Poetry Sunday: “Frances of the Cadillac,”
by Laura Van Prooyen

Commentary by Rebecca Foust, Poetry Editor

This 19-line free-verse poem paints the portrait of a woman named Frances recalled by the speaker, probably from childhood or adolescence. It’s organized into six stanzas: four 4-line tercets and two 2-line couplets (stanzas 3 and 6). The language is plain-spoken, with no meter or rhyme, though with you will find sonic repetition in the form of initial consonance, for example, in “wristwatch,” “veins visible,” and “push pennies.” The main literary device is image, sometimes working literally and sometimes metaphorically to elevate the character of Frances almost to the level of personal myth. We are prepared for this from the outset by the title, “Frances of the Cadillac,” which adopts the structure and language of hagiography, recalling the way saints are named (for example,  Francis of Assisi). As it turns out, Frances is a fairly common name among saints, part of a list that even includes Frances of Rome, the patron saint of automobile drivers. Most appellations using the word “of” follow it with the place associated with that saint, suggesting that her Cadillac may have been a home or haven for the Frances of this poem, maybe where she died, and what defines her for this speaker.

The poem deploys many images that also function as parts of metaphors. An image in writing is the use of words to depict, represent, or even evoke a concrete thing (a red rose, say), while a metaphor is a figure of speech that describes an object or action in a way that isn’t literally true but uses comparison to enhance or deepen that description (my love is a red rose). Metaphors are similes without the “like” or “as.” They employ a “tenor”—the thing being described (“love,” in the example above), and a “vehicle”—the thing used to convey the description (“rose” in the example). In the license plates on the garage wall, we first see a visual image, and then the plates become the vehicle for the metaphor whose tenor is “years,” the passage of time in an individual life. These figures do what Pound says good images and poetry should do—illuminate the everyday, make (old) things new. The snapshots are presented without explication or editorial comment, and they show rather than tell us about the terrible secret that the poem never quite reveals.

The poem opens evocatively, mentioning that under Frances’s tongue “was a story,” a phrase that whets our curiosity and makes us want to read on to find out what that that story is. The next line, possibly my favorite in the poem, is “[i]n her mouth, nails,” a simple, powerful image that works, again, both literally and as a figure. The image appeals to more than just the eyes; we see a woman holding nails in her mouth as she hammers but can also taste metal, and feel hardness, sharpness, and coldness against mouth and tongue. Visual and tactile, the image evokes a woman not afraid to get dirty—tough, and capable of real work with her hands. Hardly neutral, the image feels a bit bristly, even dangerous. As a metaphor, it offers several possibilities: Frances has a sharp tongue or acerbic wit, she flirts with danger, etc. It also evokes “spitting nails,” a colloquial term describing someone verbally venting rage. Any or all of these interpretations are possible, and their common denominators are strength, practicality, and an edge of menace.

Frances uses the nails to affix old license plates “to the back wall of her garage.” The image is familiar enough to make me think I must have seen it somewhere in my past, a garage wall covered in license plates and maybe hubcaps and road signs. One wonders where the plates come from. Does Frances find them? Steal them? Does she have a connection to a prison where such plates are made? Maybe they are plates from old cars that used to belong to her, a pictorial history of the cars she has driven over the years and thus a chronicle of the years themselves. My own garage wall would have very few plates, but each one—beginning with the first car I could afford at the age of 30—evokes an era.

I thought of that last interpretation when I read “There / hang the years” and was startled into new recognition with what follows, “sunk like a foot in loose soil.” That image has a visceral resonance, reminding me of the dirt-floor garages and sheds of my childhood, sometimes packed and sometimes soft, friable, and pliant as dust. But the real power is metaphoric, the author using the dirt floor of a country garage to say something more abstract about Frances’s life—how her years disappeared with shocking suddenness.

Frances’s years have not only fallen away in sudden, dismaying foundational collapse but have also “rusted like a hinge” (like, we imagine, those plates hung on the wall). A rusted hinge is frozen and has lost its utility and raison d’etre, and so the image suggests something more about Frances—that her life has lost its resilience and purpose. The poem’s next move is to present a question, wondering “whose hand or what machine” made the plates for long-gone cars that once “cruised” a town that, like those cars, “no longer exists.” Those are where-have-all-the-flowers-gone words, reader, and they evoke classical ubi sunt elegy, the first point where I began to wonder if the Frances is not someone being immediately observed, but a memory or dream of someone who has died.

“This is what happens when I check my wristwatch” comes at the poem’s mid-point and functions as its own kind of hinge, connecting what came before as to what follows. In other words, “this” can refer to the scene we just witnessed in previous lines (Frances in the garage nailing up license plates), or equally can refer to the memory or vision that comes next: “Frances drives her leather-topped Cadillac / between the electrical signals of my brain.” When the speaker assesses her own life (checks her “wristwatch”), Frances appears as a touchstone, both as she was in life and after death as the speaker tries to reconstruct how she died. It occurs to me that the word “wristwatch” itself may be a single-word metaphor for a person “watching” her “wrist”—assessing her own risk for suicide—and that a person scarred by the suicide of a family member might well find themselves checking their “wristwatch” more often than others.

