To Be Incarnational
I was talking with friends after I got back from Mogadishu, Somalia, where I had been finishing up an article about the lives of Somali refugees in East Africa. I’d just returned from seeing a famine first-hand, and one of them asked me how I felt after seeing so many starving people: it’s difficult to answer a question like that coherently. The statistics — more than 250,000 dead, the majority of them children — mean nothing because nobody is moved by a statistic. Plus, it’s an experience so at a tangent to most American’s ordinary lives, that I did what I usually do — I avoided the question by saying something about being divided between here and there. The bright sun and red earth and drifting dust and deep-rutted dirt roads left by Toyota Land Cruisers; and the computer buzz and hum of surfing the web to find mention of some British tourist shot to death by Somali pirates, or an article about how the dress of Somali women has changed in a generation because of conservative imams, or a treatise on the prophet’s hadiths — sayings and injunctions about what is and isn’t proper for a Muslim to do.
But then my friend pressed me and said he hadn’t asked what
I thought, but what I felt — and insisted that I answer him. And honestly, I felt enraged — on the surface, a petty, cliched rage having to do with our cars and comforts. But underneath that, a rage with more substance, less stupidly self-involved: by watching people starving to death, not in a once-in-a-lifetime famine, but the fourth famine in a decade, you see why hunger is so degrading: a hungry person will do anything. If you’re a mother walking with your two children to a refugee camp and one of the children weighs less than the other, you might have to leave the heavier one to die in the desert, because to try to carry both means to lose both and die yourself of exhaustion. Or if you’re a man, and a bandit, you might push your fellow countrywoman, a refugee like yourself (at least until you became a bandit), off
the top of one of the alarmingly overcrowded buses making its way to Dadaab, the biggest refugee camp in the world in the arid plain that Somalia shares with northeast Kenya, and, while your fellow bandits are stealing goats or chickens, you carefully search through the woman’s little bundles for money or jewelry or a cell phone. And if the woman isn’t dead, you and your mates might drag her off into the bush and rape her as part of the bargain.
We have all seen hundreds, maybe thousands of pictures of starving people. What do we learn from such pictures except to deflect them? We superimpose an image of Christ on the cross, or see juxtaposed, on the same page or screen, a starving body next to a female model in a bathing suit thrusting her breasts at us, or a male model flaunting his waxed, perfectly hairless chest. This confounding mixture affected a whole generation of Israeli boys born after wwii, who were said by the Israeli filmmaker Ari Libsker to have had their first sexual awakening by looking at Holocaust pictures of naked Jewish women lining up before the showers to be gassed, or by reading the genre of Holocaust fiction called “Stalags,” in which sex-crazed, female Nazi guards sexually humiliate Allied pows. Some will think Libsker is crazy, or anti-Semitic, or indulging in bad taste. But in grade school, I too watched in history class a film the Nazis took of naked Jews lining up, the film jerky in that old movie way, the black and white grainy as the cliche of an old porno film — and I was shocked and aroused by what I knew I shouldn’t see, but couldn’t look away from.
Or if pictures of the starving have lost their frisson, then maybe all you do is shrug with a kind of worldliness about how wearying it is to note the definition of the ribs, finely carved against the skin, always brown or black. Unless it’s Bobby Sands, the Irish hunger striker, in the Maze Prison — and then the skin is white, and made even whiter by the glare of the news cameras, the face collaborating with the camera to make itself seem like a mask floating free from the man, a giant mask the size of a billboard that dwarfs the physically shrinking Bobby Sands, like in the old movie The Incredible Shrinking Man. To become a symbol of resistance that, in thirty years time, nobody will recognize, becomes the revolutionary’s compensation, since his face belongs to him again, and is anonymous as it was when he was a boy or just born.
So I said to my friend that I didn’t know what to do with such feelings and perceptions, that they weren’t exactly useful. If people are starving there, they aren’t starving here — or if they are, they aren’t dying in the hundreds of thousands — and news photos of starving kids felt, to me at least, like a kind of disaster porn, and my rage was just part of that — a defense against a deeper lassitude, even despair. But I wasn’t going to give up my car and comforts, and my rage felt, and feels, like a kind of cant: ptsd lite, you could call it.
And the only way I could adequately talk about what I felt was to describe a two-year-old boy sitting in his mother’s lap. His eyes had the famine-gawk of the dying, that curious sidelong stare of a bird that, perched on your windowsill, suddenly catches your eye, its stare meeting your stare, or seeming to. His head lolled in his mother’s lap, and he seemed listless, on the verge of coma, or the apathetic drowse that precedes it. But his mother had been given, by one of the matrons of the feeding station in downtown Mog, as the old hands call it, a nutritional biscuit made of vitamin-fortified peanut slurry called Plumpy’Nut. And as she carefully unwrapped it, whether from the smell or some inner alarm built into the species, he roused himself. She gave it to him, his eyes suddenly focused, and he began to eat. After a few bites, as the sugars hit his bloodstream, his whole body gathered strength, and he sat up, suddenly alert. He ate the biscuit slowly, and by the time he’d finished, he was taking in his surroundings, particularly the shiny silver foil that the biscuit had come in. And he took the foil from his mother, and began throwing it up in the air, playing with it, recovering in a few moments, because of the sugars, the instinct to play.
