In a previous post I wrote that sometimes reading particular poems is like jumping over a puddle and hitting the ground right on top of a land-mine. I said further that W B Yeats was the greatest exponent of puddle-and-land-mine poetry.
Randall Jarrell might not quite top Yeats, but he’s devastating in a slightly different way: I think I’ll christen him the master of Catapult Poetry. Here’s ‘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.
It all seems so simple, doesn’t it? The juxtaposition of the biological and the mechanistic: a mother’s sleep, and the ‘belly’ of a bomber; the ‘wet fur’ and the ‘nightmare fighters’.
The easy flow of the five lines is gently interrupted by caesura only in the third, right at the mid-point of the poem. The first four lines are all tensely compact: all either ten, eleven or twelve syllables long, and they have the tightly contained power of a siege engine, which flings the final fourteen syllables at you like a rock from a mangonel.
The lone rhyme of ‘froze’ and ‘hose’, and the transitional themes of ‘sleep’, ‘dream’ and ‘nightmare’ hold this entire poem together, before we get to the brutal realism of the final line.
To appreciate the full horror of the finale, we need to know that a ‘ball turret’ was a Perspex bubble on the nose, tail or underside of a bomber, hydraulically powered so that it could rotate and fitted with two or four heavy-calibre machine guns. The gunner would sit hunched within it, bitterly cold and frantically searching for night-fighters: trying to shoot them down before they shot down the bomber.
If a bomber was able to limp back to base after being hit, steam-hoses were used to clean out the turrets. Because it was quicker to wash the shredded remains of gunners from their posts than scrape them out.
It takes minutes to memorise, and is impossible to forget; it completely flattens me every time I recall it.