In 1945, Randall Jarrell published a short poem about the death of a ball turret gunner in the Second World War. -- There's more than meets the eye in this famous five-line poem, as a close reading demonstrates. -- Some other perspectives on and interpretations of the poem can be read here....
THE DEATH OF THE BALL TURRET GUNNER
By Randall Jarrell (1914-1965)
From my mother's sleep I fell into the State,
And I hunched in its belly till my wet fur froze.
Six miles from earth, loosed from its dream of life,
I woke to black flak and the nightmare fighters.
When I died they washed me out of the turret with a hose.
FALLING INTO THE STATE AND AWAKING TO DIE
By Mark Jensen
United for Peace of Pierce County
July 4, 2012
The speaker in this 1945 poem is a ball turret gunner who has died. We know almost nothing about him. The gunner is speaking to us, mostly in a flat tone, but occasionally with terse lyricism, about his death. Since he is dead, the speech is disembodied. It is, evidently, the gunner's voice as imagined by the poet.
Properly speaking, there is no setting of time or place for his speech, as is also the case for his death, in a sense. The casual reader probably imagines that the gunner has died at night. While this is likely enough, it need not be so, since the blackness of the "black flak" may refer to the doom it brings the gunner rather than the time of day, and the "nightmare fighters" may be nightmarish because they are what he most feared. The gunner's death occurred "six miles from earth," so far above the planet's surface that the life below seems merely a "dream" -- so abstracted ("into the State") from ordinary life that his death, too, seems a dream, a "nightmare." But of course it is not a dream, as the brutal final line of the poem blandly conveys.
The poem's first words remind the reader that the gunner had a mother, was of woman born, and was taken from her (suggesting his extreme youth) and thrust so naturally into the service of "the State" that it seemed he "fell into" his military role. But in fact there was nothing natural about it: crammed into his "ball turret," the gunner is "hunched" and reduced to animal-like discomfort ("my wet fur froze"). Calling attention to the outrageousness of something that appears so natural, or rather so socially obligatory, is the central purpose of the poem.
And what is this outrageous thing? That war snatches boys from their mothers, stuffs them into the belly of the state, and consumes their lives -- then "washes" them "out" to make room for more. Consciousness of this seems only latent in the laconic gunner, who has a hard-bitten economy of speech. No romantic he. This tone is achieved by simple vocabulary and dispassionate declarative sentences uttered from beyond the grave -- the grave his mutilated remains, "washed . . . out of the turret with a hose" (a steam hose, Jarrell said in a commentary on the poem), probably never had.
The action of this compact poem is very simple: from "sleep," and not even his own sleep, the gunner "woke" -- and "died." The brevity of it all almost suggests a revelation, a revelation of a bleak, "black," "nightmare," sort. Instead of awaking in a dark wood, like Dante, to be guided by Virgil to a beatific vision, the gunner awakes to death and recounts his own demise as if it were some nihilistic vision.
The events the gunner describes do have a dreamlike quality: "falling" from his "mother's sleep . . . into the State," "hunch[ing] in [the State's] belly" until his "wet fur froze . . . [s]ix miles from earth," he is "loosed from [earth's] dream of life" before being loosed from life itself by the dire, fell forces to which "the State" has exposed him. But in the final line the dreamlike quality disappears: "When I died they washed me out of the turret with a hose."
From another's sleep, awakening to death; then disposal of the remains. Who has betrayed whom? Who is to blame? The reader is invited to wonder whether the mother is responsible, or the State (with its capital S), or the "nightmare fighters" with their "black flak" (rhymes with ack-ack), or even the gunner. Are we all to blame? By phrasing the initial line in such an artfully oblique manner, Jarrell invites the reader to turn his poem about like a rough-cut jewel, seeking the proper perspective. For surely there must be a proper perspective. But it is in the nature of war to instill doubt about this -- a doubt that is appallingly expressed in the final, banal image of "a hose" in action.
The gunner -- merely a boy -- is "loosed from [earth's] dream of life," then "washed . . . out of the turret with a hose."
Look more closely at the first line. "From my mother's sleep I fell into the State." Falling here is metaphorical -- it implies a change from an exalted condition to a degraded condition, from the condition of precious beloved offspring to that of instrumentalized military functionary. But the fall is not from the mother's love, but from her "sleep." "From" (the poem's first word) her sleep. Note that from can mean many things. It can refer to a starting point -- and is a "mother's sleep" not the starting point of us all? But from can also refer to a separation or an exclusion -- by going to war, the gunner had to leave his home behind. Finally, from can also refer to cause : the gunner "fell into the State" because his mother was sleeping -- was perhaps unaware, or not cognizant, of what her son was doing -- had she known, had she been awake, perhaps his doom could somehow have been avoided, or evaded. Perhaps he would not have had to die as he did, to die not as some heroically falling warrior, but to die as a mangled, shredded, torn, disfigured deposit of matter smeared on the walls of a ball turret that has to be "washed . . . out" (to be used again).
In this poem, "the State" has a "belly." But unlike in his "mother's" belly, in "its belly" he was not warmed and nurtured, rather he "froze" and "died." Perhaps the "dream of life" that turned into a "nightmare" is not the earth's after all, but "the State"'s. For "the State" is personified in the poem as a monstrous mother who consumes her young, a Gorgon. Enlistment is entering into a voracious vagina dentata that kills. This is a Gorgon that wears no mask; rather it is her own offspring that she transforms into objects of horror -- all the more horrible in this poem for the ironic litotes of the final line, for of course it is not "me" that is "washed . . . out of the turret with a hose" but a putrescible semiliquid agglomeration of organic matter fit only to be "washed . . . out" with a (steam) hose.
The entire poem becomes a symbol, perhaps, of the potential relation of the individual to the modern state. After all, this is a poem written in 1945, the year of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Is it all of human history that Randall Jarrell has, perhaps unwittingly, allegorized in "The Death of the Ball Turret Gunner"? The poem was written in a dark disordered time. And the rhythm of the poem is disordered, too. Only the last line, which reports how his remains are cleaned up, is ordered, anapestically: (▫▫▪|▫▫▫▪|▫▫▪|▫▫▫▪). The other lines of the poem are in a state of metrical disorder, one plausible reading of which is this:
In the third and fourth lines, when the aircraft is under attack, the disorder is most extreme. The rhyme scheme, too, is disordered and defective: abcdb, with no rhyme in the third and fourth lines.
Jarrell's poem is a masterpiece. So well-received was it that he feared that it would be his only literary legacy. But could there be a finer one?