What good was my rage, then? This boy had shown me something about the starving and the dying that I hadn’t known until that moment: that up until they lapse from consciousness, they’re still part of their world, deeply rooted in their own attachments — they don’t shed who they are, and easy pity won’t help you see their individual fates and quirks of character. Nobody, until the very end at least, turns into the sharply defined ribs and swollen bellies of the news photos.
David Jones, the great English/Welsh/Cockney painter and poet, the author of In Parenthesis, in part about his experiences in wwi, once said that he wanted poetry to be “incarnational.” He means that literally — dressing the spirit in flesh. So the Word becomes the words that bring the war not only into focus, but make it so physically immediate that abstractions evaporate. The terrible physicality of the war registers in our senses before lodging in the understanding. But when it finally does lodge there, the outrage and irony and despair are so finely etched that any form of overt moralizing seems superfluous, if not a spiritual vulgarity. Unlike his fellow great war poet Wilfred Owen, Jones never attempts to come at war from an overt position of moral outrage. All of that emerges from the material, his mixture of Cockney, Welsh, and foot-soldier slang, disjunct Army jargon, weapons terminology, Welsh myth and legend, bringing the war itself up close — but the war as a collective phenomenon, no high-ground attitudinizing, no personal anguish outside the ordinary fears of ordinary soldiers.
As a somewhat bumbling, incompetent infantryman, a self- described “knocker-over of piles, a parade’s despair,” Jones ranges himself against the Brass and the Staff. His is the only war poem that I know of in which class consciousness is a basis for solidarity with the enemy. This, too, is not an overt position, but a natural extension of fellow feeling toward young men like himself, caught up in the murderous logic of trench warfare. The Christmas truce — a spontaneous uprising among the enlisted men, and often against their officers’ wishes, in which both sides freely fraternized in no-man’s-land, playing football and exchanging gifts and singing carols — partially exemplifies what I mean. Although there are no Christmas truces in Jones’s poem, the end of the poem’s dedicatory page reads: “and to the enemy front-fighters who shared our pains against whom we found ourselves by misadventure.”
By contrast, Owen represents the enlightened officer class, the kind father and older brother to “his men.” Lest anyone mistake the risks of junior field officers like Owen, their average life expectancy was about six weeks once they’d reached the front. But Owen’s war and Jones’s war occur over a class divide as wide as the distance between the bells of Magdalen Tower in Oxford, and those of St Mary-le-Bow in Cheapside, where a true Cockney lives within hearing distance of them.
By focusing so intensely on the sights and sounds of the war, on the look and feel and texture of its kit, its weaponry, its ambiance of trench domesticity, like boiling water for tea, the day-to-day sense of no-man’s-land as a place of “sudden violences and ... long stillnesses, the sharp contours and unformed voids” begin to take on a “mysterious existence” that becomes, in Jones’s words, “a place of enchantment.” But enchantment meant in the sense that Malory in Le Morte d’Arthur uses it, such that the landscape becomes one of doomed fatality and dread. Some malign power has placed it under a spell so that the shattered greenery speaks, as in Malory, “with a grimly voice.”
In describing the interior of a thicket fringed by “scarred saplings,” Private Ball, the poet’s alter ego, registers how blasted-to-bits foliage and barbwire coalesce into a new version of nature:
There between the thinning uprightsat the marginstraggle tangled oak and flayed sheeny beech-bole, and fragilebirch whose silver queenery is draggled and ungracedand June shoots loptand fresh stalks bledruns the Jerry trench.And cork-screw stapled trip-wireto snare among the briarsand iron warp with bramble weftwith meadow-sweet and lady-smockfor a fair camouflage.
This new, hybrid nature of briars and “cork-screw stapled trip-wire” that warp and weft together with lady-smock and meadow-sweet shows how radically different are the poetic conventions that operate in Jones’s war, as opposed to Owen’s war. In Jones, there are no Keatsian sound effects, no lushness of orchestration as in Owen’s “Spring Offensive,” in which the soldiers experience the traditional enchantments of pastoral:
Marveling they stood, and watched the long grass swirledBy the May breeze, murmurous with wasp and midge,For though the summer oozed into their veinsLike an injected drug for their bodies’ pains,Sharp on their souls hung the imminent ridge of grass,Fearfully flashed the sky’s mysterious glass.
Even in Owen’s syntax, natural imagery and war imagery are kept separate, as if the old categories of pastoral and chivalric combat needed to be quarantined off from Jones’s version of the war. So the drama in Owen’s poems is the drama of a mind fending off the dehumanization of mechanized slaughter, while searching for some form of consolation and spiritual mystery in chivalric feeling, if not chivalric ritual.
