Writing this on Memorial Day, 2013, I’m thinking of war and rumors of war. The war of my childhood, Viet Nam, can bedated from November of 1955 (I was born in 1960) to the fall of Saigon on April 30th, 1975. Although my uncle fought in the war, and though the images were ubiquitous on television and in newspapers, because I was young and had the obliviousness of childhood about me the war didn’t really become available to me on a n adult level until years later when I began to read the poetry of those like Dan Masterson (my first poetry teacher), Yusef Komunyakaa, Bruce Weigl, and others. Poems like Weigl’s “Song of Napalm” brought the reality of it home and into my kitchen.
Since then, it has been poems by poets like Whitman, Bly, Kinnell, Heyen, Snodgrass, and, more recently, Brian Turner, who have allowed this non-combatant to understand what it might be like to serve our country in this imperfect way. Here’s a link to Turner’s “The Hurt Locker”
Of all the war poems I’ve read, the best—for its shrapnel-like brevity and compression, for its metaphorical complexity, and for its unadorned honesty—is Randall Jarrell’s “The Death of the Ball Turret Gunner.”
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.
The association of this sort of selfless service with abortion, the sense of a soldier’s disposability, and the eerie, ghost-like voice of the speaker combine to make this poem resonate in ways that can’t fail to elicit strong emotions from a reader.
I’m not one for platitudes, and I know that sometimes war is necessary; however, we have come to a place where it’s just too easy, where our young (typically the poor and undereducated) are used as a commodity with little thought to the true cost of it all.
And poetry? Poetry will continue to mark the deaths and their meaning; this is our job as poets.
You carry the pearls of war within you, bombs
swallowed whole and saved for later.
Give them to your children. Give them to your love.
from Brian Turner's “Dreams from the Malaria Pills (Barefoot)”