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October 19th, 2011 / 4:17 am
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Laura Kasischke v. John McCrae

The rondeau is a fifteen-line poem appropriated from a French form dating to the 13th century. Here is John McCrae’s “In Flanders Fields,” the most famous rondeau in English:

In Flanders fields the poppies blow
Between the crosses, row on row,
That mark our place, and in the sky,
The larks, still bravely singing, fly,
Scarce heard amid the guns below.

We are the dead; short days ago
We lived, felt dawn, saw sunset glow,
Loved and were loved, and now we lie
In Flanders fields.

Take up our quarrel with the foe!
To you from failing hands we throw
The torch; be yours to hold it high!
If ye break faith with us who die
We shall not sleep, though poppies grow
In Flanders fields.

Note the straitjacket of the form — the AABBA AAB(refrain) AABBA(refrain) structure, and the refrain itself lifted from the first half of the first line.

Here is Laura Kasischke’s “Rondeau,” from the April 2011 issue of Poetry:

Small and panting mass
Of moonlight and dampness on a log
This glistening tumor, terrible frog
Of moonlight and dampness on a log
My small and panting mass

Kasischke’s “Rondeau” retains some of the elements the form required before she un-fixed it. We get the repetition of the two dominant rhymes (-og and -ass), the repetition of an entire line (in this case two entire lines, more or less, instead of a refrain that moves across strophes), you can dance to it (the original French rondeau, like the ballade and the virelai, was set to music), and the meaning of the refrain (in this case, I guess, the first and final line does this work) is changed when it reappears on account of the new context the intervening lines have offered.

The two poems invite very different approaches from the reader. “In Flanders Fields” holds the reader’s hand as it rings its changes. It is in many ways a didactic poem. It’s no mistake that the point of view is revealed in the quatrain as We the dead, who just died a few days ago in battle. Their lesson? If you don’t take up the battle that cost us our lives, we die in vain. Their charge: “Take up our quarrel with the foe! / To you from failing hands we throw / The torch; be yours to hold it high!” And they follow it with a guilt-inducing threat: “If ye break faith with us who die / We shall not sleep, though poppies grow / In Flanders fields.” The poem is, in a sense, a forerunner of the contemporary country song that romanticizes war and the troops, as practiced by the likes of Toby Keith:

httpv://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ruNrdmjcNTc

Perhaps this is one reason why the poem is so broadly popular. It is a well-crafted, ostensibly lyrical, and verifiably beautiful verse that simply tells its readers the thing that the readers have already been conditioned to hear. It is a call to death that appeals to the desire of young men to be courageous, to honor the other members of their (for lack of a less problematic term) tribe, and to avenge what has been wronged by violence by the infliction of a superior violence sufficient to end further violence. As such, in its call to bravery, it is not brave. Perhaps it is a useful articulation of the bravery required of a soldier. But the bravery required of an artist is to wade into complications, to show them, to problematize. “In Flanders Fields,” instead, reduces. It is not art. It is propaganda that is artful in its appropriation of the conventions of the highest craft associated with the art of poetry, and because of its beauty, it is propaganda sufficient to incite an emotional response even from a reader as jaded as this reader.

Laura Kasischke’s “Rondeau” does not give up its secrets so easily. Neither the title nor poem’s first line (“Small and panting mass”) does anything to orient us in the questions of who speaks, when and where we are in space or time, or what the dramatic situation might be. It lacks, in other words, the markers we ordinarily associate with narrative or the narrative-heavy lyric (the kinds of moves we might expect from a poet such as James Wright, say, or Andrew Hudgins.) We have to wait, then, until the second line, to learn what it is a small and panting mass of –“moonlight and dampness on a log” — and the third line further clarifies: “This glistening tumor, terrible frog”

. . . and here the reader has trouble finishing the sentence, because “Rondeau” has no punctuation of the sort that ends sentences. No periods, no question marks, no exclamation points, no interrobangs. If the sentence ends at the end of the third line, then everything that preceded modified the noun “frog,” which means we have a literal frog on a log at nighttime who glistens like a tumor and reflects the moonlight. And — fair enough — that is what we have as we read forward through time, line one to line three.

