Saturday, April 21, 2012

Standing Back from Horror: Distancing the Reader in Randall Jarrell’s “Death of the Ball Turret Gunner”

          Of all Randall Jarrell’s poems, “The Death of the Ball Turret Gunner” is by far the best known and most frequently anthologized. This short poem has come to represent the atrocities of war for generations of post-World War II high school and college students, many of whom experience shock and confusion when they first encounter the work’s sparse and understated imagery. Aside from a simple lack of knowledge about aircraft and aircraft gunners from the era in which the poem is set, there may be a more significant reason why students first react blankly and then slowly begin to process and respond to the poem’s ideas. Because Jarrell’s subject matter – the death and unceremonious disposal of a young ball turret gunner – is so bleak, it requires a delicate balance of veiling and revealing in order to prevent these readers from immediately turning away from the poem and its themes. The subject of “Death of the Ball Turret Gunner” is so horrific that Jarrell feels the need to create distance between the reader and the speaker’s experience, and it is only this created distance that allows the reader to actually contemplate the poem long enough to discern its deeper and more important lessons.

            Most critics of Jarrell’s work have noted “Death of the Ball Turret Gunner’s” brevity and its telescoping of time. Sister Bernetta Quinn, O.S.F., remarks:
Seldom has so much meaning been compressed into five lines, with two rhymes, froze and hose, a chilling and inhuman condensation of the fate suffered by the pilot, of whom not even enough remained to need the “body bag” used after air crashes. (51)
Similarly, Patrick F. Bassett argues that this poem is “perhaps unequaled in the compacted power of its suggestive imagery” (21). Neither critic considers the impact of such condensed and compacted imagery as a buffer for readers; their readings focus only on the more apparent strengths of the poems’ concise structure and expression. However, Suzanne Ferguson does hint at Jarrell’s power to create distance in her consideration of another of his poems, “A Pilot from the Carrier.” In discussing this poem, which also focuses on the death of an airman, Ferguson notes,
A striking quality of the experience is the detachment Jarrell has managed to convey. From the total involvement of the opening lines, the pilot has passed to a state which seems entirely disinterested; even his approaching death is an illusion, born of appearances and helplessness. (50-51)
Excluding the concept of involvement at any point in the poem, Ferguson’s comments about “A Pilot from the Carrier” could, I think, be applied with equal relevance to “Death of the Ball Turret Gunner,” although Ferguson herself never goes so far as to say so. Like the speaker in “A Pilot from the Carrier,” the ball turret gunner seems detached from his surroundings and disinterested even in his own death. The sense of this detachment, which creates the necessary buffer for the reader, is created through specific imagery and wording that Jarrell very consciously chooses to employ.

            In order to convey the speaker’s detachment, Jarrell first creates a dreamlike atmosphere in the poem, providing immediate distance by removing the speaker’s experience from the realm of waking reality. The first line, “From my mother’s womb I fell into the State,” introduces the dream imagery by connecting the speaker to his mother’s dreams. This line evokes ideas of the mother’s womb, but it also suggests that perhaps the whole scenario is a mother’s nightmare for her unborn or even already grown son. Even at this early point in the poem, the reader can interpret the experience as nightmare or fantasy rather than reality. Later, the speaker describes life as a “dream” (3), implying his feeling that none of his experiences, either in the war or back on the ground as a civilian, are sample. The speaker then tells us that he “woke” to the experience of combat, but even that terrible ordeal is paradoxically only a “nightmare” (4). The importance of these images has been noted by Patrick F. Bassett, who writes,
The irony of the sleep imagery emerges when the reader realizes that life for the soldier is but ephemeral fantasy, a “dream,” whereas reality surfaces in the form of “nightmare fighters.” Hence, the usual connotations of sleep, its release and rejuvenation, are thematically perverted to connote both defenselessness (of mother and soldier) and nightmare horror. (20)
Bassett points out in this passage that the reader has to “realize” what the sleep imagery conveys, implying that the reader does not immediately grasp the full power of the poem’s suggestions. As a result, the reader is removed from the immediate experience, and, as that scenario becomes more dreamlike and less tangible, the reader is more able to withstand the brutality that the poem actually depicts. The poem’s final line, though shocking and gruesome, continues this dreamlike sense by revealing that the speaker is already dead; the image of a dead man rising to relate his story immediately conveys a sense of fantasy and a removal from the “real” world. As a result, the reader can bear to hear the gunner’s tale and ponder its meaning at length, since the gunner is merely a ghost relating the imaginary details of a nightmare.

