Searching Vainly for Connection in the Place of Separation: David Jones’ ‘In Parenthesis’

Searching Vainly for Connection in the Place of Separation: David Jones’ ‘In Parenthesis’

“These sit in the wilderness, pent like lousy rodents all the day long; appointed scape-beasts come to the waste-lands, to grope; to stumble at the margin of familiar things – at the place of separation.”

Reading this slim novel-poem-memoir hybrid is like reading a book-length Waste Land without any of the lofty ambiguity. In Parenthesis knows exactly where it is, its sense of place burns through every page, wading through the mud and blood of the WWI trenches. I discovered another Welsh poet while reading this at the Edinburgh festival, Gillian Clarke, and her poem ‘In a Cardiff Arcade’ particularly resonates with my feelings towards this book and what stays, “how it holds wild seas / that knock the earth apart, / how words burn, freeze, / to break and heal your heart.”

TS Eliot called it a work of genius, and it’s not hard to see what he must have seen in it. Jones, this forgotten Somme songbird, as The Guardian puts it, frequently dips into medieval Welsh epics and Old English verse to fortify his thoughts. I sent my Welsh-speaking nana the subtitle with no context, ‘seinnyessit e gledyf ym penn mameu’ and she immediately rendered it in the modernised ‘seinio clefydd ym mhen mamau’, which apparently means something like ‘his sword rang in mothers’ heads’, which is when she realised it was a reference to the elegies of ‘Y Gododdin’ from the 13th century Book of Aneirin.

Jones’ identity as painter also bleeds through in how he portrays the “easel-forest” he marched through in the months this book is set from December 1915 to July 2016, at which point he says the whole tone of the war changed from intimate, domestic camaraderie to the sinister relentlessness of wholesale slaughter. The narrative follows John Ball, who is at times a third person character, at others the writer, and at others still the reader, as he marches with a cast of soldiers – Quilter, Aneirin Lewis, Bobby Saunders, Watcyn, Snell, Dai Greatcoat among them – into the terrifying crescendo of the final vortex.

Jones falls beautifully on the shelf I reserve for the 3 Hs, who I consider the Anglo-Saxon literary torchbearers, Hopkins, Heaney, and Hughes, not least because of his irresistible reliance on the scaffolding of kennings: thought-maze, sack-body, night-walkers, star-draught, dark-lit light-dark, slime-glisten, tree-skeletons, star-still, spell-sleepers, dixie-rim, bat-night-gloom, blue-burnished, brinded-back, night-negative, robber-fire, bayonet-brightness, stumble-stones, and these are just a few.

Reminiscent of the aching futility in Hemingway’s A Farewell to Arms, In Parenthesis flies just in front of the spectre with the scythe in the struggle to make “the four horsemen speak comfortable words, and smooth her tossing manes; her black-beauty quivering.” The recurring image of the soldier not dying but fading away haunts this dance as “sodden night-bones vivify, wet bones live. With unfathomed passion – this stark stir and waking – contort the comic mask of these tragic japers.” One of my favourite moments sees John Ball on the eve of the attack listless and restless and wishing the carpenters hammering would stop even more than the guns. The signaller Olivier then comes to sit with him and they talk about ordinary things, friends at home, London, language, places they will go, books they’ve read, and “how you really couldn’t very well carry more than one book at a time in your pack.”

Another favourite moment occurs shortly after the bewitching forest feast for the mind that is page 66. John has the night watch and he gazes into the flames of the fire-bay and observes his friends all in a silent row, some smoking, mirrored in the leaden water, rifles leaning behind them against the parapet, all “serving their harsh novitiate”. This sight is echoed later as John drags himself towards the trees, shell-shocked and shredded. “The trees of the wood beware each other and under each a man sitting; their seemly faces as carved in a sardonyx stone; as undiademed princes turn their gracious profiles in a hidden seal, so did these appear, under the changing light.” This he sees just before the Queen of the Woods adorns their bodies with dog-violets and daisy chains, sweet-briar and myrtle wands.

Jones’ novel is all about searching vainly for connection in the place of separation.

Just as his paintings all play with sight, concealment, perspective, his words swirl around in this shifting vortex of broken language and partial images that coalesce into a greater whole. A soldier-artist who turned down officer rank and spent more time than any other war poet on the front lines, he forged the visual nightmares he saw in sumptuous passages of verbal expression like no one had ever done before. This book will indeed stay.

“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 bursting 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.”

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