Wednesday, February 17, 2021

"The Death of the Ball Turret Gunner" by Randall Jarrell: A Close Reading

Here's my close reading of a very short poem that has long impressed me, Randall Jarrell's "The Death of the Ball Turret Gunner." Its brief five lines are as packed with meaning as... well, as the small machine-gun turret on the belly of a B-17 was stuffed with its gunner and guns.
WWII-era photo of ball turret with gunner inside

From my mother's sleep I fell into the State,

Since Jarrell's title states the poem's topic in straightforward prose, like a newspaper headline or the title of an old Life magazine article, this opening line dramatically disorients us. What is going on here? What are we supposed to see?... This initial uncertainty is our introduction to how this poem makes its meanings, for "The Death of the Ball Turret Gunner," must be understood not only in its world-historical context but in its literary critical one. It's a poem of the New Critical moment in American literature, and the New Critics privileged the tension created by the paradoxical yoking together of opposites. Here, the naturalism of the title is set into tension with the symbolism of the opening line. (It's surely not coincidental that Edmund Wilson, in his early and influential book Axel's Castle, defined literary Modernism as a synthesis of Naturalism and Symbolism. Jarrell's poem is critically au courant in multiple ways.) And while naturalism/symbolism is just one of the many dualities that, as we will see, work their way through the poem, it is arguably the most important, for this tension's ultimate resolution underlies the poem's most terrifying and unnerving moment.

So we begin with this 'fall' into the dreamworld of symbolism, disconcertingly distanced from the announced war poem. The first image is archaic, primal, primary: the mother, the First Image of every life, the "mother's face" that Wallace Stevens called, "the purpose of the poem." (I referenced this same Stevens poem in my last close reading, so I guess "The Auroras of Autumn" is something of a touchstone for me.) Our desires for union with or escape from the Mother, equally impossible, become our primary unconscious motivations in life and art. And we begin in this mother's sleep--perchance the mother's dream, and therefore the son's, of pre-Oedipal union, that master-image of all Edens from which the child falls into the Law of the Father, the capitalized 'State' of castration and prohibition. Yes, we could go full Lacan here ("You here me, hillbilly boy?" an academic Ving Rhames might call to the Nashville-born Jarrell, "I'm gonna get Lacanian on your ass!"), but such a reading, tricked out in meretricious jargon, would be the merest allegorization of the poem. It would cut not even a scratch upon the surface of the work. It would remain trapped in the relative safety of the Lacanian Symbolic order, while the trajectory of the poem takes us toward the horror of the Real.

So let us read this line properly, moving toward the reality it so vaguely evokes. In addition to the symbolism/naturalism stylistic duality already mentioned, at least five thematic dualities wind their way through Jarrell's imagery--birth/death, sleeping/waking, dream/nightmare, female/male, spirit/matter--and all are sounded in this first line. (All of the dualities might arguably be subsumed under 'life/death,' but I'm deliberately resisting such a reduction of the poem.) We should think of them not as levels of interpretation but as a superimposition of meanings that allows us to simultaneously see: the birth--perhaps Caesarian, perhaps drowsily anesthetized--just bloodily traumatic enough to be redolent of death, from which a baby falls into the state of legal existence, recorded and named; a paradoxical fall from sleep into a different state, a waking into which we fall like sleep; the aforementioned Lacanian fall from the dream of perfect union with the mother into the nightmare of the Nom du Pere with its laws and punishments; the simultaneous appearance and disappearance of the mother (She vanishes as completely as Barbara Bel Geddes in Hitchcock's Vertigo.), which occurs, interestingly, just as she is placed into a language that constructs an all-male world of war (a feminist reading might seize upon this as interpretive crux); the union of the spiritual dreamlife of mother-sleep with the material image of a falling object. There is a hint of scatology in this last theme, for the things that most commonly "fall" from mothers' bodies are not babies but turds, and this faintly-sounded scatological note will return loudly and horrifyingly at poem's end. Finally, we can see, dimly behind the symbols, an image of the ball turret gunner climbing from the fuselage of an airplane gendered female (as WWII planes were), its engines mechanically purring like a sleeping cat (a pussy, of course), into the retracted or rotated turret, bending himself fetally inside, and awaiting the turret's lowering into battle position.

And I hunched in its belly till my wet fur froze.

