(Masterpieces of American Literature)

This short poem is perhaps Jarrell’s most frequently anthologized work; its shocking violence and condensed brevity give it an immediate and lasting impact. The title is the subject of the poem, told from the point of view of the dead gunner. Jarrell has provided a note to the poem which explains the ball turret gunner’s tiny womblike enclosure in the plane and the kind of hose that would be turned on the plane to clean it; he has also commented on the “wet fur” as representing the inside of the gunner’s jacket. The poem uses an image which is suggestive of abortion to comment on the waste of war. The young gunner, who comments, “From my mother’s sleep I fell into the state,” never awoke to life. Rather, he “hunched in the belly” of the plane, this new, state-provided death womb, until he woke only to die, amidst the “black flak and the nightmare fighters.” His body was washed “out of the turret with a hose.” Thus the sleep of childhood led directly to the sleep of death, and only with waking his realization of the imminence of that death. The image of the baby animal suggested by the wet fur, in the mechanical body of the death machine, is hard for the reader to escape. The five lines of irregularly rhymed verse close on an image of annihilation. It is the last poem of this collection, and in a sense serves as a commentary for it.