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On "The Death of the Ball Turret Gunner"

John Crowe Ransom (1967)

How fast it sticks in the reader's memory, if he will read it twice. This poem is quite worth any half dozen of the many others which Randall wrote about the Air Force in World War II; Randall had served there, heroically, as an instructor, intent first upon the quality of his teaching, then upon the heroism and luck of his fighters. The poem is nearly perfect. (I wish line 3 had been cast in the same rhythm as lines 1, 2, and 4; but as for the grand end-line, stet!)

From The Southern Review (1967)

Helen Vendler (1969)

The secret of his war poems is that in the soldiers he found children; what is the ball turret gunner but a baby who has lost his mother? The luckier baby who has a mother, as Jarrell tells us in "bats," "clings to her long fur / by his thumbs and toes and teeth … / Her baby hangs on underneath … / All the bright day, as the mother sleeps, / She folds her wings about her sleeping child." So much for Jarrell’s dream of maternity, but the ball turret gunner has a different fate: "From my mother’s sleep I fell into the State / And I hunched in its belly till my wet fur froze."

… For all his wish to be a writer of dramatic monologues, Jarrell could only speak in his own alternately frightened and consolatory voice, as he alternately placed mother and child. It has been charged that Jarrell’s poetry of the war shows no friends, only, in James Dickey’s words, "killable puppets" – but Jarrell’s soldiers are of course not his friends because they are his babies, his lambs to the slaughter – he broods over them.

From Helen Vendler, New York Times Book Review 29 February 1969, p. 5, 42.

Richard Fein (1961)

… In the poem’s amalgamation of contrasting experiences, in the combination of death and consciousness, is the awakening and final recognition on the part of the gunner that he exists only to be a victim. The gunner wakes only to know that he exists only to be a victim. The compressed demarcation of stages of existence in the poem transforms the life of the ball turret gunner into an assembly line product. From the beginning he is moulded for only one purpose, and all that happens to him is for this public usefulness. His consumption by the war is a fate familiar in Jarrell’s poetry where individuals are inevitably destroyed in the public maw.

… Things happen to this hapless warrior, as the verbs indicate: he falls into the State; he is loosed from his dreams; he is awakened. Throughout the poem forces operate on him. The voice of the poem advances the speaker as a helpless victim. He mumbles like a child. His sentences are short, his syntax simple. The sentences are strung together in an unsophisticated manner which reminds us of a child’s speech. The speech increases our sense of the speaker as helpless before his experience. In addition, the gunner "hunched till my wet fur froze" is shaped in a dependent situation; he crouches in his fear like a frightened,d efenseless animal. …

"The Death of the Ball Turret Gunner" in itself summarizes and utilizes the major concerns and motifs of Jarrell’s war poetry. But here awareness is not superimposed on the mind of the speaker, is not forced upon his consciousness. In some ultimately stupid way the gunner babbles out the nature of his narrow fate, his destiny as victim. And the reaching of this understanding is his attainment of the nature of his doom, which in Jarrell’s world is the ironically farthest reach of self-awareness. People in Jarrell’s poetry awake to the dark knowledge of their death, their awareness of being caught in the grip of great forces. Though in some poems the entrapment is expressed in terms of an air base that cannot be returned to, the essence of the experience as frustration is also symbolized in the separation of mother from child, or in the role of mother as purveyor of death to the child. It is also expressed in the identification of the mother with the State …

… The very haze of the scene and the very shroud of the mind of the gunner sitting in the turret convince us of his helplessness without the need for the poet’s admonishment to the gunner. The scene and the speaker’s tone affirm the gunner’s victimized state. "The Death of the Ball Turret Gunner" is at the center of Jarrell’s concerns and art.

From Richard Fein, "Randall Jarrell’s World of War," (originally in Analects 1:2 [Spring 1961]), rep. in Suzanne Ferguson, ed. Critical Essays on Randall Jarrell (Boston: Hall, 1983), 157-158.

Leven M. Dawson

The theme of Randall Jarrell's "The Death of the Ball Turret Gunner" is that institutionalized violence, or war, creates moral paradox, a condition in which acts repugnant to human nature become appropriate. The "they" of the last line of the poem are not insensitive nor are they intended by the author to be unsympathetic; their "unnatural" action, given their abnormal situation, is the only appropriate one. "The Death of the Ball Turret Gunner" works generally through paradox, for consistently in it reversals of conventional conditions or attitudes become correct as a result of the overall unnatural or paradoxical condition created by war.

