Study Guide

The Death of the Ball Turret Gunner

The Death of the Ball Turret Gunner Summary

We know two things right away about "The Death of the Ball Turret Gunner." First, we aren't going to miss the new episode of Glee because it was assigned for homework reading (seriously—this thing is only 5 lines long). And second, it isn't going to be a unicorns and rainbows kind of poem. The title sets us up for war and death and that's what the 5 lines deliver. That's not to say there aren't still some surprises in this pint-sized poem.

First off, the speaker is, well… dead. The "gunner" from the title is actually the speaker. Through the use of birth imagery and figurative language, the poem takes us along on the gunner's last flight and down to an ending that most readers don't soon forget. Spoiler alert: The gunner dies, and in a way that's not for the faint of heart. Don't read it right before lunch—unless you're dieting, in which case you should read it before every meal.

  • Lines 1-2

    Lines 1-2

    From my mother's sleep I fell into the State,
    And I hunched in its belly till my wet fur froze.

    • The title—"The Death of the Ball Turret Gunner"—sets us up for a poem about war and death.
    • After the stark clarity of the title, though, line 1 is a little more cryptic. In fact, a literal reading of the line is downright confusing. But never fear. Shmoop to the rescue! (We like to say that.)
    • Let's bust out those decoder rings and get to work. Every word is important in poetry and that goes triple, no, quadruple for a poem that only has 5 lines and 52 words!
    • Jarrell wrote an explanatory note for this poem and it helps the reader get a better visual and physical sense of what he is talking about. Here it is:
      "A ball turret was a plexiglass sphere set into the belly of a B-17 or B-24, and inhabited by two .50 caliber machine-guns and one man, a short small man. When this gunner tracked with his machine guns a fighter attacking his bomber from below, he revolved with the turret; hunched upside-down in his little sphere, he looked like the foetus in the womb. The fighters which attacked him were armed with cannon firing explosive shells. The hose was a steam hose."
    • This link give you a good idea of what the B-17 was all about. Check out 1.42 for a good look at the ball turret as well. 
    • Okay, flight school is over. Let's move on:
    • If we strip away all the figurative language from lines 1 and 2, here's what's happening in the most basic sense: the gunner finds himself in his ball turret underneath the bomber. It is so cold at altitude that the sweat-soaked, fleece lining of his flight jacket has frozen. Unpleasant. (Here's a good look at the kind of jacket the gunner would have been wearing.)
    • The fasten seat belts sign is on—we are heading into the figurative reading.
    • A figurative reading of these lines requires a little more work. Let's begin with the beginning, shall we? And we all begin in the same place: Mom.
    • In the context of the poem, "mother" functions as a metaphor, representing several things: the woman that brought the speaker into the world, the universal mother (the person that brought each of us into the world), and, in a sense, Mother Earth or The Creator himself (or herself), God. In short, "mother" is the life giver.
    • The poem begins with the "mother's sleep" and "from" this sleep, the speaker falls
    • There is almost a sense of childlike innocence in the first half of the line, the sense of a child and a mother together.
    • It could be that the mother is sleeping and dreaming of her son. But the son falls from this dream (a mother's dream of a son's life) into the reality of "the State." Childhood over.
    • Line 1 gives us this key information: when, "mother" (the creator, the life giver, the nurturer) is asleep (unconscious, unaware) the speaker falls.
    • Falling into something makes it sound unintentional, not wanted. You know what Shmoop is talking about—that relationship you kind of fell into last weekend and now you aren't sure how to get out of? Kind of like that.
    • A fall is usually a negative thing: falling stock market, falling GPA, falling rocks—bad, bad, bad.
    • The phrase, "I fell," also echoes The Fall, as in The Fall of Man, Original Sin, when Adam and Eve were cast out from the Garden of Eden and moved from a state of blissful innocence to the knowledge and shame of sin. 
    • And where does the speaker end up? The speaker tells us that he "fell into the State."
    • Hmm. The word "State" functions metaphorically in a couple different ways here.
    • Because of the capitalization, the first reading of the word that probably comes to mind is state in the sense of nations or organized groups—bodies that, unfortunately, have histories of going to war.
    • There is also the sense of state as in emotional state—a new state of awareness after the fall, or a state of anxiety and fear at the prospect of battle.
    • "The State" also functions as a metaphor for the machinery of war, the bomber itself. The speaker is "hunched in [the] belly" of "the State," a description of the gunner hunched inside the ball turret of the bomber.
    • So, the speaker fell from childlike innocence into the knowledge of violence and war. See what happens when mom turns her back for just a second?
    • There is another metaphor at work here. What comes to mind when you picture this gunner, "hunched in [the] belly" of the bomber? Just like Jarrell mentioned in his note, it brings to mind a child in the womb. That would make the bomber the mother. And you thought your mom was tough!
    • So, the ball turret becomes a metaphor for the womb. But unlike a mother's womb, which is warm and nurturing, the womb of "the State" is freezing—a harsh, cold environment that doesn't seem very life-sustaining.
    • We also have some animal imagery going on. The description of "wet fur" brings to mind animals out in the elements, or, in sticking with the birth imagery that has been building in the poem, new born animals with fur still wet from the birth itself.
    • Line 2 ends with three, one-syllable, stressed words: "And I hunched in its belly till my wet fur froze."
    • The repetition of these short, stressed words adds a harshness to the sound of the line that mirrors the harsh environment of the turret/womb.
  • Lines 3-4

