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,
[ . . . ]
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 battle — positioned 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.