Study Guide

The Death of the Ball Turret Gunner Quotes

  • Warfare

    "The Death of the Ball Turret Gunner" (title)

    Right from the start, Jarrell confronts the reader with ideas and images of war: death and the gunner. How does all the war and death in the title work with the poem's first line? Does it conflict with anything, any word, in particular? (Hint: if you said mother you're onto something.)

    The poem relies on the juxtaposition of the nurturing, protecting, life giving mother with "the State" to show the state as something that breeds death rather than life. By making the title so full of war and death, "mother" in line 1 gets emphasized. With the comparison between Mom and the State in place, Jarrell can build on it throughout the poem.

    Six miles from earth, loosed from its dream of life,
    I woke to black flak and the nightmare fighters. (3-4)

    More sights and sounds of battle, and lots of repeated K sounds mirroring machine gun fire or explosions.

    Now, take a look at line 3. Notice any opposites? "Nightmare" (negative) in line 4 seems like the opposite of "dream" (positive) in line 3. These opposites and conflicting words and images that keep popping up miror war in some sense. A war takes two sides. War itself is the opposite of peace. War is a destructive rather than creative force. See? Opposites, opposites, opposites.

    When I died they washed me out of the turret with a hose. (5)

    The word washed generally seems pretty positive. It brings to mind clean laundry smells and is the opposite of dirty or unwashed (negative). But put "washed" into a phrase like "washed out" and suddenly things change. "Washed out" brings to mind something faded and worn or even a pale complexion, perhaps due to exhaustion or sickness. Not good. There is also the sense of a stain that has to be washed out of something.

    When we add "me" (the gunner) to the mix, things get even bleaker. Here again, things start out sounding sort of positive. "They washed me"sounds kind of like a mother washing a baby. Nice. True, the line does begin with "When I died," so positive readings might be a reach. But even taking into the account the death, the washing of the body could still be positive in the sense of a final, loving gesture, part of some ceremonies and rituals dealing with death—washing the body before burial. But the addition of one little word, "out," changes everything. "They washed me out of the turret with a hose," seems especially cold and unfeeling—like the gunner's death is no more significant than a stain.

  • Death

    "The Death of the Ball Turret Gunner" (title)

    The poem begins with "The Death." What would happen if the title was changed to just, "The Ball Turret Gunner"? We'd still have a sense of war and violence in the title. But something significant would change. Jarrell wants us to feel that death is everywhere and he also wants us to feel the inescapability of death—to really feel our own mortality. With death in the title, we don't get to imagine, even for a second, that the gunner survives and escapes death.

    Six miles from earth, loosed from its dream of life, (3)

    "Dream of life" sounds kind nice, but "loosed" gives us the feeling of slipping away, losing a grip on life. So even in the mention of life, there is our old, spooky pal Death. Jarrell is hammering home that feeling of mortality, of life slipping away.

    When I died they washed me out of the turret with a hose. (5)

    The "Death" in the title is echoed in this last line. The poem begins and ends with death. Why doesn't Jarrell have the poem begin with life and end with death? Isn't that what actually happens? Well, by setting it up as Death to Death rather than Life to Death Jarrell forces us to consider the fact that we are all on the track to death the moment we are born. Death is just as present in the beginning of our lives as it is at the end. Yes, we know. Jarrell can be a bit of a downer.

  • Power

    From my mother's sleep I fell into the State, (1)

    Doesn't sound like "the State" is where the speaker intended to be. How would this line be different if the speaker, entered or joined or followed "the State?" By choosing fell, Jarrell makes "the State" seem unavoidable, almost like a giant hole the speaker can't get around, and therefore powerful.

    And I hunched in its belly till my wet fur froze. (2)

    Anyone want to hang out in the State's belly? Not us. Doesn't sound like our kind of scene. We need a little more TLC (the band and the attention). So, why does Jarrell depict the belly of "the State" as such a harsh environment? If it is such an unpleasant place, why doesn't the speaker just leave? What power does "the State" hold over the speaker?

    When I died they washed me out of the turret with a hose. (5)

    The gunner is killed, washed away and forgotten. The warring state uses its citizens, sometimes against their will, and when they are used up (dead), the state washes them away like a stain. Cold!

    But how does the speaker feel about "the State?" Does he seem particularly upset by his own death and how he died? How do you think Jarrell felt about the power of the state?

  • Innocence

    From my mother's sleep I fell into the State, (1)

    Any mention mom and sleep and Shmoop gets those warm, fuzzy childhood feelings. But the fall that follows seems to signal the end of that innocence—like the biblical Fall that took us from a blissful state of innocence to one of shame and original sin. Bummer.

    And I hunched in its belly till my wet fur froze. (2)

    The image of the gunner "hunched" in the turret brings to mind an image of a child in a womb. But instead of being the warm, nurturing place it should be, it's harsh and cold. Bombers don't make good mommies.