The basic figurative pattern of the poem is a paradoxical one of death being represented in terms of birth. The "belly" of the "State"—which is the name of the B-17 or B-24, but also represents the persona’s "state" (condition or country)—has replaced the secure womb of the "mother's sleep" (the full sleep of complete battle fatigue dreaming of home or the general security of peacetime existence), and the Gunner undergoes the birth trauma; he falls "from [his] mother's sleep (the womb) and is awakened to the "nightmare" unnaturalness of institutionalized "life." (This birth may be seen as the rebirth of initiation into a mature vision of reality and evil.) But the birth of the Ball Turret Gunner is reversed in purpose, for "Six miles from earth" he is "loosed from its dream of life"; the birth in his "'state" is death.

The paradoxical structure as well as the imagery of "The Death of the Ball Turret Gunner" originates in Shelley's elegy for John Keats, "Adonais," stanza XXXIX:

Peace, peace! be is not dead, be doth not sleep—
He hath awakened from the dream of life—
'Tis we, who lost in stormy visions, keep
With phantoms an unprofitable strife. . . .

The Ball Turret Gunner also awakens from the "'dream of life." As, paradoxically for Shelley, the death of Keats was birth, birth in the Gunner's new "state" is death; in his condition life is an unnatural, insecure "dream" from which one awakens to "stormy visions" of "strife" with "phantoms" ("black flak and the nightmare fighters") and then dies. Ascension into the heavens is to find death, not apotheosis; and the "Six miles from earth," the ascent of the Gunner where he finds death, must suggest the reverse direction, the conventional six feet under earth of burial. Water, which is conventionally associated with rebirth and the womb, in the Gunner's condition is either cold or is used to eject, rather than secure, the individual in his protective container. The umbilical "hose" is reversed in function also, being used indifferently to eject the dead body of the gunner.

The most effective phrase in economically expressing the unnatural condition of war is the image of the Gunner's "wet fur" freezing while he "hunched" in the "belly" of the "State." This "fur," of course, is merely the pile of his flight jacket soaked in the early morning mist of takeoff, freezing in the temperature change of high altitude (suggesting the constant fatigue and general discomfort of the Gunner's occupation); but it must also turn the reader's mind to the fact that man in his natural state does not have fur, is not naturally equipped for the environment in which the Gunner finds himself, and to the fact that the human fetus does, however, go through an "unnatural" regressive "state" in which it is completely covered in down or "wet fur."

Everything in war, the state of institutionalized violence, is reversed: up is down, one ascends to die, life is merely a dream of earth, awakening or realization is "nightmare," for truth is horrible, birth becomes death, and death is the only reality and release. But more importantly man becomes part of the paradox, because he enters into abnormal states where he must dress unnaturally and regressively and where insensitivity becomes a sustaining virtue. Without "Peace" he is truly "lost in stormy visions" and "keeps / With phantoms an unprofitable strife." In the moral paradox of war, where everything is reversed, moral intention and virtue have no meaning and the release of death is a blessed event or, at least, indifferent, even to the living. Jarrell writes "The Death of the Ball Turret Gunner" in the first person because so inherent is the paradox of institutionalized violence that it is only after this release that one can even see the pervasive reversal; Jarrell is saying that this vision is the only apotheosis available to those trapped in the belly of the state engaged in dehumanizing violence.

from The Explicator 31.4 (December 1972), Item #29.

Frances C. Ferguson (1974)

… The poem so thoroughly manifests the lack of a middle between the gunner’s birth and his death – in the life and in the brevity of the poetry – that the time between birth and death is lost. Because the poem presents a man who seems to have lived in order to die, we forget the fiction that he must have lived.

In this poem, Jarrell pays his shocked tribute to the indeterminate forces that produce mere circumstance, which in turn become a kind of grisly determinism as it overtakes the speaker, along with his counterparts, the nameless and faceless soldiers who died along with him. …

from Frances C. Ferguson, "Randall Jarrell and the Flotations of Voice" (originally in Georgia Review 28 [Fall 1974]), rep. in Suzanne Ferguson, ed. Critical Essays on Randall Jarrell (Boston: Hall, 1983), 169.

Patrick J. Horner

Most commentators on Randall Jarrell’s "The Death of the Ball Turret Gunner" have identified the poem’s theme as a condemnation of the insensitive dehumanizing power of the "State," exhibited most graphically by the violence of war. Most have also agreed that the poem’s effectiveness is due in large measure to its telescoping of time (only three moments in the gunner’s existence—his physical birth, his awakening years later in the plane, and the aftermath of his death—are presented) and the paradoxical use of birth imagery, especially of the womb and the foetus, to describe death. In commenting on the poem’s final line, however, critics have usually stressed the ironic use of water, with its traditional associations of rebirth, in these mechanized burial rites and praised the emotional power of the understated, matter-of-fact tone, while overlooking the continuing impact of the telescoping of time and the birth imagery.

