Frances McDormand Recites Shakespeare on the Long, Hard Road of Nomadland

So long as [wo]men can breathe, the Bard will speak to us

Who: Frances McDormand as Fern, the protagonist of Nomadland; the film’s Director, Chloé Zhao; and William Shakespeare (you know him)

What: Shakespeare’s Sonnet 18

Where: In the American West, on the dusty ground beneath a tree, seated near a young drifter

When: Sometime after the Great Recession

Why: That, and not the other question, is the question.

What does it mean when a woman chooses to live on her own, unincorporated but corporeal, after the story of the American dream ends?

Chloé Zhao’s elegant Nomadland is a rumination on time and systems of organization that both include and preclude human beings. So, too, is Shakespeare’s Sonnet 18, which the film’s protagonist, Fern (Frances McDormand) recites in full partway through the film. As literary critic Marjorie Garber has written of Hamlet, the experience of reading or hearing Sonnet 18 is fundamentally one of recognition. Its diction permeates so much of our culture, and so much of our language for love, that you may feel you’ve read it even if you never have. Our culture is saturated with these lines: arguably some of the most famous ever written in English.

Nomadland revolves around Fern, a widow who describes herself as “houseless,” but not homeless. A former resident of Empire, Nevada, Fern left the town after her husband’s death and the shutdown of the company town’s employer, U. S. Gypsum. Empire’s zip code was discontinued, which ended its timeline. Fern seems to have fallen off the timeline, as well.

Her former life as a wife and substitute English teacher has ended. The town she lived in doesn’t exist anymore. And though it isn’t the focus of Zhao’s film, in many ways the story of American life doesn’t exist anymore, either. Or, to be more precise, that story has always precluded many marginalized people, but now, many privileged folks are unable to participate in the story, too. Grow up, get a job, get married, be happy ever after. Fern lived that whole story, but now it’s over.

So what happens next? Fern leaves Empire and lives in her van. Between stints on the road, she spends her time working seasonal jobs, learning survival skills from other nomads at various campsites, and marinating in the lonely and beautiful landscapes of the American West. This is a different kind of story: one about a woman who has outlived the systems of organization that included and anchored her. This is a film about what happens after the story ends.

The invisibility of older women, the rise of gig work, the ravenous maw of Amazon… Nomadland touches on so many critically important ideas and issues but does so gently—as one would graze her fingertips over items at a garage sale, perusing but not prepared to buy. The sole ideological seat the film is willing to take is rooted firmly in questions about time and human agency, and that seat is right on the dusty ground.

In one affecting scene, Fern comes upon a young drifter who she met once before at a campsite in Quartzsite, Arizona. Fern may be older than the young man, but it’s unclear which one of them is the more experienced nomad. What’s clear is that Fern is more studied in the fullness of life.

While they’re sharing a smoke, Fern asks the young man if he has any connections. Where are his parents? Does he have a girlfriend? It turns out, he does. Fern offers him some advice on how to woo her:

DRIFTER: I write letters to her.

FERN: Ah, smart man.

DRIFTER: I just can’t ever write about anything I reckon she’d care about.

FERN: You ever tried poems?

DRIFTER: Can’t say I have. D’you know any?

FERN: How about one that I used for my wedding vow, when I was not much older than you?

DRIFTER: Oh, right on! Mind if I hear it?

FERN: Ok. Let’s see if I can remember it.

I love that Fern proposes poetry as a form of communication that transcends lives, that can tie people with disparate experiences together. Not sure how to say what you mean or say something meaningful? Try poetry. This suggests that poetry is for everyone, which it is. Poetry transcends necessity, the body, culture… all of it.

Most importantly, it transcends time.

When words are familiar to us, we often tune out their meaning because we assume we already know what that meaning us. It can be hard to attune to it anew. Whether you’ve read this poem a thousand times or find it difficult to understand, here’s a closer reading of the poem itself:

Sonnet 18, William Shakespeare

Though well-known as a love poem, like Zhao’s film, Shakespeare’s Sonnet 18 is also about time.

Shall I compare thee to a summer’s day?
Thou art more lovely and more temperate:

The first couplet is pretty self-explanatory. The speaker asks his beloved if he should compare them to a summer day, but admits that they are more beautiful and finer in temperament (so there is no comparison). We are already speaking of time, here, though subtly. And we start with one of its smaller, though not its smallest, units: the day. We get a sidelong glance at a season, but just one day of that season.

Rough winds do shake the darling buds of May,
And summer’s lease hath all too short a date;

The writer contrasts the roughness of the wind with the fragility and sweetness of spring flowers. And just like that, we’re thinking about a larger unit of time: the month. In the next line, we get the fullness of summer (the season being an even larger unit of time). The poet is speaking expressly about time, saying that summer’s end comes too soon.

Sometime too hot the eye of heaven shines,
And often is his gold complexion dimm'd;

Now we’re getting into the magic. The “eye of heaven” is the sun, and the poet notes its changeability: sometimes it’s very hot and bright and sometimes we can’t see it at all, as on a cloudy day. Some things, the poet says, do change. He elaborates in the next couplet:

And every fair from fair sometime declines,
By chance or nature’s changing course untrimm’d;

Some structural notes:

  • This is the end of the second quatrain, or grouping of four lines. The first two quatrains make up an octave, or group of eight lines.

  • A third quatrain will follow this one, then a final couplet. This six-line grouping is the sestet.

  • Between the octave and the sestet, there will be some kind of turn (the technical term for this is a volta).

