January 25, 2007 at 3:20 am 1 comment

Randall Jarrell


It was not dying: everybody died.
It was not dying: we had died before
In the routine crashes– and our fields
Called up the papers, wrote home to our folks,
And the rates rose, all because of us.
We died on the wrong page of the almanac,
Scattered on mountains fifty miles away;
Diving on haystacks, fighting with a friend,
We blazed up on the lines we never saw.
We died like aunts or pets or foreigners.
(When we left high school nothing else had died
For us to figure we had died like.)

In our new planes, with our new crews, we bombed
The ranges by the desert or the shore,
Fired at towed targets, waited for our scores–
And turned into replacements and worke up
One morning, over England, operational.

It wasn’t different: but if we died
It was not an accident but a mistake
(But an easy one for anyone to make.)
We read our mail and counted up our missions–
In bombers named for girls, we burned
The cities we had learned about in school–
Till our lives wore out; our bodies lay among
The people we had killed and never seen.
When we lasted long enough they gave us medals;
When we died they said, “Our casualties were low.”

The said, “Here are the maps”; we burned the cities.

It was not dying –no, not ever dying;
But the night I died I dreamed that I was dead,
And the cities said to me: “Why are you dying?
We are satisfied, if you are; but why did I die?”

From one famous airman to another. Randall Jarrell’s collection of poems about flying in World War II (collected together in Part II of his Selected Poems from 1955) has to be one of the most substantial body of war poetry in this century – an incredible collection of poems from one of the mid-century’s finest poets. While The Death of the Ball Turret Gunner is probably the most well-known of these poems, there are literally dozens of them, each spectacular in itself. Over at Minstrels, a contributor writes:

These are not poems about the ‘lonely impulse of delight’, rather they are poems about isolation, about the helplessness of suffering; the people in them having more in common with the disillusioned crew of Heller’s Catch 22 than with Yeats’ Airman. There is no balance. There is only death.

Today’s poem is like a falling bomb itself – deceptively lazy at first, the slow, almost innocent arc of it gathering momentum as it plunges inevitably towards war and its horrors, until half way down a single word (“operational”) hardens it, turns into a missile, a thing of death and metal. The innocence conjured at the start is subverted now, used to sharpen the horror of what is happening (“In bombers named for girls, we burned / the cities we had learned about in school”) and the poem grows darker and darker until it finally explodes in the flat, flinch-inducing report of “we burned the cities”. And then, in the aftermath, in the raw shell-shocked space at the bottom of the page, a returning whisper, a removal into dream and acceptance, and there, at the end, a question to which there is no answer, to which there will never be an answer.



Entry filed under: English, Falstaff, Randall Jarrell, War Poetry.

An Irish Airman Foresees his Death Two Sides of War (All Wars)

1 Comment Add your own

  • 1. Doug Lane  |  January 27, 2007 at 3:59 am

    Three poems with related themes from another war. First two in anticipation, the third from the POV of another kind of airman.

    I go on furlough before leaving for Vietnam, August, 1968

    Wandering the shopping mall
    buried in the Pentagon,
    I see the brilliant
    plastic surgery display

    Spent youth
    in Kodachrome
    as good as new.

    A veteran
    grins his profile
    horse stitch
    scarcely blemish to

    a forehead set back
    half an inch.

    “Keep your mouth shut,
    do your job,
    don’t get behind
    the eight ball.

    “I’ve just finished
    one year in The Nam,
    coming back
    with all my limbs.

    “Launching weather balloons
    for MAC-V,
    minding my business,
    I made spec five.

    “My name is Escobar;
    that’s my best advice.”

    Doorgunner’s Love Note

    Flying over Tam Ky,
    we’ve got it dicked.
    is the land
    of zipperheaded graves
    and Coca Colas,
    by mamasan.

    Sheridan said
    he’d so devastate
    the Shenandoah
    a crow
    would need to carry
    extra rations
    flying over.

    We’ve got
    our extra rations
    with us:
    Jap cameras
    artificial ice cream,
    strikebreaker grapes.

    And this Huey
    is the chariot
    which lets us swing low
    to zap the buffalo
    and waste the farmer
    with his hoe
    —-sans fear.

    Now all I need
    is you, dear.
    But you’re back
    in The Land
    of the Big P.X.
    with your
    backdoor man.

    I worried too much about point;
    I forgot to cover my rear.


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