    Lines 3-4

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

    • The bomber is flying at a very high altitude and the speaker's life before war (even life itself), left far below, feels like an illusion. Like a "dream," it slips away.
    • "Six miles from earth" places us kind of between earth and the heavens. This mirrors the in-between state of our speaker—asleep or awake, alive or dead?
    • The speaker wakes to a new reality—his "nightmare" existence in the ball turret, enemy fighters attacking.
    • Usually, in life it is hard to contemplate death. It seems far off and mysterious—we can only imagine it in a dream-like way. In lines 3 and 4, this is reversed: life is the dream and reality is death—the "black flak and the nightmare fighters."
    • The threat of death becomes more immediate, more real than life.
    • If we look at lines 3 and 4 together, we can see a stark contrast between the two lines in terms of imagery and language. 
    • Reading line 3, we picture earth from a great distance looking peaceful and serene. We probably see blue sky and white clouds. Seems kind of nice, right?
    • The words "dream" and "life" are positive-sounding words, words that pop up in Shmoop's diary a lot when we are in a good mood. Um, no, you can't read it.
    • In line 4, the blue sky we may have imagined in line 3 is filled with "black flak." (check out .25, 5.30, and 12.20 to see flak in action).
    • And that word "nightmare" never seems to bring up good feelings. (Shmoop can still remember the first time we saw Nightmare on Elm Street—we've never been the same.)
    • With this contrasting imagery and language, these two lines mirror the stark contrast between life and death, or even war and peace. Pretty smooth, Randall, pretty smooth.
  • Line 5

    Line 5

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

    • Hold up y'all! We've been listening to a dead guy? And P.S.: gross!
    • Randall doesn't mince any words in the last line. Kind of like the title, it's just straightforward, stark reality—just the facts, ma'am, just the facts. And the facts are pretty grizzly.
    • The gunner's remains are cleaned out of the turret with a steam hose.
    • Let's take another look at this line (as unpleasant as that may be) and think about the poem's birth imagery and the metaphorical aspects of the turret.
    • Remember the way the gunner "hunched" in the turret like a fetus in the womb? Well, if we carry that reading through to this last line, we have the gunner being reborn from the turret/womb. But instead of being born into life as a child from a mother, the gunner is born into death from the womb of "the State."
    • Essentially, in this line of thought, it's as though nations breed death.
    • A figurative reading of the poem's final line also suggests an abortion—the washing out of the fetus from the womb. Like an aborted fetus, the gunner's life (and the lives of all young men and woman lost to the war machine of nations) doesn't reach a full, completed state. 
    • And unlike the dignfied, heroic deaths we are often told about when it comes to war, this poor gunner is disposed in the same way one might clean a car or a garbage can. There's nothing noble or heroic about it.