In Parenthesis

David Jones, In Parenthesis
(London: Faber & Faber, 2010)
First published: 1937

Mind the wire, china
                    —keep yourself low.
            Bodies move just at head level, outside the trench; hollow unreal voices, reaching the ear unexpectedly, from behind or round the traverse bend, like the shouting at the immediate door comes on you from a far window:
            I’ve found it Bertie, I’ve got ‘D’ and ‘C’.
            Telephonic buzzing makes the wilderness seem curiously homely; the linesman’s boot implicates someone’s tackle passing.
            Sorry son—sorry. 
            He continues his song; he beats time with his heels thudding the trench-wall, his trade in his lap:
                                                        Kitty Kitty isn’t it a pity
                                                        in the City—it’s a bad break, Bertie. 
           They bend low over, intently whistling low like mechanic’s mate. They secure it with rubber solution; they pick their way, negotiating unseen wire, they remember the lie of the land with accuracy…

David Jones’s World War I epic, In Parenthesis, could be read as a telephone poem. It is deeply connected to Jones’s time serving in the British Army and learning how to navigate its vast communications network. While Britain employed an array of communicative mediums during the war, from carrier pigeons to radios, wired telephones were its primary means of correspondence on the Western Front. But telephony at the front lines had its flaws as well. Mortars and soldiers’ clumsy feet could dislodge wires, and enemy intelligence could tap into the signals they transmitted. In Parenthesis gathers momentum from this tension. Telephones carry news and information in the poem, yet they are also sources of mishearing. Telephones create communicative rituals that appear to provide a sense of comfort for soldiers; but they also hum with poor connectivity, spread gossip, and create physical obstacles for those navigating the trenches. ‘Mind the wire’ is one of the poem’s enduring refrains. Jones narrates and at times even simulates the experience of communicating with unreliable telephones. In Parenthesis’s fractured dialogue and irregular spacing, for example, often leave the reader stumbling through the text to locate who is speaking and what they have to say. Jones is one of the Anglo-modernists most influenced by Great War technology, and telephones are a notable part of this encounter.

by Jordan Moore