"Unstuck in time": Narratives of war in Divers

Tue 06 September 2016

Posted by Rufous Nightjar in Criticism   

In 2016, the centenary year of the Somme offensive, one finds the influence of the Great War on modern culture impossible to ignore. Today, a popular belief is that we know far more now about the war and its causes than most of the men who lost their lives in its enactment. Yet our knowledge is distorted — obscured by dust thrown up by the march of time, and gleaned largely from history books written by the victors. Such is the setting in which I here consider Joanna Newsom’s Divers.

Violence and conflict are common in Newsom’s lyrics. Rebecca Varley–Winter noted that “[her] lyrics are full of violent metaphors… her songs bristle with bombs, armies constantly in defeat, her soliders always dying.”2 But in Divers, this imagery is more often put to ends of narrative rather than metaphor.

In “Sapokanikan”, the blood has already been spilled. In the guise of omniscient narrator, Newsom gives us a guided tour of historical Greenwich Village, where we read inscriptions on rusty monuments and hear a rag to the “Brave Men and Women” of WWII. Meanwhile, to the 20 000 whose cause for death is forgotten, we might as well be singing “Tramp the Dirt Down”. This tour is reliable — based on newspaper clippings and commemorative plaques — yet it is as dry and lifeless as the lone and level sands of Shelley’s sonnet.

“Anecdotes” gets us closer to violence with its recollection of battles past. Trenches, night raids, and “sending the first scouts over [the top]” all bring to mind the conflict on the Western Front. Supporting this story is a military cast; the narrator is perhaps an officer sharing a joke with his deputy, Nightjar, in the silent moon-light. He, our officer, makes poetry of what he sees, preserving in song an anecdote from his time “down in the trenches”; in contrast to the official records examined in “Sapokanikan”, “Anecdotes” is, like something written by Wilfred Owen or Siegfried Sassoon, as much a work of art as a battle diary.

To the themes of the song, I find a poem by Great War veteran Ivor Gurney particularly fitting. In “After-Glow”, he recalls a time when, in the nocturnal silence of the trenches,

Time passed from mind. Time died; and then we were
Once more at home together, you and I.

Like “Anecdotes”, the poem begins in the front-line, passing through a period of reminiscence before ending in a domestic scene. (The poem also has an aspect of rusted monument, being dedicated to Gurney’s friend and fellow-soldier F. W. Harvey, at the time feared dead.)

On the other hand, “Anecdotes” is more allegorical than “After-Glow”. Obviously, the former was written by Newsom — herself no veteran — and at times it verges on science-fiction. Time stops like it did for Gurney, but ideas of time-travel (“temporal infidelity”) and the bending of light link the song with Albert Einstein’s theories of relativity and those theories’ employment in the plots of many a sci-fi novel. Consider the soldiers of “Anecdotes”: a cavalry of nightjar-oids? That would follow the tradition of sci-fi writers who take their cues from nature gone grotesque — its pages are filled with hive-minded ants the size of cars, chameleons that change form as well as colour, and mechanical men with twice our strength and half our compassion. Like the politically charged poems of the war poets, this is something other than a sober history.

“Waltz of the 101st Lightborne” is another war story. But hang on, has this fight happened yet? It certainly began some time in the future (see reference to a fourth world war in line 3), but, in “eternal return and repeat”, it seems to have looped round to the golden age of the United States Pacific Seaboard.

The act of jumping along the timeline of history — heard here and elsewhere in Divers — reminds me of Billy Pilgrim, a (fictional) WWII veteran who believes he has become “unstuck in time”. Pilgrim is the protagonist of Kurt Vonnegut’s semi-autobiographical novel, Slaughterhouse-Five, and through the book Vonnegut implies that his jumble of vicarious anecdotes of the war and science-fictional flights of fancy are no less than the only way he can describe what he saw. So, too, Newsom in Divers. (“The whole record is personal, but a lot of what is most personal is conveyed through pure fiction, or, sometimes, even science-fiction.”)3

Divers is well described as a “stack of slides” — two-dimensional, translucent things which, taken on their own, depict clear forms; yet these aural sheets of celluloid can be overlaid, obscuring the especial details of each while (in strong enough light) each layer makes the common parts clearer.

So, when we stack these three songs (“Anecdotes”, “Sapokanikan”, and “Waltz…”), what’s left after the debridement? At first glance, they follow the time-honoured schema of “past, present, future”. Or perhaps we should take cues from a former US Secretary of Defence. Speaking of the USA’s military intelligence concerning the weapons capabilities of Iraq (shortly before his country invaded theirs), Donald Rumsfeld popularised another trio: the (un)known (un)knowns. So, “Anecdotes” comes to us from the well-documented Great War (a known known); “Sapokanikan” acknowledges the lost kingdom of Ozymandias and its modern equivalents (known unknowns all); while “Waltz…” is pure, fantastical speculation — the history of the future will always be an unknown unknown.

In combination, these songs make us question accepted narratives of war. Why do we commemorate the wars we do? What have we forgotten? Are anecdotes of WWI any more reliable than those of WWIV?

Whenever the battles of Divers take place, Newsom clearly intends to tell us the human stories. In a work that features so much war, there are very few war machines — no laser guns, no spaceships. No atom bombs. One recalls Einstein’s creed: “I know not with what weapons World War III will be fought, but World War IV will be fought with sticks and stones.”1

On this train of thought, we return to “Sapokanikan” and the only victim of war namechecked in the album: John Purroy Mitchel. In a song stuffed with a plethora of historical references, it is notable that Mitchel’s potted biography takes almost half of the recording to recount. Newsom chooses to immortalise in verse this “boy” who deserves the honour just as much as any casualty of the Western Front. Leading by example, she shows that, while “the event is in the hand of God”, its legacy is in that one of whoever tells its story.