Original Criticism

Cristina Stanciu: On "Breed, Women, Breed"

Compulsory Maternity in Lucia Trent’s "Breed, Women, Breed"

In her incisive article on the condition of women poets in a male-dominated canon in the early 1930s, Lucia Trent finds womanhood a handicap rather than a source of creativity, and bitterly exclaims, "The wonder with a woman working in the arts is the same as that with a performing dog, not that she can do it well or ill, but that she can do it at all" (see article on MAPS). Obviously, this idea has been orchestrated on different levels by other female voices of the time, and represents an instance of female resistance of the "ungifted sisters" to conventional gender roles. However, unlike other "sisters"* promoting the emancipatory image of the "New Woman" (higher education, living wages, birth control; see DuPlessis 3), Trent operates in "Breed, Women, Breed" at a subversive level. Assuming the pose of the "performing dog," with an apparent submissive resignation in the eye (albeit using traditional female issues), Trent undermines the very tradition that feeds the dog ("the owners of mines," "the masters of men," "the war lords") and makes a political statement through images that are usually associated with the female domain ("frail bodies," "the pangs of birth," "the tired backs"). Consequently, "Breed, Women, Breed" is a rebellious cry for a different kind of creativity, a different use of the female body, and a cultural critique of the masculinity of the poetic enterprise.

Forty-one years after Trent, in "The Laugh of the Medusa" (1975), Hélène Cixous pleads for an écriture feminine, the writing of the female body, so as to transcend a masculine libidinal economy that governs Western thought and literature:

Woman must write herself: must write about women and bring women to writing, from which they have been driven away as violently as from their bodies. […] By writing her self, woman will return to the body which has been more than confiscated from her, which has been turned into the uncanny stranger on display. […] Censor the body and you censor breath and speech at the same time. Write your self. Your body must be heard. (2039-43)

Cixous’s feminist manifesto thus suggests that women should reclaim their bodies – the only cultural signifier they possess – and "write" them, taking control of their own bodies. As feminist critics have repeatedly underlined, the woman’s body is not only a text of culture, but also a direct locus of social control. Similarly, in "Breed, Women, Breed," Lucia Trent seems to signal and condemn the docility of female bodies and engage them in a collective social protest, rendered through revolutionary suggestions and a sardonic tone:

"Breed, little mothers, / With a faith patient and stupid as cattle, / Breed for the war lords, / Offer your woman flesh for incredible torment" (14-17).

Moreover, since women’s writing of the social text has been minimal historically, the allusion to "little women," nineteenth-century female writing, has a sarcastic connotation here. Trent’s programmatic poem becomes an advocacy of women writing themselves, writing their "frail bodies" (18). By reclaiming agency over their own bodies/identities in an era when Margaret Sanger’s birth control movement instituted a different stage in women’s relationship with their own bodies, Trent’s speaker simultaneously signals the abuse of women’s bodies (as breeders) and the possibility for women to reclaim their bodies. Thus, a subtextual reading of "Breed, Women, Breed" may be, in fact, "Write, Women, Write!"

Trent’s poem is programmatic as much as Cixous’s feminist manifesto in that it identifies the cause of women writers’ alienation from poetry in their (imposed) alienation from their own bodies. Trent’s images of "little women’s" bodies – hence little, not-cared-for bodies – depict them as instruments for the mechanical reproduction of the work force (I use this term generically, rather than limited to the working class). The "woman flesh," offered almost in a sacrificial gesture for "incredible torment," does not glorify birth, motherhood, and an identity defined by the reproductive function, but suggests the need for a different use of the female body. Contemporary fellow poet Genevieve Taggard also approaches the idea of women’s alienation from their bodies and describes the pangs of compulsory maternity in similar ways to Trent’s: "Now I am slow and placid […] / Torpid, mellow, stupid as a stone" ("With Child" 1921). Similarly, Trent’s deliberate use of the breeding process with a specific destination ("TO BREED FOR") is an allusion to compulsory maternity. However, her rebellious voice and final intensification of her cry (in the final line she uses an exclamation mark, which does not appear in the title) calls for an aesthetization and sexualization of the female bodies, and a poetry which is called to write the real body of the woman. Thus "Breed, Women, Breed" becomes a cultural and political cry for recognizing female cultural agency.

The sarcasm of the speaker (who is not gender-defined) is suggested by the very title of the poem, which imposes a necessary repetition in order to signal the word’s negativity. In other words, the vehemence of the imperative "breed," used twenty-two times throughout the poem, coupled with the fate of the "race of danger-haunted men" -- the products of the "frail bodies" – cries for a necessary change (I would propose, "Stop breeding!"). The repetitive use of "little mothers" may suggest, as Ryan Cull has aptly remarked in his analysis, their lack of voice; they are characterized by their physical condition and their economic use value in the capitalist system -- and the grotesque, bovine allusions to the 19th century pattern of womanhood are quite explicit, especially when the speaker’s tone becomes ruthless in the third stanza and voices a crude sentence: "stupid as cattle." However, "little mothers" (and not just "mothers") may also be used to signify their paradoxical positioning in a world they create physically but do not have full access to, due to the gender barrier. Ultimately, their "little" contribution to the world of "sweating, miserable men" (identified by male occupations: miller, miner, banker, warrior) is ironic, since they "breed" not only the victims of this world (the socially disadvantaged class), but also the victimizers.