The lapse of time between the last two lines produces two important effects. (1) Between the gunner's physical birth and his awakening in the plane's belly a number of years pass (the exact figure would depend on the age of eligibility for the draft). During that period the gunner exists simply as a part of the State's "dream of life." On the other hand, between his awakening and his burial (his only period of conscious life) perhaps minutes or, at most, hours elapse. (2) The telescoping of time also omits the actual moment of the gunner's death. Just as the moment of physical birth became merely an anticlimactic transferral of the foetus from the mother's womb to the State's, so the finality of death is reduced to one more stage in the cycle of filling, emptying, and refilling the turret. The manipulation of time reveals the stunning brevity of the gunner's waking life and the State's total disregard for that phenomenon.

The birth imagery also emphasizes the State's uncaring efficiency. For example, using a hose (a steam hose; according to Jarrell's note) to remove the corpse indicates the body's badly mutilated condition. But since metaphorically the gunner is a foetus in a womb, the washing out of his remains by introducing a fluid under pressure clearly suggests one of the common procedures for ejecting a foetus after abortion. By implication then, the gunner, like an aborted foetus, was never allowed to achieve independent human life. Because of the telescoping of time and the imagery of birth the gunner's understated account of his life and death resonates with powerful feeling.

from The Explicator 36.4 (Summer 1978), pp. 9-10.

Charlotte H. Beck (1983)

Perhaps because of its length and many complicated changes, "Losses" seems to hang tenuously balanced between success and failure, an appropriate contrast in every respect to the poem which has always been--for better or worse--Jarrell's most famous war poem, "The Death of the Ball Turret Gunner." So frequently anthologized has this five-line poem been that Jarrell grew to fear that his fame might rest on it alone. It is, however, not typical of Jarrell; and one might guess that it is his one offering to the metaphysical school so closely identified with his Fugitive schoolmasters.

The entire action of the poem encompasses but a single moment, the one in which a gunner is robbed of his life, his innocence, and his identity. In that one moment of consciousness, the gunner exchanges the warmth of the womb ("my mother's sleep") for the wet and cold of that impersonal environment called "the State." This birth into a nightmare occurs "six miles from earth" in the turret of a bomber, so ironically like the womb he has just been expelled from. The metaphysical conceit is held throughout the poem, even to the ending, which in effect describes an abortion. After the gunner' s remains have been impersonally hosed out and disposed of, the war machine is ready for its next occupant. The hardware has survived; the soft flesh has been crushed. Jarrell drives his short poem to its close in a manner both unpleasant and impossible to forget, its images embodying the poet's utter antipathy for mechanized warfare as none other could. There may be something slightly ludicrous about the speaker's tone; it is so matter-of-fact as to imply both his utter helplessness and the mechanical cleverness and precision of the machine in which he dies. Behind both stands the puppeteer poet, pulling the strings and obviously proud of his own cleverness. But because of its wit the poem caught the imagination of many readers who might not otherwise know of Randall Jarrell, although it is far from his best poem.

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

Thomas Travisano

[...] Jarrell implies that "placing sorrow" in postmodern war or rendering its griefs into the pastoral or chivalric frameworks of the past is now impossible.

Jarrell's war elegies break radically and finally with the traditional pastoral elegies: they increase rather than shed complexity; they displace rather than "place" sorrow. Jarrell implies the difficulty of achieving mature recognition of one's condition amidst the accelerating cycles of postmodern life. The ball turret gunner has not had a living instant to achieve the self-recognition celebrated by Aries or Yeats's Major Gregory. A glimmering of conscious awareness comes to him, if at all, only after the moment of death.

"The Death of the Ball Turret Gunner" is one of the earliest of post-modern elegies of a type that might well be termed "peculiar monodies." Traditionally, a monody is an elegy uttered by a single voice, whereas a threnody is choral. The poems under discussion in this chapter are peculiar monodies partly because of the peculiar placement of the poem's speaker and because of the peculiar relation of that speaker to the figure being mourned. The peculiarity of Jarrell's monody derives in large measure from the fact that the monodist is already dead: he is both the subject of the elegy and his own sole mourner. And "The Death of the Ball Turret Gunner" was published five years before Billy Wilder popularized the technique of narration-after-death in the 1950 film noir Sunset Boulevard.

