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In Parenthesis David Jones Foreword by W.S...

August 24, 2003|Susan Salter Reynolds

In Parenthesis

David Jones

Foreword by W.S. Merwin

New York Review Books:

226 pp., $14 paper

"I have only tried to make a shape in words," warns David Jones of this extraordinary prose-poem, first published in 1938, describing eight months in 1915 and 1916 when Jones was an infantryman on the Western front. Jones uses "as data the complex of sights, sounds, fears, hopes, apprehensions, smells, things exterior and interior, the landscape and paraphernalia of that singular time and of those particular men."

In July 1916, 19,000 men were killed in Mametz Wood in France, a scene that Jones describes in his heart's own language: a mixture of his native Welsh, the references of a literary Londoner and the language that flew around him ("as Latin is to the Church, so is Cockney to the Army"). He is "hampered by the convention of not using impious and impolite words," which gave "a dignity to our speech." Jones wrote in the tradition of James Joyce, T.S. Eliot (his greatest supporter) and Ezra Pound.

His net of references to the pagan and secular, Roman and Celtic history makes him one of the last of his writerly kind, one foot in the empirical world, the other in the world of faeries and spirits. He is suspicious of newfangled artillery and ways of killing: "calculated velocity, some mean chemist's contrivance, a stinking physicist's destroying toy."

Jones was also an accomplished painter; his writing draws on this sensibility to create textures, smells and images, describing the feeling of fatigue, of marching four abreast for 12 straight hours, of sleeping standing up in the rain, of a camp in the pitch dark: "a cantankerous liveness disturbed the hovering dark; out of this June half-night neighing horses reared on you, trailed their snapt tethering, cantered off; and dark hoof-thudding, circled concentrically the heavy fields ... their whinnying so pitiable."

A reader feels, like the soldiers, a sense of being able to see only as far as the next man, of not knowing why you are there or where you are going: "Slime-glisten on the churnings up, fractured earth pilings, heaped on, heaped up waste; overturned far throwings; tottering perpendiculars lean and sway; more leper-trees pitted, rownsepyked out of nature, cut off in their sap-rising."

*

A Taste for War

The Culinary History of the Blue

and the Gray

William C. Davis

Stackpole Books: 216 pp., $21.95

They were obsessed with food. And yet most of the men who fought in the Civil War on both the Confederate and Union sides "were not taught to cook, and few would have been willing to demean themselves by handling pots and pans," writes William C. Davis in "A Taste for War: The Culinary History of the Blue and the Gray." This may have been true, but their sheer inventiveness has inspired generations of recipes and Civil War cookbooks, almost all, Davis explains, intended for civilians.

Davis recaptures the trial and error, the humor and horror with which soldiers faced their daily rations of hardtack, salt pork, coffee and beef (or what the army called "in lieu thereof"). Soft bread was scarce and worth fighting for, its replacement, hardtack ("worm castles"), inspired songs and stories for years to come: "Perversely, the soldiers became almost fond of it, so long as they did not have to eat it, and thousands of Billy Yanks went to their graves in after years with a souvenir cracker in their box of war mementoes."

Soldiers were not above stealing their meat, especially when "it refused to take the oath of allegiance, so they were compelled by law to shoot it." One soldier wrote fondly of a "secessionist beef critter" he was forced to shoot and eat. Men were punished, court-martialed and even killed for stealing food. Rats could fetch $1 on the open market.

Lacking pans and bowls, men used their shirts to mix ingredients, their rifles for stirring and ashes for leavening. Recipes for such specialties as skillygalee (hardtack soaked in cold water then fried in pork fat) and dandyfunck (the same with molasses), Georgia cane seed coffee (from ground sugarcane seed) follow the hilarious text.

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