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C.D. Wright Comments on Randall Jarrell's "Death of the Ball Turret Gunner"

C.D. Wright

… [I]n war poem heaped upon war poem, beginning with "The Ball Turret Gunner," and never again with such dexterous compassion and plain eloquence, Jarrell blames the villainy of the world not on Germans (whose literature he would wholly adopt), nor on Japanese, but on the one neutrally destructive force, the State.

Yet Jarrell’s war poems are not politically resolute. He was not a pacifist, after all, but a participant. Too much the poet to be a patriot. Too much of a traditionalist, a Southerner, to resist. To avoid killing when the State gives the order is a rebellious act, a punishing but also a stirringly lonely act. …

I am in rare agreement with Robert Bly when he prefaced Forty Poems Touching on Recent American History saying " … the poet’s main job is to penetrate that husk around the American psyche, and since that psyche is inside him [pronoun and emphasis Bly’s – note by Wright] too, the writing of political poetry is like the writing of personal poetry, a sudden drive by the poet inward. … Once inside the psyche he can speak of inward and political things with the same assurance." Jarrell resolves nothing, but in five virtually monosyllabic lines he does conclude this much: we are of the earth’s issue, woman born, delivered onto death by the indifferent instruments of the State. In "The Death of the Ball Turret Gunner" the metaphor is that conclusive, that exacting: from his mother’s sleep, the gunner falls – whether from her anesthecized birthing or post-partum drift – their separation is involUntary. The newborn seeks shelter in the belly of the beast. His wet lanugo transformed to furlined flight gear – which freezes to him. The beast becomes the State, and the hostile womb it creates a B-24. Suspended upside down in his plexiglass sac his animate darkness is shattered by the perpetually inanimate dark. In the final line, with a rhetorical gesture clearly derivative of Wilfred Owen, the poet shifts the bomber’s voice from a limited first to the omniscient first, thus commanding the grisly perspective of the newly-born dead, who watches the womb evacuated of his own remains.

From C. D. Wright, "Mission of the Surviving Gunner," Field 35 (Fall 1986), 19-20.

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