            Jarrell also creates distance from the horror of the gunner’s experience by rendering him completely passive in the poem. No action takes place in these lines, and this strangely static imagery in a typically kinetic kind of poetry serves to further remove the reader from the immediate scene of war. The speaker never moves as a positive, proactive individual. Instead, he “fell” into the military and the war (1), and he “hunched” in the belly of the bomber (2). Both verbs imply action that is either unintentional or simply reactive. The gunner does not leap or jump into the war; he falls, as if by accident. Suzanne Ferguson has observed that the soldiers in Jarrell’s poems “retreat from heroism even in their wishes… and they face death with bafflement” (56-57). This description is certainly true of the ball turret gunner, who retreats from any action at all. He only wakes in the poem’s last two lines in order to die, and even the actual moment of dying is passed over and veiled from the reader’s view. A more typical war poem might depict a soldier in action, as does Wilfred Owen’s “Dulce et Decorum Est,” but Jarrell’s poem depicts the solder in total inaction. One has only to think of the graphic opening scene of the now famous film, Saving Private Ryan, to grasp the full sense of the action, panic and turmoil of an actual battlefield, whether it be on land or in air. Jarrell’s poem reduces this activity to silence and stillness by focusing on the immobile and uncertain gunner, who merely crouches in the turret and awaits his death. This passivity creates a sense that nothing actually happens in the poem, thus distancing the reader from the hectic activity of real war and real soldiers. If nothing happens in the poem, then there is nothing for the reader to fear from its contemplation.

            A third way in which Jarrell creates distance between the reader and the gunner’s experience is his use of sparse and understated detail. The images in the poem are intentionally vague, and they run together in a way that obscures their meaning and reinforces the poem’s dreamlike atmosphere. The bomber in which the gunner hunches is not described; only its “belly” is mentioned (2), and the structure of the sentence confuses the image even further by logically forcing the noun “belly” to refer back to the “State” of the first line. The gunner’s “wet fur” is another vague image (2); the reader must take a few moments to grasp the detail as a reference to the bomber crew’s heavy, fur-lined leather jackets. Even more thought is necessary to reach the understanding that Leven M. Dawson gleans in his consideration of this image:
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…; but it must also turn the reader’s mind to the fact that man in his natural state does not have fur, 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.” (29)
Thus, an image which is initially only confusing to the reader becomes more and more meaningful and clear as the reader considers it. The poem’s other images operate in a similar manner. The only description of the gunner’s fatal air battle comes in the fourth line, where “black flak” and “bombers” are mentioned but not elaborated upon in any way. The scene of the battle is left to the reader’s imagination, and the absence of detail forces the reader to stop again and work out what such a battle must be like. Even the final line of the poem, which is the most direct and the most shocking part of the work, intentionally veers away from concrete images and details; we do not know who “they” are or what kind of “hose” they use to wash the gunner’s remains from the turret. A less skilled and more direct poet might have been tempted to describe the final scene in gory detail, but Jarrell allows the reader to absorb slowly the full impact of the situation by creating an image that is quiet, bloodless and strangely calm. These understated and vague details create a buffer zone for the reader because they force the slow piecing together of the scenario that the gunner describes; a full understanding of the poem’s horror comes only after the reader has worked through the images to create a coherent picture of the experience. 

            “The Death of the Ball Turret Gunner” is not an easy poem to read, but Jarrell is a gifted enough poet to make the task of reading it more bearable by creating a certain amount of distance between the reader and the tragedy that the poem describes. By creating a dreamlike atmosphere, a passive speaker, and a series of vague and understated images, Jarrell slows the reader’s experience so that the poem is never overwhelming, but he does not obscure his meaning so much that the reader is left unrewarded by lengthy contemplation. The implications of Jarrell’s poem unfold slowly, and, when full realization comes, the reader is prepared to accept it.