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.