*Trent identifies in her polemic article three categories of women’s poetry at the time: 1) the "strong-brained" or, in DuPlessis’s term, the "logopoetic" type (38); 2) the "minor melodist" type, identified with the majority of women poets writing about feminine interests, i.e. "conventional women absorbed with tea-table topics"; 3) the neither mannish nor conventional type, exploring "human needs and suffering." Although Trent doesn’t define her role/place in the long tradition of female writers -- as does Amy Lowell in her celebrated poem "Sisters," where the split with the tradition is apparent – she seems to adhere to the third type of poetry writing.

Meg Boerema: On "Breed, Women, Breed"

Challenging not only men’s authority over poetic discourse, but also dominant narratives of modernism’s break with sentimentalism, Lucia Trent in "More Power to Poets" (see MAPS page "Lucia Trent on Women Poets") argues radically for the sentimental function of poetry and for women’s poetic expertise: "For poetry is essentially the art of sympathy--and sympathy is essentially the province of women." For Trent, women’s claim upon sympathy/poetry, depends upon women’s capacity for motherhood since mothers, as Trent argues, "learn unselfishness--a basic requirement of true poetry as the poet must perceive the unity of all life." Trent’s outward-looking sympathy then is not a personal sympathy of a private domesticity (she despises the "tea-table topics" of many women poets), but a public sympathy of politicized collectivity; it’s the sympathy of Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin, not of Hallmark’s greeting cards. Locating women’s poetic authority in an idealization of women’s maternity, Trent in "More Power to Poets" rearticulates sentimental ideals of motherhood to political advantage: to claim women’s poetic expertise. Trent’s "Breed, Women, Breed" similarly evokes sentimental ideals of motherhood for political purposes. Reducing maternity to its economic function, "Breed, Women, Breed" challenges bourgeois ideals of motherhood to incite readers’ outrage against capitalism and its vulgarized motherhood. Like the politicized sentimentalism of Uncle Tom’s Cabin then, Trent’s "Breed, Women, Breed" garners much of its revolutionary political force through its threat to that conservative, middle-class ideal: motherhood.

"Breed, Women, Breed" devastates romantic ideals of motherhood by denying its mothers’ agency and by locating their sexuality in its capitalistic function. Women in "Breed, Women, Breed" have no control over their reproduction (for Trent the "dark side" of pregnancy: "Pregnancy has its dark side when it does not represent voluntary motherhood" (More Power to Poets). Women are compelled to "Breed, breed, breed!" (line 8 and 24) and have no ability to protect their children once born. Moreover, in "Breed, Women, Breed," women’s sexuality is solely (re)productive, imagined as producing "a race of danger-haunted men,/A race of toiling sweating, miserable men," (lines 4-5) "a race of machines" (line 12). Here, women’s sexuality exists not in a romantic relationship with a lover, but in a capitalist relationship with "the owners of mills and the owners of mines" (line 3), "the bankers, the crafty and terrible masters of men" (line 11), "the devouring war lords" (line 23). Reducing women’s sexuality to its economic function, "Breed, Women, Breed" figures maternity as a sort of prostitution, a painful affront to those invested in romanticized ideals of a protective motherhood.

Yet though the poem everywhere denies the existence of a romanticized motherhood, it nowhere denies motherhood as an ideal. Rather, "Breed, Women, Breed" critiques capitalism by appealing to bourgeois ideals of motherhood and by soliciting a sort of maternal sympathy from its readers. Just as Eliza’s son should not be sold to slave owners in Uncle Tom’s Cabin, the sons of the mothers in "Breed, Women, Breed" should not be sold to "the terrible masters of men" (line 11 and 22): the owners, bankers, and war lords. "Breed, Women, Breed" then--much like Uncle Tom’s Cabin wherein Eliza appeals, "’Have you ever lost a child?’" (149)--figures the reader as a sort of surrogate mother. The reader, called upon to perform as that agent mother absent from the poem, cannot possibly continue to allow her children to become "a race of toiling, sweating miserable men" (line 5). "Breed, Women, Breed" then does not contest a bourgeois valuation of the maternal relationship, but depends upon it. The problem, as the poem imagines, is not that motherhood is a false ideal (it’s not that mothers don’t care what happens to their children), but that the ideal is denied by capitalism (it’s that mothers don’t control what happens to their children).

Motherhood then, as it was in much of 19th century American sentimentalism, is central to the political performance of sympathy in "Breed, Women, Breed," and even motherhood’s centrality to the poem’s rhetorical appeals can be read through its political performance. As Jane Tompkins argues of Uncle Tom’s Cabin in Sensational Designs:

The brilliance of the strategy is that it puts the central affirmations of a culture into the service of a vision that would destroy the present economic and social institutions; by resting her case, absolutely, on the saving power of Christian love and on the sanctity of motherhood and the family, Stowe relocates the center of power in American life, placing it not in the government, nor in the courts of law, nor in the factories, nor in the marketplace, but in the kitchen. (145)

Jane Tompkins’s reading of Uncle Tom’s Cabin can be easily read towards Trent’s "Breed, Women, Breed"; only in "Breed, Women, Breed," I would argue, the center of power rests not in kitchen, but in the bedroom. Power extends even here, and it is here, the poem argues, that women shall exercise their complicity or resistance.