But Jones’s soldiers feel mystery in a different key: the mystery of scientific killing revealed through the ordinary soldier’s interaction with technology. Nature in Owen’s poems is still capable of blazing forth with immanence, at one still with the pantheism of Keats and Wordsworth. But nature in Jones’s war is under the same spell that Jones’s soldiers are under — a utilitarian day-to-day reckoning with trauma and mass death in which Nature and barbwire have fused, in which:
The inorganic earth where your body presses seems itself to pulse deep down with your heart’s acceleration ... but you go on living, lying with your face bedded in neatly folded, red-piped, greatcoat and yet no cold cleaving thing drives in between expectant shoulder-blades, so you get to your feet, and the sun-lit chalk is everywhere absorbing fresh stains.
Dark gobbets stiffen skewered to revetment-hurdles.
The earth is nothing but unfeeling rock, and if it pulses, that pulse is only the soldier’s heartbeat as it speeds up from the adrenaline rush of fear, from the physical effort of combat. In Keats and Wordsworth, there would have been no qualification about the cause of the earth’s palpitations: it would have been assumed that the earth was in cosmic sympathy with human beings, that the pantheistic reciprocity between all things, animate and inanimate, human and divine, was still available as a mode of feeling — in an Owen poem, summer can still ooze into a soldier’s veins; but in a Jones poem, “dark gobbets” of bodies, or body parts, are oozing out blood staining torn uniforms of dead soldiers skewered to barbwire supports. Summer oozing into veins, even figured as a drug, belongs to a lyric tradition that for Jones is out of bounds, if not inconceivable. Instead, Jones’s soldier is expecting at every second to feel shrapnel rip into his back, and his senses are so hyper-vigilant that he notices in obsessive detail the red piping on his greatcoat, and thinks in the specialist language of an infantryman: revetment-hurdles, and the more poetic “dark gobbets,” fuse in a fresh linguistic amalgam, a diction both mongrel and yet dedicated to precise observation.
It’s as if the humanist assumptions that condition Owen’s relation to war, and his vocabulary for it, are not only inoperative, but irrelevant to the men in the ranks. Owen’s deeply felt understanding of what he famously called the pity of war, and the poetry that is in the pity, seems at best, at least in Jones’s war, to be nothing but heroic posturing in an anti-heroic guise. And at worst, the truly great- hearted, empathic identification that Owen makes with his own soldiers seems like a form of unconscious class condescension.
That said, no one can love Owen and his poems more than I do. The dissonance of his slant rhymes have their own kind of daring, while his eroticized depictions of violence powerfully clash with his moral revulsion. Owen’s poems, written during the war itself, and well before the publication of Eliot’s The Waste Land or Pound’s A Draft of XXX Cantos, used the poetic conventions that were available to him — conventions that he handled with great originality. By contrast, Eliot and Pound offered Jones a wider set of conventions than the ones available to Owen. And In Parenthesis represented a retrospective understanding of Jones’s war experiences, since it wasn’t published until 1937 — almost twenty years after Owen’s death in 1918.
So why do I appear to be knocking Owen? And with a concept as slippery as class? Didn’t a critic as acute as Paul Fussell knock Jones for trying to “rationalize and even validate” the Battle of the Somme — a battle that was nothing but a “bloody balls-up,” to quote Robert Graves, in which twenty thousand British soldiers died on the first day alone, one twentieth of England’s total fighting force. Fussell accuses Jones of trying to recover “motifs and values of medieval chivalric romance” by linking the heroic Welsh mythic heroes to the enlisted men in the Royal Welsh Fusiliers that Jones served with. Fussell’s implication is that Jones is trying to glorify the ordinary soldier’s sacrifice.
But isn’t a word like “sacrifice” precisely the problem? In a battle that lasted about four months, with over a million killed and wounded, a word like “sacrifice” loses all meaning. Jones describes his and his fellows’ advance at a walk across no-man’s-land as “small, drab, bundled pawns severally make effort / moved in tenuous line.” In this description, cool and distanced, there are no sacrificial, symbolic lambs, only the sheep of the ordinary enlisted men, British and German, who find themselves in that grimly speaking landscape through “misadventure.” And the use of Welsh legend is opposed to the “official blasphemies” hallooed by one Private Watcyn when he takes with “blameless technique” the First Objective — the blandified language that glosses over taking an enemy trench as ordered by the Brass. But it’s not Private Watcyn who is to blame, it’s the Brass and their professionalized sanctioning of killing.
What Fussell misses is how the Queen of the Wood “has cut bright boughs,” not only for the officers, but ordinary soldiers on both sides, with nicknames like Fatty; or as in the case of a Welsh and German soldier who have killed each other, “Hansel with Gronwy share dog-violets for a palm, where they lie in serious embrace beneath the twisted tripod.” The tripod here is a trench mortar tripod, not the tripod of the Sibyl. And the palm for both is made of dog-violets: about as far as you can get from a wreath of laurel. Also, the melding of satire and memorial, of homoerotic suggestion and the well-worn trope of war fostering love among comrades as well as combatants, levels the elegiac hierarchies of Owen, in which the poet soldier both mourns and deplores the death of the ordinary, inarticulate soldier. But Jones expands the range of elegiac speech to include lower class slang and utilitarian turns of phrase, such that the voiceless soldiers that Owen gives voice to have voices of their own — and voices that speak independent of a poetic persona like Owen’s. Regardless of his estrangement from patriotic pieties, there’s no doubt that Owen thought of his poetry as speaking to, and for, his countrymen — that there might be a way to incorporate their speech on a level with his own forms no part of his technique, no matter how well adapted to his own moral and aesthetic purposes.
