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On "Losses"


Charlotte H. Beck

Jarrell experiments with multiple identity in the interplay of several speakers united in one--all representing those air-men who were precombat losses--in training, in simulated combat--but all wasted even before they could be "born" into the real experience of war.

The opening lines are those of an air cadet who perished even before leaving his homeland. In his feeling of utter uselessness, he summarizes the impotence of all precombat losses:

It was not dying: everybody died.
It was not dying; we have died before
In the routine crashes--and our fields
Called up the papers, wrote home to our folks
And the rates rose, all because of us.

When he goes on to say, "We died on the wrong page of the almanac," he reflects the fact that tragic miscalculations, like using the wrong set of star data, could result in fatal accidents when pilots were directed thirty to sixty miles off course to crash and die "on mountains fifty miles away." The first speaker alludes to the mock battles that the young pilots waged, in which they might perish while "diving on haystacks, fighting with a friend," merely trying to relieve the tedium of training. Such deaths seemed due to the combined carelessness of those in command and the immaturity of their trainees. Since only the statistics kept record of the rising death rates, there was nothing heroic in such a death; and the stillborn pilot is bewildered at this and at the difference between what war is really like and what the textbooks say it is. In his wistful aside, "(When we left high school nothing else had died / For us to figure we had died like)," the speaker awkwardly suggests that the immature consciousness struggling to express itself has perished before this idea can merge with its articulation.

In the second phase of the poem, the speaker represents another category of losses: those who survive training only to die in early missions. Like infants with new and dangerous toys, the fledglings still do not confront real warfare; their coincidental birth and death come when they awake "operational" over a potential target. As the human spirit becomes a functioning war machine, it loses its innocence and acquires, if it survives, a burden of guilt. The young men in the bombing crews who destroy people they neither love nor hate cannot really be blamed. The loss of life that occurs is both their fault and that of the state they serve. Somehow all that has happened seems unreal to one who remembers vaguely "the cities we had learned about in school" and their inhabitants, who are merely "the people we have killed and never seen." Ultimately these cadets perish needlessly because of "a mistake / (But an easy one to make)." The second voice is less innocent, much more bitter than the first, who merely registers his confusion. One element remains constant: both see absolutely no meaning in their deaths--except to the statistician in charge of the body count. In this regard, the losses are satisfactory, since the casualties are low; and even the bombed cities seem to say, "We are satisfied, if you are. . . ." No one is really to blame except the impersonal and irrational forces that produced the war. Among the dead at least, atonement and forgiveness are possible.

Until the last four lines, it is a composite "we" that speaks, or a single individual who speaks for the group. In the final statement, however, the "loss" becomes one helpless individual saying once more, "It was not dying. . . ." Death is not the real issue, since all men are mortal; it is the purposelessness of death that he deplores. In his dream of death--a familiar device of Jarrell's--the last "loss" imagines a conversation with the bombed cities that ends with the unanswerable question, "Why?" There is no rational answer.

"Losses" makes effective use of a shifting point of view that represents both the individual and the group from separate vantage points. The reader is made privy to a progression of losses--of life, innocence, identity. To become a statistic of war is to gain one kind of importance, to the state, and to lose at the same time another, that of the autonomous self. The poem depends on the reader's ability to follow the merging of separate and multiple identities and to perceive the unified as well as the diversified aspects of the speaker's laments. The conclusion acts, unfortunately, as a major barrier to any reader's acceptance of the shifting point of view. The last speaker hears the cities ask, in effect, the same question that he has already posed to the world, "Why did I die?" And the repetition of that question should form an effective bond between the bombed cities and the speaker, both dead and both innocent. The line "We are satisfied, if you are; but why did I die?" suffers, however, from excessive length--thirteen syllables and at least seven accents--and from the flatness of its monosyllables. The thrust of the irony is thereby effectively muffled, and the conclusion falls short of the promise contained in the preceding lines. What does come through is the pathos of baffled innocence.

From Worlds and Lives: The Poetry of Randall Jarrell. Copyright © 1983 by Associated Faculty Press, Inc.


Suzanne Ferguson

The learners in "Losses," unlike the simple soldiers at training base in "2nd Air Force," do learn about their own deaths but, like the mother in "2nd Air Force, "' they cannot fathom why they must kill and die. Part of their problem is to recognize death as personal, as their own:

It was not dying: everybody died.
It was not dying: we had died before
In the routine crashes--and our fields
Called up the papers, wrote home to our folks,
And the rates rose, all because of us.
We died on the wrong page of the almanac,
Scattered on mountains fifty miles away;
Diving on haystacks, fighting with a friend,
We blazed up on the lines we never saw.
We died like ants or pets or foreigners.
(When we left high school nothing else had died
For us to figure we had died like.)

The tone of astonishment in this first stanza marks the poem as Jarrell's. Surely, these soldiers think, it cannot be our death when we crash accidentally, on training missions; surely, the casualty rates cannot rise "all because of us"! Even that homely record of useful and irrelevant facts, the almanac, cannot record us properly! These deaths mean no more, have no more point, than the commonplace, unheroic deaths of ants (aunts, in Selected Poems), pets, or foreigners; surely, the soldiers believe, their deaths will be of moment and significance.

In the second stanza, the crews are sent to war; "[We] turned into replacements and woke up/ One morning, over England, operational." Strangely enough, death is the same as before. . . .

It is still impossible to recognize one's own death in such a context. No longer accidents, the crashes are now "mistakes," or at least they seem so. Where there is no actual visual contact with an enemy, it seems incredible that someone might deliberately, successfully, shoot down one's plane. Moreover, the flyers' lives go on essentially as they had in the training camp. The cities are no more "real" than when the missions were only pretense, than when the flyers learned about them in high school; the people in the cities are simply foreigners, dying as before.

The commonplace feeling that, if a flyer only flew enough missions, he was almost certain to be shot down, is expressed in terms of lives' being used up, worn out, like commodities. Jarrell speaks explicitly of the soldiers' lives as commodities in "The Wide Prospect," "The Sick Nought," and "The Soldier." If a life lasted longer than usual it was rewarded with a medal but if consumed at the normal rate it became part of a statistic, the "rates" of stanza one.

The four lines of the final stanza all conclude in some verbal form of death, as all the possibilities of warfare ultimately resolve in death.

It was not dying--no, not ever dying;
But the night I died I dreamed that I was dead,
And the cities said to me: "Why are you dying?
We are satisfied, if you are; but why did I die?"

The flyers' inability to recognize and accept dying blurs as death approaches; the individual, "I" at last, not "we," dreams his death, and at last accepts the deaths of the cities, personified--abstractions still, but real. The continual shifting of pronouns in the last two lines resolves from plural to singular, second person to first person. Although syntactically it is the cities who must say "Why did I die?" psychologically it is the flyer who asks the question about his own death. In the poem, the cities of foreigners (and pets and ants/aunts) become one with the flyers, and all the flyers coalesce into a single individual who cannot relate his death to any logical cause. Like Jarrell's more famous ball turret gunner, the flyers of "Losses" have fallen into a State that gives its citizens a "dream of life," but no explanation of death.

"Losses" is a less successful poem than the best of Little Friend, Little Friend, partly because it lapses into a generated rather than a specific point of view, and partly because the reader accepts only with difficulty the naÔvety of the speaker(s).

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


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