Ryan Cull: On "Breed, Women, Breed"

Lucia Trent’s "Breed, Women, Breed" is characteristic of a neglected series of haunting poems from the 1920s that approach the subject of maternity from the perspective of the working-class. Other notable examples of this sub-genre include Genevieve Taggard’s eloquently understated "With Child" and Georgia Douglas Johnson’s harrowing prayer for a stillbirth "Motherhood." While Johnson became one of the most significant female poets of the Harlem Renaissance, Taggard and Trent were both deeply involved in the radical politics of the left and wrote poems that considered matters of race and economics in addition to women’s issues. Drawn from her third volume of poetry Children of Fire and Shadow, Trent’s "Breed, Women, Breed" unflinchingly identifies how motherhood has been used as a source of political and economic oppression, while also pointing towards a way that maternity, and perhaps female sexuality in general, could be used instead as an important source of social change.

Trent tells us, in her polemical tract "More Power to Poets" (also quoted on MAPS), that "the experience of maternity makes a woman reach out beyond self to the child. . . .Her sacrifice for new life both in bearing and rearing children helps fit her for the poet's post as prophet and as interpreter of the future to the present. Her preoccupation with children also helps her fill the poet's role of giving voice to the inarticulate." And yet she goes on to inform us that, "in a contest we ran in Contemporary Vision [a magazine that Trent and her husband edited] for poems on pregnancy the winning poem and the majority of the most profound poems were by men. This does not mean necessarily that men are better poets or better equipped to handle this theme, but that women are more inhibited as yet." Trent, in this text, never really explores the possible sources of this inhibition. Instead, she exhorts her peers to follow the example of Elizabeth Barrett Browning and gather together to form a "larger battalion of women singers marching as standard-bearers of a more decent civilization."

One could read Trent’s "Breed, Women, Breed," however, as a possible response to her own query about why women of her time may have felt "inhibited" from writing about maternity. Her poem presents the topic, especially for women of the lower classes, as being imbued with a dark irony, for the creation of a wholly new life is treated as just a source for spare parts. Thus, where the essay focuses on her idealistic hopes, the poem examines depression-era realities. And what she sees is not a "battalion" of empowered "women singers" helping to create "a more decent civilization" but rather a nearly helpless mass of "little mothers." These unidentified and undifferentiated women are utterly lacking any control over their own fate. Far from being poets in the tradition of Elizabeth Barrett Browning, they have no voices (as individuals or as a chorus) and are characterized in the most coarsely animalistic fashion: by their physical condition and their economic utility. Trent’s description of these women is intentionally minimalistic. They are reduced to being merely "tired backs and tired hands" to go along with "sunken eyes and. . .sagging cheeks." After having been worn down in both body and spirit, these women nevertheless are forced to give what they have left: the procreative capacity of their wombs.

In this poem, thus, the incessant mono-syllabic repetition of "breed" is by design meant to be crudely mechanical. In using this technique, Trent’s poem recalls Walt Whitman's Civil War poem "Beat Beat Drums." Like Whitman’s work, Trent’s poem begins each stanza with the same imperative phrase, which then may lead into a series of other terse commands ("Breed. . ./ Offer. . ./Wrack. . ."). She, thus, exchanges Whitman’s mechanical drumbeat of war for the mechanical heartbeat of a human assembly-line. And such monotonous droning increasingly encourages the reader to interrogate these unemotional, impersonal orders and the voice behind them.

The focus of Trent’s cultural critique is callous corporate capitalism and its influence in both business and politics. The poem horrifically presents maternity as just another cog in the machinery of the elite, whether it be for "the owners of mills and the owners of mines," "the bankers" or for the governmental "war lords." Being of no further physical and mental usefulness, these poor "little mothers" become a source of another type of labor. They are invited to "offer" and "wrack [their] frail bodies with the pangs of birth" to supply the next generation of workers, so that the hopeless cycle may go on. For Trent, this use of maternity is less a form of prostitution than it is an example of outright enslavement that will grow with each generation, encompassing successive mothers and their offspring. These children are fated to be an equally faceless "race of aenemic, round shouldered, subway herded machines," suitable for use as the cannon-fodder of the "war-lords" or as generic fixtures to be plugged into the system.

But as much as Trent criticizes the elite, she also reveals a certain uneasiness or frustration towards these women. Although she empathizes with their plight, she describes these "little mothers" as having a "faith patient and stupid as cattle." Trent feels the need to stir these people beyond what she views as an all too patient passivity. It is this unreflective submissiveness, and not their childbearing, that the poet finds regrettable.

Lest this accusation seem unfair, it is only a single line, more than counter-balanced by the indictments surrounding it. But, even within its limits as a single accusation, it is an unyielding assertion by Trent that these mothers do retain a measure of agency that can never be fully taken from them. Though she does not blame them for the possible fates of their children, she also does not remove from them a special kind of maternal responsibility to do what they can to produce social change. This fundamental refusal to accept sheer economic determinism underlies the poem. And it is evidenced by Trent’s rhetorically shrewd decision to write the poem as an address pointed towards the "little mothers" and not the mill-owners, bankers or "war-lords." "Breed, Women, Breed," thus, becomes a double-edged sword: both a fierce accusation of injustice towards the oppressor and a potent call to arms directly addressed to the oppressed.

