Guest poem sent in by Aseem
(Poem #1957) The Dead Wingman
Seen on the sea, no sign; no sign, no sign In the black firs and terraces of hills Ragged in mist. The cone narrows, snow Glares from the bleak walls of a crater. No. Again the houses jerk like paper, turn, And the surf streams by: a port of toys Is starred with its fires and faces; but no sign. In the level light, over the fiery shores, The plane circles stubbornly: the eyes distending With hatred and misery and longing, stare Over the blackening ocean for a corpse. The fires are guttering; the dials fall, A long dry shudder climbs along his spine, His fingers tremble; but his hard unchanging stare Moves unacceptingly: I have a friend. The fires are grey; no star, no sign Winks from the breathing darkness of the carrier Where the pilot circles for his wingman; where, Gliding above the cities' shells, a stubborn eye Among the embers of the nations, achingly Tracing the circles of that worn, unchanging No - The lives' long war, lost war - the pilot sleeps.
I was planning to send in this poem for the flight theme anyway, and a comment on a recent post made me even more determined. William Pritchard, in his introduction to Randall Jarrell's Selected Poems (FSG 1990) bemoans the fact that one poem, the justly celebrated 'Death of the Ball Turret Gunner' has eclipsed all of Jarrell's other accomplishments as a poet. The truth is that, coming out of World War II, Jarrell wrote a number of poems about flying in the war - poems like 'The Dead Wingman', 'A Pilot from the Carrier', 'Losses' and 'A Front'. These are not poems about the 'lonely impulse of delight', rather they are poems about isolation, about the helplessness of suffering; the people in them having more in common with the disillusioned crew of Heller's Catch 22 than with Yeats' Airman. There is no balance. There is only death. Cut off from earthly contact in the desolation of the air, the pilot in his plane becomes a metaphor for the soul trapped in its body. There is no question of anything or anyone bidding the pilot to fight because the pilot has no real choice; the sky is his only reality, and the anguish he feels surveying the world below him is thus an existential one. The plane, like the war (for these are, in every sense of the word, war poems) is a death-dealing machine, one that man is strapped into, an Ixionan wheel, a negative womb ('A Pilot from the Carrier' opens with the line "Strapped at the centre of the blazing wheel") 'The Dead Wingman' is my favourite of these poems - in part because of the incredible way in which Jarrell captures the physical experience of a circling plane ("Again the houses jerk like paper, turn, / And the surf streams by"), in part because of the perfection with which Jarrell connects the failing of hope to external manifestations ("The fires are guttering; the dials fall") and in part because of the way the poem, starting so restlessly ("Seen on the sea, no sign; no sign, no sign") ends on a note of weary, circling resignation. This is a greasy, metallic and yet deeply moving poem. And it takes a talent like Jarrell's to keep a poem like this aloft. Aseem [Links] Biography: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Randall_Jarrell