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This article is taken from PN Review 217, Volume 40 Number 5, May - June 2014.

Peripheral Stakes: C.H. Sisson and David Jones and the Limits of Political Reality James Brookes

The nation is […] the ultimate political reality. There is no political reality beyond it.1

So claimed Enoch Powell, whose several volumes of poetry are perhaps the most peripheral fact of his varied public notoriety. The problem with the statement (and Powell’s problem, as posterity recalls him) is that it demands that the boundaries of a nation be established in order to come to terms with where that political reality lies. Who and what is permitted within that forbidding ne plus ultra? For most English-speaking people, staking out such a reality is more or less an unconscious act and more often than not a foolish act. Consider this brief anecdote of advancing infantrymen during the battle of the Somme, recalled by David Jones in a letter to Tom Burns of 2 July 1971, in which a young English corporal, ‘“slim, pale-complexioned, blue-grey eyes, a slight moustache, fair hair, in a state of great excitement” – shouted in a suburban, public-school voice, “REMEMBER YOUR NATIONALITY!” and a South Welshman also close by remarked, “what nationality?”’2

The squaddie’s joke works for the same reason that Powell’s dictum does not: there’s always a reality beyond, and no end of strange and barbarous people not only waiting out there, but – much to the chagrin of Powell and others – probably coming and going as and when it suits them. Why else the need for palisade and ditchwork? How and why else do nations conjure up themselves?

David Jones and C.H. Sisson are at once poets very ...


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