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On "2nd Air Force"

(Letter of September 1945 to Robert Lowell)

[Robert Lowell was at the time a young poet whose first book was about to appear; he and Jarrell had known each other at Kenyon College and often submitted their work to one another and reviewed each other’s books.]

I enjoyed what you said about my poems and disagreed only with this:

(a) In "2nd Air Force" the rhetoric "pretty well obliterated the mother and her situation" [this quote is Lowell’s negative comment]. It’s a descriptive poem to show what a heavy bomber training-field was like; the mother is merely a vehicle of presentation, her situation merely a formal connection of the out-of-this-world field with the world.

From "To Robert Lowell," Sepetember 1945, in Mary Jarrell, ed. (with Stuart Wright), Randall Jarrell’s Letters: An Autobiographical and Literary Selection (New York: Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 1985) 132.

William Pritchard (1990)

There are nominal human beings here – a mother visiting her son at his base – but they are subordinate to the world created by these lines. … The planes, instruments of death, are really charmingly awkward – like funny animals in the zoo – while the men are no less awkward as they climb "clumsily as bears." There is the poignant touch of a parenthetical "(a boy’s)" to identify the head disappearing into the plane’s hatch, after which "the green, made beasts" – "made" is a fine, surprising touch – "run home to air." As with the sleeping men in "Absent with Official Leave," or the plane trying to land in "A Front," Jarrell succeeds in investing the scene with both dignity and oddity: the poet’s eyes don’t quite believe what they see, and there is surprise that unfolds as those eyes moves from one observation to the next. The largeness and alien quality of the experience take it beyond any "moral" attitude of condemnation or rueful superiority, as in the three-line parenthesis about home coming planes: [Pritchard cites the 3 lines in parenthesis.] The origin of the bombers has to be repeated to be believed.

From William Pritchard, Randall Jarrell, A Literary Life (New York: Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 1990), 122-123.

Suzanne Ferguson

"2nd Air Force" is the first poem in Little Friend, Little Friend, and it is one of the earliest poems for which manuscripts are extant and available in the University of North Carolina, Greensboro, library collection. One interesting aspect of the work sheets is that the brilliant opening lines of the poem originally came from another poem which was never finished, and which was much more in the vein of the earlier poems of generalized characters and action, though the setting is fairly specific. It is made more specific in "2nd Air Force" by a unifying point of view, that of a mother who has come to visit her son at an airbase. Her character is not developed, only her vision. The first verse paragraph (ll. 1-24) is primarily setting. At first all the mother sees--with her outer eye and her mind's eye--"Busses and weariness and loss, the nodding soldiers," are simply the way to her son, "a pass to what was hers." After the meeting and her grief-heavy recognition that her son has grown up, she is able to see around her "a world" in precise detail from "the bubbling asphalt of the runways," to the "dim flights moving over clouds like clouds," and the men, "armorers in their patched faded green,/ Sweat stiffened, banded with brass cartridges." The planes seem awkward birds or even insects at first, "all tail . . . wrong and flimsy on their skinny legs," but in air the "green, made beasts" are at "home." The men, clumsy as the grounded planes in their flight equipment, are beasts within beasts, bears in a cave--in other poems, babes in a womb. The section ends as it began, with an image of peculiar force, conveying night and mystery where the opening image presented daylight and summer's heat: ". . . hour by hour, through the night, some see/ The great lights floating in--from Mars, from Mars."

The second verse paragraph (ll. 25-45) focuses on the mother's new knowledge of her son. When the flight has gone out and silence has returned to the base, the woman's mind draws back to the immediate scene. The afternoon shadows lengthen into a "forest," the strange light of early evening "washes them like water"; the entire scene is drowned, so to speak, in twilight: a "long-sunken-city." In this fantastic setting, this "last dreaming light," the mother sees the soldiers "pass like beasts, unquestioning." Like the "long-sunken city" they have been enchanted into their present state. Through her perception of the scene the mother has an access of understanding. Still looking with her outward eye at the men who are now not even beasts but "shadows learning in their shadowy fields/ Their empty missions," she inwardly envisions another scene, a scene of war for which the learners, including her son, are preparing. Perhaps she has read, or heard over the radio the account of an escort fighter pilot whose bomber had been damaged by enemy fire. The "story," or a fragment of it, forms the epigraph to Little Friend, Little Friend:

.... Then I heard the bomber call me in: "Little Friend, Little Friend, I got two engines on fire. Can you see me, Little Friend?"
    I said "I'm crossing right over you. Let's go home."

In the poem, the woman hears the call, but sees, in imagination, "the ragged flame eat rib by rib/ Along the metal of the wing into her heart." The flyers bail out in their parachutes: "The lives stream, blossom, and float steadily/ To the flames of the earth." The flames are physical reality to the airmen, but they haunt the minds of all men; like the planes at twilight above the peaceful airbase, the flames "burn like stars above the lands of men," not from Mars, alas, but Earth itself.

In the brief last stanza, the mother's attention returns to her immediate situation. "From the twilight that takes everything" the mother's eyes " [save] . . . a section shipping, in its last parade," while she imagines the flyers above, unseen "in the steady winter of the sky." Still bears, in a sense, they "tremble in their wired fur." No longer solely preoccupied with her son, she "feels for them the love of life for life."

Her newfound compassion leads her into new bafflement. The flyers in their fur, like their bombers, are "hopeful cells/ heavy with someone else's death" (the enemy's, they hope), "cold carriers of someone else's victory" (the governments', certainly, and not a personal victory for the flyers who must kill and be killed). This significance "gropes" into the woman's mind, passing the significance of their lives as individual human beings. Her son, like all the other sons who leave this base, must become one of the killers, a beast within his beast, and perhaps one of the victims. For her, who has raised a child to manhood, there is complete frustration, "bewilderment" in the meaning she has sensed on her visit: "The years meant this?" The poem then ends with a shift in the point of view. There is no resolution to the mother's dilemma, only the hopeless response of the poet-narrator: "But for them the bombers answer everything." For their own sanity they dare not think as the mother does. They only do what they are told.

"2nd Air Force" and its companion poems cry out harshly against the senseless destructiveness of warfare, yet Jarrell was not in a strict sense a pacifist. Unlike his friend, Robert Lowell, Jarrell consented to induction; though he did not fight he trained others. His poems about the concentration camps show deep awareness about why Americans had to fight in World War II. Hating war, he participated in it. Not only his conscience but his sensibility hurt him. The war dispatches of Ernie Pyle display the same frustrated awareness of the brutalizing effects of warfare on essentially gentle, simple men. In writing of Pyle, soon after his death, Jarrell seemed to describe himself: "Pyle is always conscious of the shocking disparity of actor and circumstance, of the little men and their big war, their big world.... For Pyle, to the end, killing was murder: but he saw the murderers die themselves."

From The Poetry of Randall Jarrell. Copyright 1971 by Louisiana State UP.

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