I didn’t advertise the last bit of verse I put up because I didn’t want to appear to be capitalizing on events in Isla Vista which, as we gather details about the killer and his plans, become all the more horrific. I invite you to go back and read the Bukowski poem though, as I think it has something important to tell us about how our culture teaches us to think about being alone, loneliness (which is different), and self-worth.
Today’s small bit of verse I will advertise though, as I think its message is one we should spend time thinking about on this particular Memorial Day. Published sixteen years before Eisenhower’s famous and totally prescient warning about the “military-industrial complex,” Randall Jarrell’s “The Death of the Ball Turret Gunner” is often one of the shortest poems in anthologies of American verse, but it is surely one of the most accurate descriptions of how the state can instrumentalize people in order to maintain its power (both over the people themselves, and over other states).
“The Death of the Ball Turret Gunner”
From my mother’s sleep I fell into the State,
And I hunched in its belly till my wet fur froze.
Six miles from earth, loosed from its dream of life,
I woke to black flak and the nightmare fighters.
When I died they washed me out of the turret with a hose.
That’s the whole poem. Its lines aren’t symmetrical, yet it has balance: the awakening from the dream is preceded by two lines about a person, and is followed by two lines about the hard fact that, in the eyes of the “State,” this person isn’t an individual, but rather canon fodder, a substance to be cleaned up, like the foam leftover from a used up fire extinguisher, when it has served its purpose. We get an entire life-cycle in five lines. The key is Jarrell’s implication that the State sees it as its prerogative to wake us, its weapons of war, from the “dream of life” so that we may fulfill our purpose: dying for the State. If you can read this poem and not think about the current VA scandal, you probably haven’t heard of the current VA scandal.
Like many people, my late grandfather served during World War II. He was captured by the Nazis at the Battle of the Bulge, and was sent to a prison camp. He stayed alive until the camp was liberated, but even then he had to make his way back across hostile territory largely on his own. He rarely talked about the war, but often had nightmares that I can’t even begin to imagine. In the last weeks of his life, when he was dying of cancer, the VA treated him with dignity and great care. As it should have. Jarrell’s poem isn’t a condemnation of those who fight in wars, nor is it even a blanket condemnation of war itself. Sometimes it is necessary. But if the state is going to send people off to die, sometimes in the name of folly and hubris, the least it can do is treat those who come home, battered inside and out, as something more than inconveniences. It should treat them all the way it treated my grandfather. If it can’t do that, then something really is rotten in the state of Denmark.