By contrast, in another part of the same passage about the Queen of the Wood, a Major nicknamed Lillywhite has been killed by a shell-wrecked tree falling on him. He is granted that most prosaic of flowers, daisies, by the Queen of the Wood — much to the incredulity and disgust of the anonymous narrator: “That swine Lillywhite has daisies to his chain — you’d hardly credit it.” That register of speech, and the mixed emotions of the narrator, are more or less foreclosed to Owen — unless Owen is appropriating an ordinary soldier’s speech in order to express his own outrage.
Just as Jones’s use of Cockney accomplishes on a linguistic level the leveling of the ranks, so his use of the Queen of the Wood transforms heroic Welsh tradition so that she no longer recognizes distinctions among rank or combatant by observing the “official blasphemies.” Throughout this passage, in which the Queen of the Wood confers her honors on the dead, the seesawing back and forth between mockery and rage, sorrow and sincere feeling, makes the ritual of myth and legend responsive to the anonymous narrator’s fluctuations of feeling as opposed to a tradition that, in Fussell’s blinkered view, regulates such feeling. But tradition operates in far more complex ways than Fussell’s account of it, in which myths and legends devoted to kings and princes must always refer to kings and princes, or can’t be used in fresh ways, or turned against their own class-bound associations. In a letter to H.S. Ede, Jones notes that in an English hunting song, the “huntsmen meet to hunt the fox, they hunt a fox, and they kill a fox.” But in a Welsh hunting song, when the Welshmen see the fox, “the thing hunted turns out to be a ‘ship a-sailing’ which turns out to be the moon, which turns out to be made of cheese.” Huntsmen kill fox is Fussell’s version of tradition, in this context anyway. But in Jones’s version of tradition, nothing is taken for granted, everything can be powerfully transformed to unexpected substances and purposes.
In this same letter Jones also notes that “names have power to bind and loose material things.” This is radically different from Saussure’s idea of sign and signifier as a system of difference. Jones’s relation to words is the relation of a conjuror to what he conjures up out of “the vasty deep.” But rather than spirits, Jones conjures Fatty, Lillywhite, and Private Watcyn. He conjures gun emplacements and machine guns and duck-boards. By the same token, the solidity of Jones’s feelings, the visceral experiences of dread and fear of death, can’t be vaporized into notions of sacrifice. Such notions are way too abstract for what the narrator experiences; and the wild tonal shifts between elegy and irony reflect the narrator’s inability to reach the level of abstract consideration necessary to feel “patriotism,” “dulce et decorum,” and all the other noble-sounding notions of the officer class. Even using these notions as targets of moral outrage or satire, the way Owen does, would still be to credit them — and Jones is beyond the reach of those abstractions because he’s an ordinary soldier concerned with surviving: the “deeper meanings” can be left to the commissioned officers.
So while Owen is deeply ambivalent about the nature of sacrifice, sacrifice is still an operative concept for him. In fact, the ordinary soldier’s death is a sacrament for Owen, even when that death is presented with irony. In that sense, sacrifice permeates Owen’s poems — the most notable sacrifice, in an irony he would have been sure to appreciate, being he himself. But for a soldier like Jones, all that’s above his head — the war, above all, is a fact of the body.
I’m not sure how far I want to press this next point. It goes past Jones and Owen, though it’s more closely related to Jones’s understanding of how to represent, not war so much, as what Seamus Heaney once called “the music of what happens.” Jones said that he didn’t intend In Parenthesis to be a “War Book” — only that it “happens to be concerned with war.” That distinction seems essential — when he says, “We find ourselves privates in foot regiments. We search how we may see formal goodness in a life singularly inimical, hateful, to us,” he is stating a basic human problem — how to find formal goodness in a hateful life. So he isn’t setting up shop as a war poet, or a political poet, or any kind of poet. He isn’t motivated by Justice, his poem doesn’t require sponsorship by any of the “Monumental certainties that go perpetually by, perpetually on time,” to quote Randall Jarrell. Which can’t be said of a lot of the poetry being written today about politically charged abstractions, like war, poverty, racism, and other forms of injustice.
About seven years ago I became restless with my own use of these abstractions — and began doing journalism in places where everything’s all right until it’s not all right and then it’s too late — and discovered that this kind of risk, the taking of calculated chances, settled me down. I want to say this tentatively now, but one reason why I was attracted to poetry is because I’ve always wanted more than just my own dailiness. And I’ve always gone to art, and now my experiences as a journalist, to find that something more. But if the pursuit of justice has become part of that search, it’s a secondary pursuit that I’ve learned along the way, not something that I started out with.