What follows is the mystery at the heart of this poem—the vision of Frances driving in her Cadillac for perhaps the last time, accompanied by a few painful and not fully articulated details. The most important detail, prefigured in those “electric signals,” is of a “railroad crossing,” itself a potent image of liminality, accident, and possible suicide. A crossroads belongs to a special category of metaphor called a “symbol,” something that through usage and time has become associated with a host of abstract ideas. The literal definition of crossroads is the point where two roads meet, but we are used to interpreting it as a situation that is dire and crucial, often requiring that some important choice be made; it’s no accident that Oedipus killed his father at the crossroads near Thebes.

The speaker herself is not clear on what the crossroads means in the context of Frances’s story. Look at the way the line break at the end of line 11 proliferates meaning:

a railroad crossing, and I don’t understand

Here, the speaker fails to understand not just what completes the syntax in the next line, “the way she is looking at me,” but also in some fundamental way cannot understand the crossing itself or what happened there.

Is it a memory, a nightmare, or a dream, or is it something the speaker is imagining? Not clear. But she offers details that may provide clues: “Her body tells me something / happened. Her arms so thin, the veins visible.” Was Frances ill, or an addict? It is not clear, precisely, what this means, but we do know that “something happened,” and it wasn’t good. From here the speaker retreats from recollection and moves into conviction, a truth she knows: “if I were drowning / I know Frances would save me.” We feel real love, appreciation, and trust in that line. What comes next is an extended image in which the speaker imagines herself drowning and the ways Frances might save her, details that paint a fuller picture of who Frances was. One way she might save the speaker is by tossing “a string of black pearls,” something surprisingly elegant and exotic from what we have come to think of as a hard-bitten woman living in a country place. We wonder if maybe she did not really belong there. The pearls are also surprising because it is hard to imagine how a necklace might be of use to a drowning person. In an example of deep irony, the necklace may remind some readers about the Ama, Japanese divers who sometimes drown while seeking wild pearls. Maybe the drowning is itself a metaphor, representing any situation in which the speaker might find herself overwhelmed and needing assistance. Maybe Frances actually did own fancy jewelry that she gave, or would have given, the speaker to sell, perhaps to be able to get out of a dying town. Or maybe the necklace is simply symbolic of powers and resources that seem exotic and almost magical to this speaker.

The next image, “a broom handle, / worn from her sweeping,” is like the antidote to that string of pearls. A homespun image, it is more expected and extends what we already know about Frances—accustomed to hard, quotidian work and simple tools used for a long time; she may drive a Cadillac, but she is country-frugal. In any event, what really matters (signaled by the word “still”) is that the speaker is confident that Frances would save her, would pull her “to the edge / push pennies from my lungs.” Reader, this is one of those mysterious images not meant to be literally understood. It’s potent and disturbing (especially if you’ve ever seen a kid aspirate a coin), and it  makes me think of pennies placed on the eyes of the dead. The metal of those pennies recalls the nails in Frances’s mouth seen earlier, and perhaps leads the speaker to the last, chilling lines of the poem: “But it’s the bells / of the crossing that make me unable to breathe.” Notice the breathlessness imposed by the consonant plosives of push pennies and bells . . . breathe”—the sounds of a poem enacting its meaning. Just mentioning those bells evokes their clanging sound, ending the poem in a place of noise, alarm, and near-suffocation.

One interpretation is that Frances was killed in her car at a train crossing, but that the speaker does not know for sure whether the death was an accident or a suicide. But how could it be an accident when those bells are always so very loud and insistent? The bells are what make it impossible to dismiss the idea that Frances may have deliberately ended her life. Earlier in the poem, the speaker does not understand the way Frances is looking at her or what it is that her body is trying to tell her. In the end, it doesn’t matter because the speaker “still” sees Frances as someone who would have saved her life. We feel love for Frances, in every line grappling to come to terms with the circumstances of her death. The mystery is what I love about this poem; the speaker does not and cannot ever know what happened, but the story she tells is rooted in concrete details that torment her with the possibilities. Frances emerges as mute, mythic, and awe-ful. I’m haunted by her qualities: quirky and eccentric, mysterious and tragic, frugal but generous, loyal, and full of big, thwarted dreams. She feels familiar, like someone I know or would like to have known.

Or maybe that’s just me, reading my own life into the poem, remembering Gramma pushing a hand plow and hammering nails into a shed on her old Williamsburg farm, her life clouded by  old family apocrypha about one brother shot by another with an old musket found in the barn. Was it an accident or on purpose? We’ll never know, but this poem reminds me that part of being human is living on to wrestle with the legacy left by the people we love who leave us, sometimes under circumstances we cannot accept or even understand.



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