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On "Protocols"


Randall Jarrell on the smell of hay in "Protocols"

Our gas masks are extremely efficient; you can put one on in about thirty seconds – they’re made of grey rubber, and look pretty Martian. We’ve been allowed to smell the various gases, which are supposed to have surprising poetic smells like new-mown hay, apple blossoms and geraniums; actually they don’t, except for the new-mown hay, which really smells like green corn.

From "Letter to Mackie Jarrell," 27 February 1943, in Mary Jarrell, ed. (with Stuart Wright), Randall Jarrell’s Letters: An Autobiographical and Literary Selection (New York: Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 1985) 74.


Charlotte H. Beck

"Protocols," the second poem stemming from this [ballad] tradition, which also appears in Little Friend, Little Friend uses a more naturalistic approach to the same theme. The entire collection of poems involves the slaughter of innocents in warfare, both those who are actual children and those "infants" who are sent to fight. This poem has a specific setting, the extermination camp at Birkenau, Odessa, where the gas chambers were disguised as shower rooms and where smoking chimneys efficiently completed the task of mass murder. It is an almost unbearable poem, in which the children's innocent remarks clash with the mother's composed replies. Two children take part in the dialogue, in turn reporting the words of the mother one to another. Here Jarrell again employs italics to differentiate between the two speakers:

[. . . .]

Again, as in both the ballad and the Jarrellian tradition, the speakers are gradually shown to be dead victims. The children never knew that they were to die, and after their deaths they have no understanding of either death or the diabolical forces that cut off their lives. Death to them seems as natural as being bathed and put to sleep:

And I was tired and fell in in my sleep
And the water drank me. That is what I think.
And I said to my mother, "Now I'm washed and dried,"
My mother hugged me, and it smelled like hay
And that is how you die
. And that is how you die.

As the reader stands along with the poet apart from the children in their innocence, the distance between that innocence and full knowledge is transmitted with the bitterest of irony. And if "Protocols" is not entirely successful, the reason may lie once again in the weakness of its closure. There is no particular advantage in having each child say the same phrase at the end; in fact, the speakers are poorly differentiated throughout the poem, having no individual point of view or separate identity. Unlike "Mother, Said the Child," there are no unexpected replies in "Protocols." The speakers mirror one another, producing a static effect and a shadowy sense of character. The strength of the poem lies in its specificity of time and place. What might have once seemed a limitation becomes a gain as the theme of the Holocaust grows in historical and literary importance. The drama in the poem is not in its characterization but rather in the sick horror of its implied action.

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


Susan Gubar

[NB. Prosopopoeia: a rhetorical figure involving the adoption of the voices of the imagined, absent dead.]

Possibly influenced by Nelly Sachs, whose "Dead Child Speaks" about "the knife of parting" from the mother (HP 67), Jarrell and Simic let imagined representatives of the one million Jewish children murdered by the Third Reich talk directly to the readers of their verse. So, in "The Death of the Ball Turret Gunner" Jarrell uses prosopoeia to conflate eradication with a forced evacuation from the womb: "hunched" upside down in the "belly" of a plane, the aborted speaker declares, "When I died they washed me out of the turret with a hose." Jarrell similarly uses prosopopoeia in "Protocols." Prefaced with the parenthetical words "Birkenau, Odessa; the children speak alternately," this poem consists of the voices of two children antiphonally describing their entrance into alienating, annihilating experiences: one being squashed in a train that arrives at a factory with a smoke-stack, the other traveling in a barge into deep water. The child who comes to the factory is told by his mother not to be afraid and feels water "in a pipe—like rain, but hot," until he is "washed and dried." The other is held by his mother in a place that "is no more Odessa" and where "the water drank me." The poem's sardonic tide derides the militarism by which both children arrive at a common fate: "And that is how you die. And that is how you die." Whether washed and dried by the mother or held up by her, the children's experiences make a mockery of any solace that would embrace death as what Wallace Stevens called "the mother of beauty."

from "Prosopopoeia and Holocaust Poetry in English: Sylvia Plath and Her Contemporaries." Yale Journal of Criticism (2001)


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