Near the conclusion of "More Power to Poets" Trent declares, "let us have poems that strip off masks of hypocrisy and sham, poems for the advance of women, of labor, of all humanity!" "Breed, Women, Breed" attempts to do just this. Though her hope of establishing a "battalion" of working-class "women singers" never may have been fully realized, her poem is significant as a brutally honest account of the sometimes dehumanizing economic policies and practices that were the festering darkside of the roaring twenties.

Susan Howe: On Susan Howe and History

My poems always seem to be concerned with history. No matter what I thought my original intentions were that's where they go. The past is present when I write.

Recently I spent several months at Lake George where I wrote Thorow. If there is a Spirit of Place that Spirit had me in thrall. Day after day I watched the lake and how weather and light changed it. I think I was trying to paint a landscape in that poem but my vision of the lake was not so much in space as in time. I was very much aware of the commercialization and near ruin at the edge of the water, in the town itself, all around --but I felt outside of time or in an earlier time and that was what I had to get on paper. For some reason this beautiful body of water has attracted violence and greed ever since the Europeans first saw it. I thought I could feel it when it was pure, enchanted, nameless. There never was such a pure place. In all nature there is violence. Still it must have been wonderful at first sight. Uninterrupted nature usually is a dream enjoyed by the spoilers and looters -- my ancestors. It’s a first dream of wildness that most of us need in order to breathe; and yet to inhabit a wilderness is to destroy it. An eternal contradiction. Olson's wonderful sentence "I take SPACE to be the central fact to man born in America." I am a woman born in America. I can't take central facts for granted. But then Olson really doesn't either.

Sometimes I think my poetry is only a search by an investigator for the point where the crime began. What is the unforgivable crime? Will I ever capture it in words?

I can't get away from New England. It's in my heart and practice. The older I get the more Calvinist I grow. Inspite of all the pettiness and dour formalism of the Puritans, as we have learned to think of them, and it is all certainly there, and more -- I am at home with them.

Hidden under the rigid exterior of a Cotton Mather, under the anger of Mary Rowlandson, under the austerity of Jonathan Edwards, is an idea of grace as part of an infinite mystery in us but beyond us. What we try to do in life is a calling. Carpentry, teaching, mothering, farming, writing, is never an end in itself but is in the service of something out of the world -- God or the Word, a supreme Fiction. This central mystery -- this huge imagination of one form is both a lyric thing and a great "secresie," on an unbeaten way; the only unbeaten way left. A poet tries to sound every part.

Sound is part of the mystery. But sounds are only the echoes of a place of first love. The Puritans or Calvinists knew that what we see is as nothing to the unseen. I know that if something in a word, or in a line in a poem or in any piece of writing doesn't sound true then I must change it. I am part of one Imagination and the justice of Its ways may seem arbitrary but I have to follow Its voice. Sound is a key to the untranslatable hidden cause. It is the cause. Othello said that. "Othello is uneasy, but then Othellos always are, they hold such mighty stakes," wrote Dickinson. In the same letter she added "The brow is that of Deity -- the eyes, those of the lost, but the power lies in the throat -- pleading, sovereign, savage -- the panther and the dove!"

Bruce Campbell: On Susan Howe and History

Susan Howe is a kind of post-structuralist visionary. This means that, while attuned to a transcendental possibility, she is fully aware of how mediated both language and consciousness are. This awareness leads her to acknowledge and investigate history, but, recognizing, as she does, the "infinite miscalculation of history," she can not accept history as truth, Yet, truth be told, neither can she ignore history. Given the "corruptible first figure" -- which can be taken to refer to rhetoric, myth, history, or a number of other disciplines -- no one discipline can be the founding discipline of truth: each possesses some truth, but always with a mixture of falsity. As she writes in "Thorow," "So many true things // which are not truth itself." And yet, too often, "language was spoken against an ideal of lost perfection." Against this measure, language must always be judged inadequate, for it is itself far from perfect and its access to perfection, though haunted, is undiscoverable. Such an insight may well call for an interminable writing, for a writing which continuously tests its own limits of truth and expression.

Benjamin Branham: On "Truganinny"

"Truganinny, the last of the Tasmanians, had seen the stuffed and mounted body of her husband and it was her dying wish that she be buried in the outback or at sea for she did not wish he body to be subjected to the same indignities. Upon her death she was nevertheless stuffed and mounted and put on display for over eighty years."

Paul Coe, Australian Aborigine Activist, 1972 -from Wendy Rose, "Truganinny"

Wendy Rose's appeal to historical documentation evokes the dynamic relationship between history and text that permeates the poetry of many American Indians. Rose positions her work in symbiosis with history, both extracting life from and injecting life into a narrative of desolation, agony, and genocide that spans hundreds of years.

"Truganinny" provides an ideal starting point for an analysis of this relationship. The poem's outgrowth from a quoted source firmly anchors it to history, but at the same time declares its relative autonomy by assuming the voice of a long-deceased individual. In this sense, the poem is unique. For whereas many poems invoke historical events, names, and places, most avoid an unconcealed reliance upon a specific text. This is not to say that "Truganinny" depends on the words of Paul Coe for its poetic identity, but rather that it directly illustrates the intermingling of elements comprising it. Furthermore, Rose addresses not her own history of Hopi and 'Me-wuk ancestry, but rather that of the Australian Aborigines, the two groups joined by their common heritage as indigenous and oppressed. We might consider this a deviation from the efforts of other American Indian poets who often focus on topics and issues extending from their own roots.

