by Mara Naselli
One evening in February 2012, I was in a Chicago noodle shop looking for a table for one. The television was on—a news report from Syria. The Syrian Army had begun its attack on Homs. The frame of the screen, jostling in the confusion, captured the faces of a woman and a boy. The woman was distraught. The boy, bewildered. I watched agape, for an instant transposing myself in the place of the woman and my own sons in the place of the boy. Children cannot take in their shattering world. The slight young man waiting tables that evening must have seen something in my expression. He changed the channel to a soccer match.
The poet and artist David Jones was just nineteen years old when he enlisted in the Royal Welsh Fusiliers as an infantryman in the British army in January 1915. Later that year, just after his twentieth birthday, he was serving on the western front until he was wounded in July 1916.
For the next two decades Jones wrote In Parenthesis, his account of his experiences in the First World War. It is not an easy read. There are many different kinds of language at work in Jones’s modern epic—not just the Welsh, English, and Cockney of the infantrymen and officers, but also the military jargon and slang, rhymes, and popular songs. There are also the well-known allusions to Arthurian legend, Shakespeare, Lewis Carroll, Hopkins, Coleridge, and others. Jones’s language—its syntax, sound, and diction—was so foreign to me, I found myself enchanted and lost. I copied out long passages, including the footnotes, to track this myriad mind at work.
Jones’s form is strange because a boy at war is strange. He was famously modest about In Parenthesis: “This writing has to do with some things I saw, felt, and was part of.” The first edition was published in 1937 and then again in 1961. In his introduction to the later edition, T. S. Eliot includes Jones among the most prominent figures of modernism: Ezra Pound, James Joyce, and himself. “David Jones is the youngest,” he writes, “and the tardiest to publish. The lives of all of us were altered by that War, but David Jones is the only one to have fought in it.”
In Parenthesis is an amalgam of forms. The story of the young Private John Ball is prose and poem, memoir and fiction, all annotated by footnotes that define terms and explain the provenance of lines and allusions. Jones intended the footnotes be read along with the main text. They function as a kind of essayistic overlay, a map of Jones’s thinking and construction of the book, including things he can’t remember or place. In the allusions and notes you see Jones reaching deep into literary and religious traditions–Mort d'Arthur, especially, to draw some cohering outermost rings around the incoherence of mechanized war. Though Jones had no illusions that ancient texts could serve as a shared frame of reference for modern readers, the fact that the Arthurian legend is a child's epic suggests a more elemental need for ordering. How else does a young person understand a shattered world than through the grim hauntedness of legend?
Private Ball is not a natural soldier. He is awkwardly weighed down by his pack and his equipment, slow to respond, and a bit out of sorts. When he discovers he is missing the cover of his mess tin, of he is stricken with the anxiety of a hunted animal. A mess-tin without a cover, he remembers from his manual, is improper dress. His language—the mix of Latinate flourish and earthy Saxon—is the language of a boy scrambling to fulfill his high sense of duty while also fretting he’ll be skinned alive. John Ball is beside himself.
His imaginings as to the precise relationship of this general indictment from the book to his own naked mess-tin were with suddenness and most imperatively impinged upon, as when an animal hunted, stopping in some ill-chosen covert to consider the wickedness of man, is started into fresh effort by the cry and breath of dogs dangerously and newly near. For the chief huntsman is winding his horn, the officer commanding is calling his Battalion by name—whose own the sheep are.
Throughout In Parenthesis, the language of animal sensibility and sensitivity contrasts the violence and the distancing language of military order. Before Ball’s company is dispatched to the trenches, soldiers and officers wait in the French countryside. They are not yet at the front lines. For weeks while they wait, they receive lessons on hygiene, on military history, on new technologies in warfare. The technical language alienates, but also serves as a kind of initiation, an indoctrination into the ranks of the new, modern mechanized military. A mild officer, sitting in the straw, predicts the “important future for the new Mills Mk. IV grenade, just on the market.” The confidence and cadence of the officer’s language is incongruent to the scene, but we can’t help be a bit persuaded by it. “He sauntered off with his sections of grenades and fuses and explanatory diagrams of their mechanism stuffed into the pockets of his raincoat, like a departing commercial traveller.” The bombing officer’s lecture is as comfortable as advertisement. The soldiers rest cozily.
Jones’s language is compound. Beneath the jargon and mechanized military cadences is a childlike awareness. The soldiers call each other ‘china’ a nickname for ‘mate’ because it rhymes with china plate. They bid each other goodnight as brothers. They labor under the weight of their equipment. They march unchoosingly on blistered feet. John Ball’s senses are heightened to an animal-like alertness. He notes the flanks of an officer’s horse, an officer's trim mustache, the scurry of a rat, the barbed wired rolled into balls then shape of hedgehogs. As they wait for weeks before advancing to the front, he observes the chickens in the yard, a dog stretching, the clink of coin as soldiers play a furtive game of cards. There is something boyish about these observations. They are not the thoughts of a fighter.
As they begin to march, the demands on the body accelerate and Ball’s consciousness narrows. He enters a maze of muddy trenches, ankle or knee deep in cold slime, and we are even more lost, less able to place Ball in the larger scheme of the war. There is no larger scheme—only “the immediate, the nowness, the pressure of sudden, modifying circumstance.” Ball’s only orientation is comprised of rhythmic directives passed forward and back, as in a game of telephone,
stand to arms,
mind the hole,
mind the hole to the left,
mind the wire,
watch the wire,
keep your eyes skinned, it’s a likely morning.
John Ball is disoriented as he approaches the front. Animals and children cannot make violence cohere. Jones’s language begins to work on us, too, as if we were becoming more animal-like, undifferentiated body and mind. At the front, three hundred yards from the enemy, soldiers crouch silent in wet trenches. You can hear “the creeping things,” writes Jones. “The rat of no man’s land . . . scrut, scrut, sscrut . . . suffer with us this metamorphosis.”
That evening in the early days of the Syrian army's attacks on Homs, after the waiter in the noodle shop changed the channel to the soccer match, my emotion switched—the pain I felt for the nameless boy wobbled into the recesses of my awareness. My offense at the waiter’s intrusion was followed by a twinge of relief. The soccer crowd roared. Swift, bright bodies sprang across the green field on the screen. I was horrified by the boy’s suffering, but my horror was cheap. The form and language of the news–its brevity, its numbers dead, numbers wounded, the flash of a human face in pain–the pain is real, but our feeling for it? We know how we are going to feel before we feel it. Horror, outrage, impotence. The language of news domesticates difficult things. It doesn't act on our bodies. A different kind of attention does. Jones's language defies a domestication of feeling: difficult language for difficult things. For David Jones, writes the poet and journalist Tom Sleigh, “war, above all, is a fact of the body.”