The Death of the Ball Turret Gunner
by Randall Jarrell
"The State" is a lot of different things in this poem. It is the bomber, a nation, and a condition of the mind. Yes, Randall is getting a lot of mileage out of these two little words. No wonder he only needed 5 lines for the whole poem.
- The poem begins with the speaker "[falling] into the State," and "hunch[ing] in its belly." In the context of the poem, the State is the bomber itself—with the speaker scrunched up in the ball turret on the underside, or belly, of the aircraft. WWII bombers were often given names by their crews (usually more colorful ones than… "The State") and the capitalization supports the reading of State as a title or name. Giving the bomber the name State sets up some interesting metaphorical readings here.
- The speaker is in the "belly" of "the State." When we hear the phrase "the state," most of us automatically think nation-state. The speaker has already been placed inside the literal war machinery of the state, the bomber. Now the reader also sees the speaker inside the ideological machinery of a warring nation, inside the political war machine. It doesn't seem to be a place the speaker wanted to be. He "[fell] into the State" the way someone might fall into a hole. Not nice. During the draft, young men were taken into the army whether they wanted to join or not—they fell into service to their country. Inside the belly of the state, the conditions are harsh ("my wet fur froze") and the freezing turret/womb of the state is a far cry from the nurturing mother's womb.
- Think that's it for "the State?" Wrong. Randall is able to squeeze even more out of the phrase. We can also read "the State" as state of mind. The speaker falls into the emotional state of mind of war, violence, and death and leaves his "dream of life" behind.
- So, with just one little phrase, Randall conjures up the literal machinery of war, the ideological machinery of war, and the psychological machinery of war—lots of poetic bang for the buck.