Yet the possible inaccuracy of Coe's statement, implied in numerous sources, demands further historical scrutiny. Although there is a dearth of scholarship on the island of Tasmania and its former inhabitants, the land's fated encounter with a colonial rule that would lead to the "extinction" of an entire race has nonetheless generated a number of historical accounts. Most sources (indeed, all of the ones I came across) acknowledge the woman Trucanini (spelling varies, but Ellis makes a claim that "Trucanini" reflects the correct pronunciation) as the last surviving Tasmanian before her death in 1876 (Bonwick, Ellis, Davies, Robson & Roe). The death of her third husband, William Lanne, considered the last male Aborigine, in 1869 provoked a dispute that saw the mutilation of his body in an attempt to obtain his skeleton (Robson 35). No source other than the quote attributed to Paul Coe makes any reference to the stuffing or mounting of Lanne's body, or even that Trucanini ever saw the corpse of her dead husband. Her sense of devastation and her wish to avoid the desecration of her own remains is well documented, but again Coe's account clashes with those that report Trucanini was indeed buried at the time of her death and later disinterred by the Royal Society of Tasmania. Early in the century, the Tasmanian Musuem and Art Gallery displayed Trucanini's skeleton, not her stuffed corpse, in the Aboriginal exhibition room, where it remained until 1947 (Ellis 156). In response to a wide controversy surrounding the issue in the 1960s and 70s, the Tasmanian Museum transferred possession of Trucanini's remains to the Tasmanian government in 1975. In May of 1976, 100 years after her death, Trucanini was cremated and finally granted her wish when her ashes were scattered over D'Entrecasteaux Channel near the place of her birth.

With this information apparently refuting the scenario presented in the epigraph to "Truganinny," what significance does the discrepancy between these competing representations of history contribute to our reading of the poem? To indict or discredit Rose for such an "error" would be preposterous. It is unlikely that she knows Coe's account might be in error. And yet, the conflict encourages an examination of the profound complexity of representing an unfixed history.

Rose's poem opens with the speaker conceding the fragility of her own voice. The dying Truganinny, an old woman, addresses the frailty of age yet proclaims a strong vocal insistence:


You will need

to come closer

for little is left

of this tongue

and what I am saying

is important. (1-6)


In drawing attention to the deterioration of her vocal apparatus, the speaker summons a "closer" attention and proximity from her listener. By entreating such nearness with urgency and "need," the textual Truganinny seeks to narrow the gap between speaker and listener, mimicking that between poet and reader, text and history. Rose crafts an intriguing matrix of these binaries, deconstructing them by illustrating both their mutual reliance upon one another and their multiple permutations. The voice extends outward from the historicity of Truganinny's time--but within the poet's perception--Rose herself functioning as a reader of Coe's text, and he a reader of a larger text still. In the poem, she synthesizes her own voice with that of the individual she portrays, thus merging historical perception with historical representation, art with history, present with past. Simultaneously, we as the audience remain spectators to the "actual" history as well--not to claim that any history is authoritative--perpetuating the cycle that the poem initiates.

The speaker's voice, however, presents problems. How does such a vocal assimilation affect the agency Rose intends to ascribe Truganinny? Does the impersonation of voice risk additional objectification by usurping it from its owner and fixing it upon the page? And do we, as readers, contribute to this objectification by virtue of our subsequent gaze upon the narrative? The answer to these questions resides in the acknowledgment that all narratives necessarily contain some element of objectification; otherwise, they would fail to function. And a relatively little amount of narrative objectification does not quite impose the same intense oppression as does the objectifying weight of history. Rose makes the recovery of Truganinny's voice her imperative. Whether the real Trucanini can speak for herself at all is a matter justifiably complicated by Gayatri Spivak's influential essay, "Can the Subaltern Speak?," in which she suggests the impossibility of recovering an authentically autonomous voice. In addressing Spivak's theories, Ania Loomba observes a number of critical issues:

Do we necessarily position colonised people as victims, incapable of answering back? On the other hand, if we suggest that the colonial subjects can `speak' and question colonial authority, are we romanticizing such resistant subjects and underplaying colonial violence? In what voices do the colonised speak--their own, or in accents borrowed from their masters? Is the project of recovering the subaltern best served by locating her separateness from dominant culture, or by highlighting the extent to which she moulded even those processes and cultures which subjugated her? And finally, can the voice of the subaltern be represented by the intellectual? (Loomba 231)

These crucial questions pertain to our reading of Trucanini the person and "Truganinny" the poem. However, part of the poem's success lies in its deviation from history, even if unintentional. Through these differences, or innovations, Rose uses history to engender a new narrative, transforming silence into an empowered voice.

