Monday, 27 June 2016

In Parenthesis

There are pitfalls in doing what I do. One of them is the tendency to prose. The religious illiteracy and malpractice of our days has made of the collared caste patient explainers – ‘now we do this’, ‘this symbolizes that’. We are caught in a decaying ritual system which we are feebly trying to reanimate with more words and yet more words. We do not push down deep; we are afraid of breaking ribs.

And so I took time for poetry this morning: In Parenthesis, by David Jones. Years ago I read another work of his, which my father bought for me second-hand from an online antiquarian РThe Anath̩mata. Fragments from that poem shot through my head when I attended my first Mass on the feast of Christ the King.

In Parenthesis conveys the experiences of being a young soldier in the First World War. Well, one set of experiences, selected and stylized, but not necessarily polished. It comes with a recommendation from T.S. Eliot, who tells us, ‘As for the writer himself, he is a Londoner of Welsh and English descent. He is decidedly a Briton. He is also a Roman Catholic, and he is a painter who has painted some beautiful pictures and designed some beautiful lettering. All these facts about him are important.’

One of the fascinating things about Jones is that he does not seek to make himself intelligible. He writes free verse, often in paragraphs rather than lines, in various carefully controlled registers of sophistication. His vocabulary is phenomenal, and once in a while he will throw in a Welsh name or term. (I have looked up a table of Welsh pronunciation once or twice, but I keep forgetting.) But legato and staccato, with short military barks and with unfolding sentences containing compound adjectives, he conveys an atmosphere even if the meaning of the words is not always clear. At times distant, at times uncomfortably close, but never chatty and trivializing.

The brotherhood and camaraderie of the young men, not thinking of death, is unspoken, pervasive, and recognizable.

It is a book to be read slowly and out loud, not grasped but savoured.

Four fragments. First, an example of echo and reflection:

When you’re ready No. 7—sling those rifles—move them on sergeant, remain two-deep on the road—we join 5, 6 and 8 at the corner—don’t close up—keep your distance from No. 6—be careful not to close up—take heed those leading files—not to close on No. 6—you’re quite ready? —very good.
Move on . . . move ’em on.
Get on . . . we’re not too early.
Informal directness buttressed the static forms—ritual words made newly real.
The immediate, the nowness, the pressure of sudden, modifying circumstance—and retribution following swift on disregard; some certain, malignant opposing, brought intelligibility and effectiveness to the used formulae of command; the liturgy of their going-up assumed a primitive creativeness, an apostolic actuality, a correspondence with the object, a flexibility.

The mechanics and reveries of marching, with hints of Anglo-Saxon poetic forms:

So they would go a long while in solid dark, nor moon, nor battery, dispelled.
Feet plodding in each other’s unseen tread. They said no word but to direct their immediate next coming, so close behind to blunder, toe by heel tripping, file-mates; blind on-following, moving with a singular identity.
Half-minds, far away, divergent, own-thought thinking, tucked away unknown thoughts; feet following file friends, each his own thought-maze alone treading; intricate, twist about, own thoughts, all unknown thoughts, to the next so close following on.

With practice comes theory:

They were given lectures on very wet days in the barn, with its great roof, sprung, upreaching, humane, and redolent of a vanished order. Lectures on military tactics that would be more or less commonly understood. Lectures on hygiene by the medical officer, who was popular, who glossed his technical discourses with every lewdness, whose heroism and humanity reached toward sanctity.

And lastly, my hands-down favourite description of waking up:

Reveille at 4.30 with its sleepy stretching and heavy irksome return of consciousness – the letting in of the beginnings of morning, an icy filtering through, with the drawing back of bolts; creeping into frowsy dank recesses, a gusty-cool, wisping the littered surface of body-steaming hay. The gulped-down tea, the distribution of eked-out bacon, the wiping dry of mess-tins with straw—they must carry this day’s bread. The score of last-minute scamperings and searchings for things mislaid and the sudden heart thump at small things of importance remembered too late—no use now—leave the bloody thing.

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