But the sentence potentially extends itself in the fourth line, with a further prepositional phrase — “Of moonlight and dampness on a log” — which means that we must now entertain another possible reading. What we’ve been reading about, in this version, is the terrible frog of moonlight and dampness. Now: Is there a frog, or is the moonlight and dampness manifest on the log being likened to a frog?

The poem’s primary liberty with a form the poem has already undone and reconstructed arrives in the fifth line, where, instead of the simple repetition of “Small and panting mass,” we get “My small and panting mass.” Here, more readings present themselves. Has everything preceding this moment in the poem simply existed as an opportunity to speak to the question of “My small and panting mass,” as modifiers, or as likening agents? Has the encounter with either the frog-on-log or the frog of moonlight (or both) caused this reckoning with the speaker’s own small and panting mass? Or is the speaker the literal small and panting thing on the log?

(Or does the stress fall on the poem’s middle, the word tumor, which invites a different kind of reading, in which we think differently about the malignancy of the small and panting mass, that terrible frog which is foreign to my body and is yet mine?)

These are all first- and second- level readings, and they aren’t the only ones. Certainly the reader very quickly is interrogating the poem in all sorts of ways. Are we talking about the body here? Are we talking about sex? Is this poem about cancer, and if it is, are the metaphors about the speaker’s cancer, or is the speaker’s cancer meant to open up a discussion of extracancerous things, or both? Do we have a metaphor about the relativity of the positions of things large and small? What about this tumor talk? It’s nighttime, right? The frog is vulnerable. Death is a possibility here, the end of a thing among things that will continue despite its ending. Why is the tumor and/or frog and/or frog of moonlight and dampness glistening? (I suppose it’s because of the moonlight upon the dampness.) Is the my of the last line identified with, in ownership of, or set apart from the subject of the poem? Can a poem have a subject without a verb? Given the circular nature of the form, does the poem have a beginning or end? Is its true structure a loop? Must the ending return us to the beginning, or is the ending an end? If it is, how does that change the way the reader enters into the poem?

In Lawrence Weschler’s meditation on Vermeer and the Bosnian War Crimes tribunals, he wrote: “It’s one of the great things about great works of art that they can bear—and, indeed, that they invite—a superplenitude of possible readings, some of them contradictory.”

In Laura Kasischke’s “Rondeau,” we have the superplenitude and the contradictory readings in five lines. I don’t know what good it does, a month after publication, to even have a discussion about a poem’s greatness. There is a sense in which John McCrae’s “In Flanders Fields” has already made its claim to greatness. It is probably the greatest rondeau ever written in English. But one possible reading of Kasischke’s rondeau is that it is an interrogation of greatness by way of an examination of a small thing. Putting many possible readings side by side, greatness is being examined alongside darkness, the inevitability of death, the largeness of the log compared to the smallness of the frog but the smallness of the log compared to the largeness of the moon but the smallness of the moon compared to the largeness of the Earth. Soon night, too, will come to an end, and the Earth itself will be forced to confront the largeness of the sun.

I have no idea what the poet intended. It seems likely, given the openness of the poem’s construction, that Kasischke intended an an openness to multiple and contradictory readings. If she did not, then why would she destabilize the subject, and why would she avoid offering end-of-sentence punctuation, or a verb?

There is a modesty to the poem, but it is a deceptive and confident modesty, a rejoinder to bombast. And there is concurrently something very ambitious about the poem, seeking as it does to do the work of the rondeau in five lines, to double the difficulty of the requirements of the refrain by repeating two of the lines instead of a portion of one, and to ask the sentence to do something that the sentence was not made to do. I admire all of it.