However, as a contradictory part of that pursuit, I’ve found that my politics and biases in writing about politically charged subject matter are fairly useless in writing poetry. If I’m dealing with such material, I want to discover my subject as I write, and not have it arise from some prefab stance, or hell of opinions that I simply populate with more opinions. Jones’s use of clashing vocabularies and tones, melding of Welsh myth with the everyday concerns of the infantryman, his elided categories, like pastoral combined with detailed observation of barbwire, achieves a music that can express the difference between what you ought to feel and what you do feel — not iron smashing against iron, but the difference between exploring a political emotion, say, rather than a political conviction. A political conviction weaves no web, traps no chaotically buzzing flies — it’s hygienic, and easily put aside when the moment of outrage or conversational animus has passed. A political emotion is recalcitrant, contradictory, and involves you with silver wrappers and nutritional biscuits with odd names like Plumpy’Nut. And that involvement with the material world weaves an ever more responsive web of circumstance and contingency.
To be faithful to a political emotion you have to keep yourself open to lots of different frequencies so that whatever ethical statement you arrive at comes as part of the texture of whatever form is driving your language forward. And it’s this language as it arrives that relieves you of having to stand guard over your own opinions and convictions, and gives you access to reaches of thought and feeling you might not otherwise imagine. Which is risky, unpredictable, and not always easy to reconcile with your day-to-day political, emotional, or intellectual entanglements.
And because of this unpredictability, I feel a little aphasic in front of a word like “sacrifice” — or more buzzwordy concepts like “race,” “class,” “gender,” even “politics.” The more I think about what I saw in the refugee camps in Kenya and Mogadishu, the flimsier such words seem. I’ve always had a tenuous grip on these concepts, and the way they gravitate toward a word like “community” — nowadays, the idea of someone speaking for a “community” feels almost repellent to me: is that because journalists unconsciously assume this is their right — their so-called “community of readers”? And isn’t one of the roles that we’re told political poetry is supposed to fulfill is to speak up against oppression, to speak truth to power — and all the other high-minded slogans? But Jones shies away from taking a position by trying to be responsive to all positions at once. The overt expression of positions, as I said before, at least in my ears, sounds like iron smashing against iron.
This conviction came home to me partly because of my time in Mogadishu. There I was, acting like a journalist, dressed in my clown-suit legitimacy conferred by my baby blue unhrc helmet and flak jacket, or riding in an armored vehicle with amisom soldiers from Burundi and Cameroon, the soldiers manning a .50 caliber machine gun in front, and two .30 calibers in back, all three guns mounted on an old, roofless Casspir, the armored vehicle of choice for harassing South African protesters back in the days of P.W. Botha, but that here in Mogadishu now provided some protection from running over ieds, since the bottom is shaped like a V to deflect exploding nails and shrapnel, while at the same time being the perfect container for anyone who wants to blow us outsiders to bits by simply lobbing in a hand grenade whose fragments would ricochet and maim us in ways that our battered, steel bathtub on wheels would make impossible to escape. Under such conditions, I confess that Owen’s desire to tell home truths to a home audience feels a little alien to me. It’s as if my time in East Africa has made my own country exotic to me — or if exotic is a suspect word, then a place that I can’t see without also seeing, even if it’s just an intermittent flickering under whatever immediate task daily life presents me, that starving boy, the silver wrapper fluttering through the air. I can’t say for sure if this is because of observing, in a very limited way, what starvation does to people; or maybe this double vision is the result of the heightened intensity of putting yourself in harm’s way, even if that harm is calculated to pretty good odds that you’ll be ok.
Maybe the real question is what home truths can satisfy if you feel unaffiliated from the place that gave you birth — unlike Owen, who, despite describing himself with great accuracy as a “conscientious objector with a very seared conscience,” always assumes that his audience, whether or not they will listen, are his fellow countrymen. But as to Mogadishu, no matter if I spent years there, I’d always be an outsider to what, for Somalis, is an intimate history of killing, based on clan reprisals, the colonial interventions of last century, and in recent months, the hopeful assertion of business instincts over internecine ones.
And yet there’s something that I can’t deny feels familiar about Mogadishu — the quality of the sunlight over the intensely blue sea, in which the use of the word “azure” finally seems accurate, as opposed to a well-placed poeticism like Lowell’s “Azure day / makes my agonized blue window bleaker.” In Mogadishu I had the momentary illusion that this might be home ground, like that beach where I went surfing as a teenager, near San Clemente and Nixon’s house, and where I saw, up close for the first time, a decommissioned tank rusting in the sand. This juxtaposition, at least in Jones’s terms of putting your body where the mouth of your ideology is, makes a kind of nerve-sense. And no matter how much of a cultural outsider I might be, my body for that moment belonged to the low coastal hills and barbwire and shell holes pocking the city walls. The holes come in three sizes: thumb size for ak-47s, fist size for .20 caliber, and both fists for .50 caliber.
I sometimes think it would be consoling to see that tank as consonant with the Casspir, a form of Army-junk pastoral, and to feel that the lyric compact was still unbroken, so I could say with Owen “murmurous with wasp and midge.” But outside the bounds of Owen’s poem, such formulations go dead on me. It’s as if the language of Owen, in which his political commitments begin to swamp his political emotions, were foreclosed to me, except as a beautiful, untouchable, infinitely precious historical curiosity.