To fully appreciate the intricate dynamic of history and its representations, we must look more comprehensively at the events surrounding the death, burial, and display of Trucanini. In the poem, the speaker's self-reflexive concern for a part of her body, her tongue, directs attention to the colonial commodification of the body that the poem addresses. Even prior to the death of William Lanne, the colonizing world's obsession with Tasmanian physiognomy culminated in a mad dash for bones:

As it became obvious that the end of the race was near, scientists all over the world became anxious to obtain skeletons before it was too late. Years before, in 1856, J.B. Davis had realised the importance of preserving skeletal material. He had written to artist Alfred Bock pressing him to find some medical gentleman connected with public hospitals who would be willing to help him acquire Tasmanian skulls. "Were I myself in the colony I could with very little trouble abstract skulls from dead bodies without defacing them at all, and could instruct any medical gentleman to do this," he wrote. He also suggested raiding the old cemetery at Flinders Island to get skeletons. "Difficulties always stand in the way and may always be overcome," he stressed. Judging by his results, he overcame his difficulties with the greatest success. (Ellis 133)

This ruthless quest exemplifies the colonialist gaze, exoticizing the body of the Tasmanian as other. Davis expresses a concern for "preserving skeletal material" and extracting skulls without damaging them, but makes no mention of keeping the skin and body of the dead in a respectable condition suitable for a funeral. Although the practice of raiding graves for the study of medicine occurred across the globe at this time, the particular fetish for Tasmanian bones embodies something more: the colonial regime's suffocating surveillance. Davis' description of "difficulties" blocking the path to skeletal possession characterizes his brutality as a contest, one offering various obstacles to make the challenge more exciting.

Such a narrative of mystery and conniving accompanies Lanne's death in 1869. The body was initially entrusted to Dr. G Stokell, Resident Medical Officer of the General Hospital, for him to look after, as the Colonial Secretary realized the potential value of the skeleton. The general consensus among the public held that after a proper burial and appropriate passage of time the Royal Society would exhume the body for its collection. Dr. W. L. Crowther, however, intended to ship the skeleton to colleagues at the Royal College of Surgeons in London and executed a plan that saw him extract Lanne's skull in the middle of the night "by the light of a candle illuminating the macabre interior of the dead-house" (Ellis 136). After replacing the skull, inside the skin, with one that had been similarly extracted from a white man, Crowther and accomplices made their escape. Upon discovery of this deceit, Stokell grew irate and, determined to stop Crowther from obtaining the rest of the skeleton, cut of the hands and feet of the corpse to secure them, an effort sanctioned by the Royal Society. Following the funeral, which made the body appear unmolested to dismiss developing rumors, Stokell arranged to have the remainder of the skeleton stolen from its fresh grave that evening. A public uproar arose over these events, and the government appointed a Board of Enquiry to investigate the case, the details of which were published in The Mercury, a newspaper for the town of Hobart (Ellis 138-140). Crowther lost his position with the hospital, and Stokell was cleared of all charges. Because of an abrupt end to the enquiry, the Board never required Stokell to provide a full account of what happened to the body after its removal from the grave. The whereabouts of the remains of William Lanne, including his skull, have never been traced. Years later, without certainty, speculation arose that Lanne was not, in actuality, of pure Tasmanian descent, casting a much deserved air of futility on the competitive grave robbing by Crowther and Stokell.

The physical and cultural usurpation at work in this account grants even more salience to the poem's eerie forecast: "They will take me" (29). Truganinny speaks with the knowledge that a colonizing force plans to incorporate her body into its own consuming discourse:


Already they come;

even as I breathe

they are waiting for me

to finish my dying. (30-33)


The speaker's sense that the people who will ultimately make her a spectacle "already" envelop her stems from the remorseless progress of an encroaching gaze. Her status as "the last one" (8)--a status conferred by the very colonialists who administered her people's genocide--attracts the eyes that wish to put her on display as evidence of a culture long since extinct. As they wait, like vultures, for her to "finish" dying--as if completing a task demanded of her--the agents of hegemony move ever closer, infringing, as they always have, with a claustrophobia that asphyxiates. The desire to accumulate artifacts supersedes the value of human life, and the eager "waiting" to redeem the corpse at the nearest pawn shop only precipitates death.

Wendy Rose's reappropriation of history that she accomplishes by generating a new voice succeeds in shifting savagery from the colonized to the colonizer. She crafts "Truganinny" with a delicacy and insistence that forces readers to challenge the representations of history we take for granted and presents an example of how to recover lost voices.

Okla Elliott: On "Patriarchal Poetry"

Productive Dissonance

A dissonance
in the valence of Uranium
led to the discovery
(if you’re interested)
leads to discovery

—William Carlos Williams, Patterson IV (On the Curies)


“No one gets angry at a mathematician or a physicist whom he doesn’t understand, or at someone who speaks a foreign language, but rather at someone who tampers with your own language.” —Jacques Derrida, from an interview in Derrida and Différence


Gertrude Stein’s genre-bending (-obliterating? –inventing?) text, “Patriarchal Poetry,” seems primarily interested in creating what I want to call productive dissonance—that is, a dissonance that produces new cultural space or discourse. She does this by, to use Derrida’s phrasing, tampering with the language. One almost imagines she wanted it to border, in places, on the unreadable, or at least unpleasant, while in others it is quite aurally pleasing. Why would she want to do such a thing? There is no key that unlocks this text, but the long series of near-repetitions


Let her try.

Let her try.

Let her be.

Let her be shy.

Let her try. (65)


lends some insight into her project here. I count thirty-eight instances of the phrase “let her try” in this movement of the poem, by far the dominant phrase within the series of repetitions and near-repetitions; and it is quite telling that the stanzaic paragraph is completed as “let her try to be” (ibid). Stein’s text here refuses, even more than most poetic productions, any sort of clean interpretation, but it seems at least part of the text’s point that women who produce non-patriarchal poetry (especially at the time she is writing) must be allowed to try, must be allowed to try to be, as there is no poetic form in which women can be at the time she is writing.

