Summary (Magill's Survey of American Literature, Revised Edition)
This poem uses a female persona to examine from a woman’s point of view the sense of the futility of ordinary life. The middle-aged woman is grocery shopping, thinking about her life as it was as a young woman when she was beautiful and how it is currently, when she is aging and no longer attractive. She cannot quite understand what happened—how she who was “good enough to eat” in her young years now is invisible to the boy who puts her groceries in her car. The poem is narrated in the present tense, and follows the thoughts of the woman through the grocery store passing or picking up products—with ironic names like “Cheer” and “Joy”—and realizing that despite the fact that she has what so many would want—a husband, grown children, wealth—she really has nothing, for only death is awaiting her.
She thinks of the death of her friend, whose funeral she attended the previous day and who had told her she seemed exceptionally young—but she realizes that “really no one is exceptional.” For all she has, she has nothing that can be kept. The poem shows the tragedy of everyday life—not as dramatic as war deaths but with the same outcome. Unlike many of Jarrell’s other poems, there are no literary figures as shadows—only the speaker’s past as she reflects on her commonplace life and her eventual death.
Bibliography (Magill's Survey of American Literature, Revised Edition)
Burt, Stephen. Randall Jarrell and His Age. New York: Columbia University Press, 2003.
Chappell, Fred. “The Indivisible Presence of Randall Jarrell.” North Carolina Literary Review 1, no. 1 (Summer, 1992): 8-13.
Cyr, Marc D. “Randall Jarrell’s Answerable Style: Revision of Elegy in ’The Death of the Ball Turret Gunner.’” Texas Studies in Literature and Language 46, no. 1 (Spring, 2004): 92-106.
Flynn, Richard. Randall Jarrell and the Lost World of Childhood. Athens: University of Georgia Press, 1990.
Hammer, Langdon. “Who Was Randall Jarrell?” Yale Review 79 (1990): 389-405.
Jarrell, Mary. Remembering Randall: A Memoir of Poet, Critic, and Teacher Randall Jarrell. New York: HarperCollins, 1999.
Pritchard, William. Randall Jarrell: A Literary Life. New York: Farrar, 1990.
Quinn, Sr. Bernetta. Randall Jarrell. Boston: Twayne, 1981.