And so what’s left? If you’re talking to a man in a refugee camp market who sells camels or goats, and he tells you how many wives he has, and how many children, and how many members of his family have been tortured, or shot down in the front room of his own home, or burned alive in a church, or how he hasn’t seen his parents in eight years because a militia attacked his village one night, and his parents ran one way and he ran another to escape being hacked to pieces by a panga (the Kenyan version of a machete), if, as you’re talking to this man, the complete deadpan with which he tells you about his suffering makes anything you could say sound superfluous — well, that’s exactly how I feel now when I read poems that overtly declare themselves as speaking for others.
I feel a respect for the effort but often growing impatience with the result, even a ripple of disgust, unfair perhaps, if the poem turns out (like most poems of this kind do) to be only what it seemed to be on first reading: alibis for thought, a lot of word-masquerading, a rhetorical jumping up and down and waving of hands and yelling and shouting to get someone to pay attention. The marks on the page have less permanence, and less vividness of effect, than the henna staining the camel and goat seller’s beard.
Given the mental brownout I suffer when confronted with abstractions like “race,” “class,” “gender,” “politics,” I’ve become ever more skeptical that poets can speak for communities: they can speak to what they think the community is — they can assume commonalities — they can, in a limited way, propose certain shared values as if they actually existed, as Whitman did — but somehow, some way, they need to signal that they’re aware of the limitations of their singular, subjective viewpoint.
And as for a poet addressing posterity, in our current rising sea-level, four hundred parts of carbon dioxide per million eco-disaster mode, it’s impossible for any poet to know in the moment of writing if there’s even going to be a posterity to write for or to. Not that posterity was anything but a fantasy made popular by Romantic notions of the artist as representative sufferer — a notion that in our era seems as doomed as Owen’s status as an officer, machine-gunned just a week before the Armistice. A black joke, you might say, given the heroic depth and sincerity of purpose in his suffering. But his stance now seems like a holdover from another geopolitical and informational era, no matter that his poems are here to stay.
Unlike Owen’s hieratic and hierarchic understanding of soldiers, and how and why they die, Jones’s soldiers in their official capacities have been turned by the Army into human extensions of their rifles, their big guns, their routinized and bureaucratized Army lingo of “Pass up message from officer in rear — Message from in front sir — they’ve halted sir — to right of road sir — road blocked, sir.” The flatness of such language, its purely British Expeditionary Force utilitarian nature, marks one boundary of Jones’s language. But on the other hand, the soldiers, with a Cockney genius for entertaining, linguistically inventive grumbling, resist all that. As Jones says,
I am surprised to find how much Cockney influences have determined the form; but as Latin is to the Church, so is Cockney to the Army, no matter what name the regiment bears. It is difficult to dissociate any word of command, any monosyllable remembered, coming at you on dark duck-board track, from the Great Bell of Bow.
This emphasis on Cockney over Latin, and equating the two, shows exactly what I mean by using class not as a stick or a piety or an attempt to establish “authenticity,” but as a formally integrated understanding that needs no comment from the poet — except after the fact, perhaps, in an author’s preface. And what’s more, the unselfconscious distance and neutrality of Jones’s stance toward this language, his refusal to self-dramatize, to lament or attitudinize or conflate his viewpoint with any sort of implied moral understandings, feels radically new: the voices assume their place in the poem, as if some magnetic force beyond the poet’s will were driving a pattern into iron filings.
And so the ironies that emerge aren’t the well-worn ones contrasting dulce et decorum with “gloom’s last dregs,” or self-dramatizing agonies of witnessing: “Whereat, in terror what that sight might mean, / I reeled and shivered earthward like a feather.” Jones’s poem doesn’t claim special linguistic privileges, doesn’t make language into a private code, and insist on its exemption from ordinary usage. And yet the comprehensiveness of what Jones calls his cultural “deposits” gives his language the hallucinatory clarity of intermittent flashes of artillery fire and flares lighting up the darkness. By using so many different linguistic registers at once to talk about the materiel of war and its effect on landscape and the human body, Jones creates an archeology of war more complete than any ever written. It’s no exaggeration to say that if all the millions of pages and photographs and drawings and paintings about the war were somehow lost, and all that was left was Jones’s poem, the physical experience of the ordinary trench soldier would be wholly intact.
As Jones says, toward the end of Part 2, in an inadvertent ars poetica:
John Ball ... stood fixed and alone in the little yard — his senses highly alert, his body incapable of movement or response. The exact disposition of small things — the precise shapes of trees, the tilt of a bucket, the movement of a straw, the disappearing right boot of Sergeant Snell — all minute noises, separate and distinct, in a stillness charged through with some approaching violence — registered not by the ear nor any single faculty — an on-rushing pervasion, saturating all existence; with exactitude, logarithmic, dial-timed, millesimal — of calculated velocity, some mean chemist’s contrivance, a stinking physicist’s destroying toy.