And this is exactly what the formal dissonance of her text is trying to invent, a counter-discourse and then hopefully a new discourse beyond that counter-discourse, which is no longer tethered by that “counter-“ to the patriarchal discourse. Or perhaps it would be better to say that her text is trying to clear away and create the space for just such a new untethered and unfettered discourse, for her text itself does not quite achieve the Aufhebung stage of the dialectic of discourses I am imagining as its goal (conscious or un-). It is therefore a dialectical dissonance she has produced.

And so, since I have let Hegel into the conversation, how else might he be able to help us? I think perhaps recognition theory here plays a role in Stein’s project. If we apply Hegel’s recognition theory model, with its constant battle between subjects vying for recognition from and/or domination over other subjects, couldn’t we read Stein’s text as a bid for recognition, albeit a necessarily dissonant or destructive one (though dissonant and destructive for the purpose of creation or Aufhebung)?

We might also apply another great dialectician to the text. When Stein writes “Patriarchal poetry in regular places placed regularly as if it were placed regularly regularly placed regularly as if it were” (67), isn’t she doing a critique of ideology in the Marxian sense? The empowered normalize the place of patriarchal poetry by placing it regularly in the regular places (e.g., journals, anthologies, classrooms) where is it entirely normal (regular) to find such things. It’s that wonderfully ambiguous “as if it were” that cuts through the surface of naturalized ideology—as if it were normal or natural for this to be the order of things. But it isn’t, Stein seems to be telling us, either right or natural, but rather merely the effect of patriarchal power that ensures the placement of patriarchal poetry over competing discourses.

So far, however, I have only discussed what Stein’s poem is doing, but I haven’t answered the question I posed earlier of why she might have done this, purposely or not. I am reminded of Slavoj Žižek’s discussion, in his book Violence, of a considerably more recent event, the 2005 riots in France by Muslim French citizens. He incisively points out:

The Paris riots were not rooted in any kind of concrete socio-economic protest, still less in an assertion of Islamic fundamentalism. One of the first sites to be burned was a mosque…The riots were simply a direct effort to gain visibility. A social group which, although part of France and composed of French citizens, saw itself as excluded from the political and social space proper wanted to render its presence palpable to the general public. Their actions spoke for them: like it or not, we’re here, no matter how much you pretend not to see us…[T]heir main premise was that they wanted to be and were French citizens, but were not fully recognized. (Žižek 76-77)

Obviously the struggle for recognition in the two cases are not identical (are any such struggles?), but we can learn something here that is perhaps useful to understanding the abrasiveness of Stein’s style. She wanted to rattle cages. Writing in the dominant and accepted style, or writing in a pleasurable or easy one, would have caused the poem to go unnoticed, under the cultural radar. By creating dissonance, she announced a presence in literature heretofore largely ignored. She burnt down anything she could to register her presence and thus demand recognition (in the Hegelian sense).

Stein succeeds in demanding and thus creating the cultural space possible for a new discourse to emerge, and for that alone, she should be ranked among the foremost innovators of modern poetry.

Jim Beatty: On "Patriarchal Poetry"

Many of the critics on MAPS astutely trace the deconstructive force of Stein’s "Patriarchal Poetry," crediting the poem’s form with radically destabilizing binary oppositions. Yet, they seem to take the specific discursive resonances of individual terms as somewhat irrelevant. Quartermain explicitly argues that the poem "covertly if not blatantly invit[es] the reader to skip, since the eye running down a list tends to hurry along, inattentive, expecting more of the same, expecting tedium." He further claims that "The repeated phrase ‘Patriarchal Poetry’ virtually loses all meaning and comes to serve as a functional cypher;" thus the text’s deconstructive project is enacted by denying "patriarchy" any power of meaning. Yearsley agrees, arguing that the poem "places the term ‘patriarchal poetry’ into the multiple suggestive incoherent mode of discourse it is opposed to, where it stands out like a rock, meaning nothing and heard only as a drum beat." This supposed deconstructive draining of meaning is also seen as radically decontextualized. Davidson argues that "Many of the paragraphs create the effect of discourse without any human or social context. If Wordsworth's definition of poetic discourse is a language of men speaking to men, Stein's variation is of systems speaking to systems." And, as Yearsley astutely points out, the sound of "systems speaking to systems" is "often reminiscent of the repeated squeakings and jerkings of a piece of machinery."

While these readings help account for the disturbing, compelling power of this text, I think they somewhat miss the mark. For it seems to me that the poem’s repeatedly insistent identification of what "patriarchal poetry" is describes the monumental and multiple meanings it may have as a repressive agent. Denying "patriarchal" discursive meaning does nothing to resist patriarchal oppression. If "patriarchy" is one name for a discursive system of power that aims for the illusion of totality for the panoptic internalization of its terms, then resistance lies in exposing the illusory nature of that seeming totality and externalizing the terms of oppression, both of which can be done by imagining an other to power. This imagining is what I think the text not so much describes as tries to enact. It is, however, a deconstructive enactment. Far from being de-contextualized and groundless, though, the text speaks from a fundamentally deconstructive place. The trouble in interpreting such a text, however, lies in the fact that this place can only be described metaphorically, not directly. It is the "outside" of discourse that cannot be spoken; we allude to it in an effort to resist repressive discourses. One productive way to approach Stein’s metaphorical gesture towards this impossible outside is by comparing it to other similar projects. I think two such examples are William S. Burroughs’s "cut-up" theory/aesthetic and Martin Heidegger’s proto-deconstructive philosophy.*

