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Randall Jarrell, The Death of the Ball Turret Gunner

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

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

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

I woke to black flak and the nightmare fighters.

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


This poem has stuck in my mind for years, ever since a high school English teacher forced it on us. I suppose the most memorable thing about the poem, especially to a young reader, is the visceral image with which the poem closes. But what makes it more remarkable, upon rereading it, is the juxtaposition of fetal imagery (“From my mother’s sleep I fell”, “I hunched in its belly”) with that of war (“I woke to black flak and nightmare fighters”). The poem’s first line is the most interesting, with its implication that the narrator — still a child, really — exists for no other reason than to die in the belly of an airplane. “From my mother’s sleep I fell into the State”, Jarrell writes — implying that we exist for the State, to live or die by its whims. The poem contrasts maternal instincts with cold, impersonal duty to Our Nation, and does so with a shocking image that is hard to dislodge. And all that in five lines.

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