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.