  • Most sonnets make use of a volta, even if they don’t follow traditional rhyme schemes (e.g., Shakespearean, Petrarchan, Spenserian, Miltonic… yeah, it’s not great that they’re all named after dead white men. Maybe we can name a sonnet form after Dorothy Chan, champion of the triple sonnet. But I digress!)

The volta is coming, which means we’re going to start considering the subject matter in a new way after this point. The stakes will be raised.

Fern says “undimmed,” here instead of “untrimm’d,” the first of three small alterations she makes to the poem in her recitation. These may be intentional (designed to smooth over some of the most antiquated turns of phrase, increase understanding, etc.) or unintentional (a misremembering that seems realistic).

“Untrimm’d” is a perfect rhyme with “undimmed,” and would mean roughly the same thing. While “undimmed” harks back to the image of the sun in the previous couplet, by losing “untrimm’d” we also lose the potential for a reading that involves nautical terms (e.g., “trim the sails”). In that reading, nature is a ship we can’t sail: it does what it will.

The fairness of beautiful things declines, the poet writes, either randomly or through natural processes. That’s just a fact.

But thy eternal summer shall not fade,
Nor lose possession of that fair thou ow’st;

The word “But” begins the third quatrain, which is a classic engagement of the volta. We’ve investigated the comparison of time and beauty in two similar ways, and now we will turn to a different kind of consideration.

The phrase “that fair thou ow’st” seems trickier than it is: “ow’st” or “owest” roughly means “own,” here. And “fair,” here and in the preceding couplet, can be read as “beauty.” Essentially, the poet tells his beloved that they will always be fine weather and full sun. They will keep their beauty. Why? We’re getting to that…

Nor shall death brag thou wander’st in his shade,
When in eternal lines to time thou grow’st:

In other words, Death will not brag that he has conquered you, dimmed your sunny glow, because in “eternal lines” (i.e., the lines of this actual poem right here) “thou grow’st” (i.e., you will remain beautiful, or even increase in beauty, forever).

If you thought The Office pioneered breaking the fourth wall, I’ve got news for you: Shakespeare was doing it back in 1609. The poet tells his love, “Don’t worry. You will always be beautiful because I’m immortalizing you in this poem that I’m writing right now.”

Instead of “wander’st,” Fern says “walkest” here. I like the freer quality of “wander,” here (“walk” seems very neutral and utilitarian). To wander is to be aimless or have only a vague purpose. This, to me, would approximate death or spending time in the underworld: wandering in the shade, since there is, we’d imagine, no other destination.

So long as men can breathe or eyes can see,
So long lives this, and this gives life to thee.

This beautiful final couplet is high romance: so long as this work can be read visually or heard aurally, this poem will live and will keep you alive, the poet says. Swoon.

Here, Fern says “So long as men can breathe and eyes can see,” which changes the meaning ever so slightly, but its expansive quality feels like a good choice for her character.

Even more interesting is the way that McDormand really hits the word “life,” here. It sounds like this: “So long lives this, and this gives life to thee.” She’s reifying the power of memory. Her love sits outside of time; her memories are enough. Though we indict people for “living in the past,” Fern seems to be saying that the life inside her head is, indeed, a life.

“A powerful character study.

“…a profound rumination on the impulse to leave society in the dust.”

A road movie.

These are just some of the ways that Nomadland, a contender for Best Picture at the 2021 Oscars, has been described. Many of these reviews situate the film as one about restlessness or adventure, about late-stage capitalism and vanishing safety nets. But I’ve read few reviews that get at the out-of-time-ness of the film. To my mind, these descriptions ascribe more agency to Fern than she actually has: Rather than striking out on her own with a bold, adventurous spirit, Fern simply outlives her own story. She just keeps going as the stories around her fizzle to nothing: her marriage, her town, the promise of American bootstrapping.

In addition to the actual poetry that features in the film, the terms “poetic” and “poetry” have cropped up in several reviews of Nomadland and Zhao’s other films, as well. What drives us to describe something as poetic?

The qualities of good poetry are qualities of all good art: emotional valence, beauty, organic functioning (as in organs, disparate parts working together to make a cohesive whole)… the list goes on and on. There is often an interplay between the real and the imagined, a reliance on image, and a certain sense of brevity. But I also tend to wonder if we call something poetic because there are things we don’t understand about it—because there is something ineffable about it.

I think Nomadland is certainly poetic in that narrative and chronology are beside the point, here. Or rather, stories have beginnings and endings, and Fern is finished with those.

Though she has flirtations with Dave (the only other professional actor in the cast, David Strathairn) his very existence in Fern’s life threatens to pull her back into a familiar story: to put her back on the timeline. She has experienced what joy that partaking in the familiar story of happily-ever-after can bring, and now she has to face the rest of the story. Women experience middle and old age differently than men, due in part to their aforementioned invisibility, and I was thrilled to experience a film that posits a woman’s life as something other than a quest to find love, weather its end, then repeat ad nauseam.

In his review of the film, A. O. Scott writes, “The nomad existence is at once an acknowledgment of human impermanence and a protest against it.” This review gets at what is missing from so many other discussions about the film. Zhao’s film, in its poetic, non-linear timelessness, is actually about time and how it both holds and abandons us.

Poems are written in time but sit outside of it, as Shakespeare’s Sonnet 18 reminds us, and films too. It’s a joy to see two pieces of art created more than 400 years apart speak to each other so powerfully. Whether it’s through art or through wanderlust, we all dream of cheating the impermanence of things. And for a while, sometimes we can.

Where else have you encountered this poem? Are there other movies you’d like to see covered on PopPoetry? Do rough winds really shake the darling buds of May? Leave a comment. I’d love to hear from you.

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