This passage, at least until the shift to the incoming shell, describes exactly the quality of attentiveness to detail that saturates In Parenthesis. No one has ever registered the minutiae of war, and the processes of perceiving that minutiae, as accurately or as fully as Jones. Like a ptsd nightmare, every detail is registered in the complete stop-time of trauma, but without the emotional overlay of professional trauma-speak. If I say “shell shock,” you know the physical cause of the mental suffering — Jones himself suffered recurrent bouts of shell shock throughout his life, bouts that made it impossible for him to work on his quite extraordinary paintings and drawings for many months at a time. But if I say “post-traumatic stress disorder,” you can see how suffering needs to be swept out of sight, reduced to a professionalized abstraction totally divorced from its material/materiel causes. Or if you prefer something tonier to my ptsd comparison, then Proust’s notion of the memoire involontaire, the memory of texture that lies beyond the anti-remembrance of dates and the facticity of “this happened, that happened,” would also be the quality of unwilled, but helplessly focused attentiveness that characterizes the poem. Jones is not a poet who has a design upon the reader. He is a poet in the grip of a design that Cockney accents underwrite, as well as Le Morte d’Arthur:
Good night china — there’s some dryish wood under fire-step — in cubby-hole — good night.Cushy — cushy enough — cushy, good night.
This exchange occurs between soldiers going up the line to the front to relieve those coming down from the forward trenches. In this passage, “china” is abbreviated, rhyming Cockney slang for “mate,” the complete phrase being “china plate.” And “cushy” is simply slang for comfortable, as well as being the adjective to describe a much-desired wound in the hand or foot, disabling you from combat, but not disabling you for life.
But as we’ve already seen in the earlier quotation about the wrecked foliage, Jones’s other idioms are wildly at variance from the Cockney. In a combination of Latinate borrowings, over-the-top Atticisms, parodic scientific precision, elaborately involved Hopkins-like syntax, and first-rate reportage, Jones uses a whole other register of speech that the poem deploys as skillfully as Cockney — a register that plays with the mock heroic, but transcends it by its fidelity to the shock experience, and slowing down of time, of sudden trauma:
He stood alone on the stones, his mess-tin spilled at his feet. Out of the vortex, rifling the air it came — bright, brass-shod, Pandoran; with all-filling screaming the howling crescendo’s up-piling snapt. The universal world, breath held, one half second, a bludgeoned stillness. Then the pent violence released a consummation of all burstings out; all sudden up-rendings and rivings-through — all taking-out of vents — all barrier-breaking — all unmaking. Pernitric begetting — the dissolving and splitting of solid things. In which unearthing aftermath, John Ball picked up his mess-tin and hurried within; ashen, huddled, waited in the dismal straw. Behind “E” Battery, fifty yards down the road, a great many mangolds, uprooted, pulped, congealed with chemical earth, spattered and made slippery the rigid boards leading to the emplacement. The sap of vegetables slobbered the spotless breech-block of No. 3 gun.
By hovering at the edge of parody with that anti-heroic mess tin, Jones illustrates what Thom Gunn meant by the phrase, “a strength so lavish she can limit it.” The use of “Pandoran” to contrast with the later “Pernitric,” a Greek myth of disaster balanced against a Greek-derived scientific term for an explosive acid, the words fatally linked by alliterative stress, shows just how sophisticated and original and flexibly various is Jones’s diction, range of reference, and musical understanding. The final image of the “sap of vegetables” slobbering “the spotless breech-block of No. 3 gun” is, in it’s humble, eccentric rightness, one of the best pieces of description in all of literature — it’s as if Hopkins’s harsh, impacted music for inward states of spiritual torment in his late sonnets had been turned inside out in Jones’s “slobbered the spotless breech-block,” and applied to the physical torments of the war. The eye-witness brilliance of it, while keeping a cool-eyed distance from any overt moralizing, occurs in another linguistic universe from Owen’s description of an exploding shell as the “hot blast and fury of hell’s upsurge.” And the anti-climax, after the explosion of the shell, of John Ball picking up his mess-tin and hurrying inside a barn for cover, reveals a sensibility that refuses to slight one form of experience for another, but insists on getting all of it in, and in whatever style or idiom the moment of perception demands.
And that flexibility and strangeness and originality of perception is exactly what the conventions of news photos of starving people lack. To actually see someone starving to death, and accurately describe it, and not simply use words or images as a way to deflect your attention, may require a counter-intuitive stylistic procedure, a process of defamiliarization. Jones writes, “If you would draw a smith’s arm think of the twisted blackthorn bough — get at some remove from your subject.” And his source of remove is, paradoxically, to get closer and closer to immediate physical sensations, so close in fact that a kind of poetic kinesthesia of the body takes over. It’s as if Jones instinctively recognizes that, as R.P. Blackmur once said, “Style is the quality of the act of perception” — which means that style is in part the hardwiring of how you perceive, in all your individual quirks, your personal histories, your borrowings and burgeonings from whatever cultural deposits you draw on and spring from. Registering that peculiarity of perception is what style is — which rescues the notion of style from mere decoration, or spurious individuality, or the affiliation with whatever school of poetry you subscribe to.