Another peculiarity of this new form of monody involves its uncanny inquiry into the rites of mourning. In Jarrell's "Death of the Ball Turret Gunner," this rite of passage—"When I died they washed me out of the turret with a hose"—is so lacking in dignity, that it functions not to express nor to relieve but to suppress grief. G. W. Pigman, in his sensitive study of Grief and English Renaissance Elegy asserts, "The essential concept for understanding the process of mourning is denial. Mourning, in the words of Martha Wolfenstein, is a 'painful and protracted struggle to acknowledge the reality of the loss.' The stages of mourning represent the development of this acknowledgment at the expense of the desire to deny the loss. Unresolved mourning represent the triumph of denial; the bereaved clings to the dead to avoid conflicts of guilt and self-reproach or suppresses grief as if no loss had taken place." In Jarrell's poem, mourning seems impossible and grief is suppressed in the face of a death so shocking and so quickly dismissed that it remains impossible to process emotionally. The gunner remains the only sentient being left to witness or acknowledge the reality of a death that the rest of the world has simply washed away. He lingers still, a disembodied survivor whose voice hovers tentatively while his existence and his death have equally been denied.

from Midcentury Quartet: Bishop, Lowell, Jarrell, Berryman and the Makeup of a Postmodern Aesthetic. UP of Virginia, 1999. Copyright 1999 by UP of Virginia.

Ellen McWhorter

In his essays on the "uncanny," Freud offers two particularly vivid moments of heimlich/unheimlich (uncanny recognition) around which he defines the concept itself. First, one experiences the uncanny when one perceives her/his "double"; second, when one is unsure about whether or not something is alive or dead. The central principle in both instances is a simultaneity of familiarity and unfamiliarity, that is, of ordinariness and extraordinariness all at once. According to Freud, a sense of the uncanny is built into our collective human psychology in the same way that the Oedipal (or Electra) drive is, and has similar roots in the initial separation from the mother.

My reason for the above exegesis started with the observation that Randall Jarrell's war poetry--especially "The Death of the Ball Turret Gunner"--packs quite a sickening punch in its concision. While the first four lines of this poem are admittedly descriptive, they also possess an abstract, almost cryptic quality that detracts from their more straightforward factuality. At bottom, a reader must at least puzzle through the connections between "mother's sleep," "the State," and the "dream of life." The poem's final line, however, leaves no questions to be asked. "When I died they washed me out of the turret with a hose." The line is breathtakingly concise and, given the aforementioned cryptic quality of the preceding lines, comes out of nowhere to be quite shocking. In "The Death of the Ball Turret Gunner," "Losses," and "Protocols," Jarrell's speaker writes from the grave, and this seriously complicates some theoretical analyses (specifically psychoanalytic analyses) of his poems. Without an identifiable relationship between poet and a first person speaker worked out, it becomes difficult to interpret using words like "Symbolic," and "mirror stage." Placing a third variable-death-into a pre/post Symbolic model is tough enough, let alone placing a dead, speaking subject, and then trying to determine how exactly one is to conceptualize the poet ventriloquizing this subject. Freud's uncanny, it strikes me, is a place to start an attempt to talk about dead-speaker/subject/reader relations in Jarrell's poetry, and in particular the relations in "The Death of the Ball Turret Gunner."

On the most superficial level, one senses the uncanny of a dead speaking "I" describing the moment of being "washed out of the turret." Before arriving at the final line, a reader can assume that the speaker is alive, because, as I suggested above, the poem's previous references to death are couched in somewhat cryptic language. And so, alongside experiencing the shock of a gruesome image, the reader of the final lines experiences the shock of conversing with a ghost. According to Freud's model of the uncanny, this shock is doubly powerful because it blurs the distinction between the states of being alive and dead and, at least tangentially, confuses our conception of "whole" identities; the latter confusion, while not precisely conforming to Freud's idea of the "double," does touch upon the horror of perceiving a literally fragmented or dual identity (i.e., the speaker and the speaker's body that is washed from the turret). Formally speaking, the positioning of (what I'm calling) the poem's uncanny in the final line ensures that any overall shock proves lasting.

Finally, on a more personal note, part of my own trouble with analyzing Jarrell's poetry stemmed from the fact that I had no idea what to do with the relationship between a dead speaker and the poet per se. Normally, I'm not at all inclined to draw the "writer" into the interpretation, but in order to talk about the mother figure and its relation to consciousness in Jarrell's poetry (my initial topic of analysis), I realized that I would have to talk about psychoanalysis. But psychoanalytic models don't provide for a dead speaking subject, which led me to wonder what model Jarrell himself was constructing between a live speaker/poet behind the dead (whose words could be psychoanalyzed) and his dead speaker (whose words really cannot). Somehow along the way, I determined that this whole line of thinking rather missed the mark. To the best of my knowledge, only Freud's concept of the uncanny offers truly helpful psychoanalytic fodder for talking about the relationship between poet and speaker. In a poem that lends itself so easily to the interpretation provided in the previous paragraph, perhaps Jarrell means to reinforce the alive/dead confusion and, further, to signal his own deceased poetic double.

copyright 2001 by Ellen McWhorter

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