who are closest are also one’s own allies. Like the cold front in the poem, binaries such as cool and warm, ally and enemy, commingle and create inimical conditions in reality. Thus “a front” is also a face, though it never becomes clear whose it is.

Copyright © 2007 Phillip Ernstmeyer

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