The gunner, still waiting, crouched in fetal position inside the turret, is likened to a baby awaiting birth, stalled in a liminal state. I think Jarrell here intends a typically Modernist reference to the classical legend of the infant of Seguntum, a baby from that Spanish city who remained in the womb long past term because it refused to be born into the violence of the Second Punic War. (It's an odd legend, but familiar to English majors like Jarrell (and me) from Ben Jonson's use of it in the "Cary-Morrison Ode.") The freezing at the end of the line yokes to an image of stalled birth a powerfully contrary image of death, figuring the plane as a frozen womb, a dead mother. Or not a mother at all, in this line, because the plane is now an 'it,' neutered and dehumanized (a strictly Lacanian reading might see this as a sign of castration after the 'fall') in this war-world of technologized maleness. Further dehumanization is obviously signaled by the incongruous fur, which might be the trim on a bomber jacket--and the layer of hair that covers human infants in the womb and sometimes persists after birth--and the beginning of the gunner's evolutionary regression from human to some furrier animal existing beyond human law, out of (rather than into) the State.

Six miles from earth, loosed from its dream of life,

The Real enters this text under the guise of number and measurement--ratiocination serving, like the plexiglass of the turret, like the Symbolist rhetoric of the first line, as a too-thin shield against reality. Reading this line we must recover, in our time of mundane air travel and overbooked flights, a sense of the exhilaration of flying in the 1940s, when air travel was still relatively new. To soar like thought to 30,000 feet was an act of spiritual exaltation--not, as in our time, an irritating interval during which we cannot 'engage' with our electronic devices. This emotional climax continues after the caesura, but darker ambiguities also appear. The 'its' here carries the force of two antecedents, primarily 'earth' and secondarily 'mother.' The gunner, as the turret descends, is loosed from both: from the earth with its Eliotic "unreal cities," its shielding symbols, and from the mother-plane, like a loosened stool. He falls from the dream into the next line's universe of death.

I woke to black flak and the nightmare fighters.

The rhetoric of the poem now 'wakes' from symbolism, that prophylactic protecting us from reality, into the harsh, naturalistic language of war. And it does so upon a verb that swings pendulum-like between life and death, denoting both 'coming to consciousness' (the birth theme again) and being the guest of honor at an Irish funeral--a pun upon which one notable nearsighted Irishman based his final book, Finnegans Wake. This rough new war-tone is initiated by two adjacent, heavily emphasized, rhyming, dissonantly crackling monosyllables: "black flak." (Say it aloud to hear its throaty ugliness.) The phrase rhymes with 'ack-ack,' which was aviator's slang for the same thing, antiaircraft fire. And it also contain the poem's only color word: black. As the gunner wakes to a nightmare of aerial combat, is born(e) into death, he enters a world best represented by Malevich's Black Square or Rothko at his darkest. There may be color and light in Jarrell's war, but there's no illumination, and absolutely no enlightenment.
Kazimir Malevich, Black Square, 1915

When I died they washed me out of the turret with a hose.

Multiple shocks come simultaneously in the poem's final line, and in this the line epitomizes the entire poem's simultaneity and multiplicity of meaning. There's the shocking abruptness of the gunner's death, occurring in the thin white space between lines 4 and 5. That Jarrell can still achieve a death-shock in a poem with this title is an indication of his masterful craftsmanship. Another shock inside this one is what I will call the Dead Narrator Paradox: the logical impossibility of Jarrell's narrative voice violates the realism toward which the poem moves. (A deconstructive reading might hang upon this contradiction.) There is the shock in discovering that, like Hamlet, we have been listening to a ghost describing the circumstances of his death. And the implicit injunction such a ghost as Jarrell's would lay upon us--Avenge my foul and most unnatural murder--makes as bitter an anti-recruitment poster as Wilfred Owen's "Dulce et Decorum Est." (Indeed, we might understand Jarrell's poem as a World War Two rewriting of Owen's, efficiently condensed by advances in literary technology. Owen's poem seems a lumbering WWI-era tank next to Jarrell's sleek art deco fighter plane.)  There's also the stylistic shock of this final line, as journalistic as the title and prosier than the rest of the poem. And of course, unignorable, is the shock of what it describes: the dehumanization of the gunner is completed by his Ovidian metamorphosis, under the force of technoscientific warfare, into a waste product, feces, shit to be flushed away. Inter faeces et urinam nascimur--"we are born between shit and piss," said that noted genital geographer Saint Augustine; and Jarrell's contemporary Robert Penn Warren allowed Boss Willie Stark to remind us, "Man is conceived in sin and born in corruption, and he passeth from the stink of the didie to the stench of the shroud. There is always something." But proximity is one thing, and transformation is quite another. Here is the end of the poem's scatological theme and its culminating union of naturalism and symbolism. To figure death as the transformation of a human being into pieces of shit is to enact in the most shocking manner warfare's ultimate Real: the fact that life in wartime is but an eyeblink away from the utter abjection and obscenity of death.

1 comment:

Unknown said...

So is you is or is you ain't a laconian? (the machine refuses lacanian). What's in a "con" . Enough. A wonderful reading of a devastating poem. I'm all eager for The Broken Tower. Please.