It was 1990 or ‘91. I was in an intro-level grad course in the University of Wisconsin-Madison French Department, and our assignment was to write a sonnet in the manner of one of the great French poets. I remember my first effort contained these lines, after Baudelaire:
La nature est un temple où un grand M doré
Laisse parfois sortir de confuses paroles
Le clown y traverse une forêt de symboles
. . . .
Des pommes frites frais comme des chairs d’enfant
[Nature is a temple where the Golden Arches
At times emit confused words
There the clown passes through a forest of symbols
. . . .
French fries fresh like a child’s flesh]
This is all I can remember of the poem. The text is lost.
Prof. Yvonne Ozzello didn’t accept my sonnet and wanted me to do something else. I’d written an analysis of Rimbaud’s “Voyelles,” she pointed out, so why not respond to that work? I still have this second sonnet, which I now find embarrassing at best:
Voyelles! Qui dira vos humeurs étourdies?
--Sur nos pages vos pas avancent oubliés;
Les nuits où vous veillez entre l's et le t--
Lavez-vous nos poèmes ainsi que d'une pluie?
Comme des brouillards froids sous des flèches vieillies
Pèsent sur nos jardins et places oubliés,
Vos pouvoirs échouants m'ont trop désespéré
Et vos brefs désaccords irritent mon ennui.
Les scribes anciens pour honorer leur Dieu
Veulent des parchemins fins pour leur très saint hébreu,
Et les maçons obscurs de ce peuple choisi,
Sur les piliers forts de leur Temple sacré,
Ont ciselé de Dieu les lois sanctifiées,
Sans lettres d'alphabet pour vos sons affaiblis.
[Vowels! Who might speak your dizzying moods?
--On our page your steps leave no trace;
The nights you keep vigil between s and t--
You wash through our poems like rain.
As chilly fogs draped beneath age-old spires
Weigh on our gardens and deserted public squares,
Your exhausting powers push me to despair
And your slight disaccords aggravate my ennui.
To honor their God the ancient scribes
Sought fine parchment for their sacred Hebrew,
And the nameless masons of this chosen people,
On the pillars of their holy Temple,
Chiseled God’s holy law
Without any letters for your feeble sounds.]
Ozzello accepted this poem.
But the first sonnet, my real masterpiece, is now gone. Concentrate as I might, I can’t remember more of the lines: whenever I try I envision the clown instead.
He stands at the edge of one of those McDonald’s playgrounds, grimacing at me, gloating. It’s as if he guards a doorway that keeps me from getting at the lost lines of my poem.
To tell the truth the “M” sonnet survived until recently in a small black filing case I’d asked my father to keep in the basement of his Pewaukee, Wisconsin home. Besides the poem, the case contained all my graduate work in French: papers, notes, ideas for further study. I had no space for these things in my small Taipei apartment, so I left them with my father.
But last time I visited him, in 2008, the files were nowhere to be seen. I didn’t say anything about it, but still I wondered. Had they perished in the recent basement flooding he mentioned, or had they simply been thrown out?
The filing case was airtight sealed plastic. It should have resisted flooding.
“He’ll never look at these things again,” I imagine my father saying as he opens the slightly muddied case. “Look! It’s all in French! Why do we need this stuff in our basement? Get rid of it.”
Is this how it happened? I can’t be sure.
There’s another possibility, slightly more plausible. Not far from my father’s home, on the Pewaukee offramp, is a McDonald’s with one of those playgrounds, the same kind of playground as shows up in my dream. I imagine the clown breaking into my father’s home in the dead of night. Flashlight in hand, he goes down to the basement to steal the files. Further, I imagine the clown back in the restaurant the next day, grinding up my French graduate work into pulp and adding it, spoonful by spoonful, to the French fry batter. In this way my writing is both completely obliterated and served to customers in their Happy Meals.
This I believe is the real meaning of “Freedom fries”: freedom from anyone who would do something as nonsensical as graduate work in literary studies.
I know, I know. You’ll say I’m just using the clown to exculpate my father, who is, in his way, kind of a clown himself. But who’s to say it didn’t really happen like this? Or who’s to say that my father, my mother, even myself and Prof. Yvonne Ozzello too--who’s to say we’ve not all of us been working for the clown all along?