Burroughs characterized the discursively constructed "reality" inhabited by the subjects of discourse with the metaphor of a movie set. The way to resist the repressive power of discourse, then, is to move subjectivity off the set. In order to get off the "set" of language, Burroughs proposed that the physical cutting of the text. Based on an accidental dissection of a newspaper by a friend, the artist Brion Gyson, Burroughs began taking pages of both his own prose and the texts of others, cutting them (e.g. into four equal squares), rearranging the sections, and then transcribing the newly juxtaposed words and phrases. While Burroughs sometimes claims that this process is random, his own narrative/editorial control is evident in his "cut-up" short stories and novels. In juxtaposing a story from the New York Times or a text of Kafka’s with his own satirical narratives of resistance to total discursive control, Burroughs uses power’s own terms to deconstruct its repressive construction of subjectivity. In a similar manner, Stein’s re-juxtapositions of both the name and the self-representations of patriarchal power break them free from their usual effects. Without taking patriarchy’s terms off patriarchy’s "set," they would operate according to their usual roles even in Stein’s text. In both Burroughs’s and Stein’s text, the specificity of the discursive power "set" off of which they are trying to move is far from irrelevant, for the "outside" of discourse is only reached by dismantling specific, carefully chosen parts of the "set" and placing them in new, resistant configurations. Burroughs often claimed that he wanted to destroy the form of the novel. In destroying the (usual) form of poetry, Stein opens cracks in the discourse of (patriarchal) power that facilitate resistance; in the same way Burroughs tries to open cracks in the discourse of total governmental surveillance and control.

Another possible comparison for Stein’s metaphorical gesture towards the "outside" of discursive power is Heidegger’s late proto-deconstructive project. Heidegger locates the possibility of subjective meaning outside the determining forms of Western philosophical discourse in the space in-between subject and object. He called this place the "clearing" (as in a forest) where meaning can (re)present itself to the subject. This "clearing" is analogous to Burroughs’s space off the "set" of discourse. While this clearing is neither subjective or objective, both terms are fundamental to its being. This is closely related to the notion that in deconstructing the Cartesian mind/body split, neither term can be ignored (as many deconstructive models often do). Given this scandalously flattened account of Heidegger’s deconstructive impulses, I would say that "Patriarchal Poetry"’s locus of enunciation may be compared to this Heideggerian "clearing." This is why we can recognize the terms but are somewhat at a loss for meaning, for while there is a subjective context, subjectivity is only one aspect. The reader is paradoxically given a foothold of subjective identification in the speaking voice of the poem while at the same time s/he is denied a stable subject position within the text to inhabit by its dislocating move beyond the conventions of subjective speech towards an impossible space of patriarchy’s objective representation. This "clearing" or space "off the set" is both comprised of and radically other than the subjective and objective.

Stein’s text, then, tries to enact a space (like Burroughs’s "off the set" or Heidegger’s "clearing) different from the totalizing potential of patriarchal discourse. One way in which it does this is through the recurrent presence of the number "three," suggesting a third way beyond the logic of "either/or." The frequent juxtapositions of "one" and "two" cumulatively suggest something beyond patriarchy, a discursive clearing in which one need not be subjectified by patriarchal discourse (e.g. 56, 58, etc.). Another way the text uses numbers to suggest something other than patriarchy is in the numbering of patriarchies: "One Patriarchal Poetry / Two Patriarchal Poetry / Three Patriarchal Poetry" (69). Thus patriarchal discourse’s illusory will to totality is exploded, for Stein’s text exposes it as a multiplicity rather than the naturalized, monolithic "way of the world" contained in its self-(mis)representations.

This "other" possibility is also suggested by the verbs which, in the absence of predication, take on an imperative nature. Commands such as "reconsider;" "Compare something else to something else" (57); "Reject rejoice rejuvenate" (59); "Leave it" (60); etc., far from draining the terms of power of all meaning, charge the reader to actively engage and transform the subjective, coercive meanings of patriarchal discourse. Closely related to the text’s use of the imperative is the prevalence of subjunctive voice, e.g. in the repeated "might"s and "as if"s. By speaking in the subjunctive mode of possibility, the text undermines patriarchy’s declarative claims to necessity.

Far from denying the power of patriarchal discourse, then, the text warns that " There is no use at all in reorganizing in reorganizing" (77). One cannot resist patriarchy merely by recapitulating the terms of its power, as a simple inversion or denial would do. Despite Ruddick’s claim that "[a] ‘different’ text is thus a feminist text," Stein’s subversion depends on a recognition not only of the power of difference but also the power of patriarchy’s often stunning mystification of its own duality. The text warns of "Patriarchal poetry recollected" and "Patriarchal poetry relined" (69, 73), taking seriously the power of patriarchy to mutate around resistance, re-inscribing the rebel subject into its discursive policing. The text itself is not purely other than this patriarchal power, for while there is "patriarchal Poetry in Pieces," "patriarchal Poetry has that [reunion] return" (74). Part of the urgent breathlessness of the texts mechanized repetition is the anxiety over its own level of contamination in a discursive system that it can never wholly be outside. Subjects can approach the Heideggerian clearing, but will never reach it. "Patriarchal Poetry" both speaks from and tries to enact a space within that approach.

Phillip Ernstmeyer: On "Front"

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 soarsurge, 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 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.

Merton Lee: On "Front"

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?