If, as Jones does, you take the notion of style seriously as based on bodily experience of the world, then it’s obvious that you need to find formal ways to capture unique experiences, ideology is unvarying, while bodily perception is always changing, so the two won’t lie easily in the same bed. This is why Jones’s range of styles is so wildly at variance, and yet utterly right for the diversity of experiences he’s trying to recreate in all their physical and spiritual and intellectual immediacy.
Here is a passage about men climbing out of their trench and advancing toward the enemy that shows what Jones means by getting “at some remove from your subject”:
Mr. Jenkins half inclined his head to them — he walked justbarely in advance of his platoon and immediately to the leftof Private Ball.He makes the conventional signand there is the deeply inward effort of spent men who wouldmake response for him,and take it at the double.He sinks on one kneeand now on the other,his upper body tilts in rigid inclinationthis way and back;weighted lanyard runs out to full tether,swings like a pendulumand the clock run down.Lurched over, jerked iron saucer over tilted brow,clampt unkindly over lip and chinnor no ventaille to this darkeningand masked face lifts to grope the airand so disconsolate;enfeebled fingering at a paltry strap —buckle holds,holds him blind against the morning.Then stretch still where weeds pattern the chalk predel-la — where it rises to his wire — and Sergeant T. Quilter takesover.
Not until the final two lines does it become clear that most of this passage chronicles a man’s death. And this is because the death occurs in slo-mo, as an ongoing process instead of a noted fact. The technical specificity of the lanyard image, the clinical cool of the observation, the way the “iron saucer” of Jenkins’s helmet slides over his entire face, the way Jones omits the “he” in “Then stretch still where weeds pattern the chalk predella,” as if Jenkins, because he is dead, has been reduced to a thing, rendering the pronoun superfluous — well you can see how far this is from the usual poeticizing and atrocity-speak. And the freedom with which Jones moves between prose and free verse — the verse breaking the process of the slo-mo fall into smaller perceptual increments, the prose providing context for the process — tracks Jenkins sinking to his knees, collapsing face forward with his helmet over his face, his fingers trying to loosen the strap and failing, so that the last thing he sees is the dark inside his helmet, but without any metaphysical overtones, shows what Jones means by getting at “some remove from your subject.” Never have I read a more accurate and heartbreaking description of a man’s death — and accomplished without any of the usual stylistic or emotive maneuvering. And when you see how sustained Jones’s poem is in carrying off these effects, you see that his work is a vast unmined resource for poets interested in doing more than what Derek Walcott once called “the standard elegiac.”
And perhaps that’s why Jones means so much to me now: he goes beyond the elegy to the body’s physical reality, and in the process incorporates many different bodies, and the particulars of their speech coming from their lungs — speech recorded in his poem originating from all registers, and all ranks. He mentions how profanity, and its repetition, conditioned “the whole shape of our discourse,” and that sometimes the proper juxtaposition of profanity “in a sentence, and when expressed under poignant circumstances, reached real poetry.” And in more normal circumstances, “the ‘Bugger! Bugger!’ of a man detailed, had often about it the ‘Fiat! Fiat!’ of the Saints.”
As I said, Jones is not a war poet. He isn’t interested in setting up shop as a professional elegist. He speaks for no community, but let’s a community develop through the multiplicity of voices that the poem accumulates. Above all, he is no village explainer, or self-righteous ranter: he has no message to impart, no agenda to advance. Instead, he says that the poem “has to do with some things I saw, felt, & was part of.” In the modesty of his claim, I can find my own way into the war. I can see the place in Mametz Wood, that I visited years before I’d read Jones, where he was wounded in the leg — not exactly a cushy wound, but cushy enough to get him away from the front for a few months.
Most of all I can see, not mass slaughter, but this little vignette of vital and electrifying substantiation of one man’s limited experience. A German soldier throws a stick bomb at Private Ball, Private Ball lobs a grenade back, and kills his fellow soldier — and rather than talk about his sense of guilt or pity or rage, or indulge in journalistic or humanist or philosophical or psychological expostulation, he simply notes two things: that he liked the colored label on the handle of the stick-bomb as it flew towards him; and after his grenade explodes, he notes how “you scramble forward and pretend not to see, / but ruby drops from young beech-sprigs — / are bright your hands and face.” And in that awful brightness Jones shows how poetic problems are, as such, problems of perception. That the artist is necessarily empirical rather than speculative. That the question for the artist, according to Jones, is always “‘Does it?’ rather than ‘Ought it?’” And that perception can’t be faked because it is important to be “anthropomorphic, to deal through and in the things we understand as [women and] men — to be incarnational.”
Tom Sleigh is the author of ten volumes of poetry, including The Chain (1996), Far Side of the Earth (2003), Space Walk (2007), and Station Zed (2015). Space Walk won the 2008 Kingsley Tufts Award and earned Sleigh considerable critical acclaim. Referring to this collection, poet Philip Levine noted, “Sleigh’s reviewers use words such as ‘adept,’ ‘elegant,’...