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“But If You Listen You Can Hear”: War Experience, Modernist Noise, and the Soundscape of The Forbidden Zone

Writing around War Experience

Interviewed by the BBC a half-century after his service in the Royal Welch Fusiliers, Robert Graves recalled the impossibility of relating his World War I experience to family in England:

Graves: [T]he idea of being and staying at home was awful because you were with people who didn’t understand what this was all about.

[Leslie] Smith: Didn’t you want to tell them?

Graves: You couldn’t: you can’t communicate noise. Noise never stopped for one moment—ever.[1]

Explaining the unbridgeable epistemological gap that the war erected between combat personnel and civilians, Graves articulates what is termed by James Campbell “‘combat gnosticism,’ the belief that combat represents a qualitatively separate order of experience that is difficult if not impossible to communicate to any who have not undergone an identical experience.”[2] On the one hand, there is the event of war posited as an object of knowledge that, far from a litany of dates, names, and battlefields, concerns instead the phenomenal character of being at war: its attendant perceptual experiences, bodily sensations, emotions, and moods. On the other is the intended knower. But someone who has never been to war, veterans such as Graves argue, cannot really “understand” it. When Graves claims that “you can’t communicate noise,” he is characterizing the isolating experience of being at war as an enveloping, sustained, extreme auditory experience that cannot be replicated in another setting and that, phenomenologically unavailable, is conceptually unavailable as well.

In what follows, I take noise as a crucial element in modernist writing’s attempts to negotiate the war experience gap that Graves and others assert. Noise, to hear Graves tell it, obstructs any account of war experience: “you can’t communicate noise.” But for authors invested in writing the experience of the Great War, communicating noise, I argue, becomes precisely the point, in two interlocking senses. First, war texts (even Graves’s own) relentlessly attempt the mimetic representation of war noise; second, noise itself is deployed in war literature as the key to decoding that which is incommunicable about war experience. Just as a cipher both encrypts and decrypts information, noise is in modernist war literature just as capable of providing a conceptual bridge across the war experience gap—of communicating—as it is of obstructing understanding.

In building this account of modernism’s depiction of war experience, I rely on a dual definition of noise. In a phenomenological sense, noise is simply discordant sound; in the cybernetic sense, noise is that which is coincidental, uncontrollable, and undesirable in a given information system.[3] In both of these formulations, noise is a nuisance. But modernist noise is also an opportunity: a mode of exploiting sonic and cybernetic irritants in order to decode a resonant world that defies descriptive synthesis.[4] Modernist noise’s internally oppositional character echoes the war literature into which it is woven—texts that actively resist, even as they explicitly admit, the existence of an epistemological gap between those with and those without war experience. In other words, the obstacle to and method of the communication of war experience—what war writing is like and how it works—are one and the same.

Portrait of Mary Borden from The Borzoi, 1920.

The Forbidden Zone, the novelist Mary Borden’s memoir of her years as a Great War nurse, first published in 1929, admits that the war experience gap is a problem for war writing, that its stories might be inaccessible to “those who have never heard for themselves the voice of the War.”[5] Still, Borden’s memoir works to acquaint its civilian audience with the experience of war by deploying noise in both its phenomenological and cybernetic forms. If for Graves the bare noise of war deadens communication, in Borden’s hands noise informs despite and through the impediment it represents. The Forbidden Zone’s sonic environment emphasizes both the material acoustic ecology of war—the noise of planes, bombardments, ambulances—and a set of metaphors built around the facts of the surrounding noise—injured men who “mew like kittens,” patients dragged from roiling battlefields as from the booming ocean onto a peaceful beach, men whose silent deaths suggest the possibility of hearing a departing soul flit through the air like a bird (44).[6] Borden’s metaphors are characterized by an uncannily incomplete synthesis of figures of war, nature, and domesticity. Refusing to resolve the terms of her metaphors into each other fully, Borden instead emphasizes the seams in her own rhetoric, employing a metaphoric structure that, in its jarring asymmetry, reflects the deracinating psychological violence of war experience back onto previously comfortable scenes of nature and domesticity. The choice to defamiliarize the very figures that ostensibly familiarize war introduces an intentional communicative insufficiency to Borden’s war writing that, I argue, is itself a mode of affective communication. Thus, The Forbidden Zone’s noisy metaphors function as one potential channel for transmitting what has seemed to others unutterable in the lived reality of war.

Resisting combat gnosticism as Borden does is not a politically neutral act. The claim that a civilian can never understand war is at once portable—serviceable to excusing an inability or disinclination to tell war stories, characterizing the alienating trauma of combat veterans, or arguing for or against military intervention—and proprietary. To say that someone who hasn’t been to war cannot understand it—in Susan Sontag’s pointed construction, “Can’t understand, can’t imagine”—forecloses connection in a way that both prevents the civilian world from processing its own war trauma and perpetuates the mystique of the warrior.[7] Undermining the idea of an experience gap that sits at the heart of combat gnosticism, as Borden’s noise-writing does, redistributes the ownership of war narratives, implicating the civilian as an equal partner in questions of war’s ethical, political, and social toll.

Borden’s modernist noise also has significant implications for the war nursing memoir. Operating within a genre that encourages authors to shrink into the background and become neutral conduits for stories of soldiers’ suffering, Borden asserts the primacy of her own experience. Reading Borden’s memoir through its use of noise restores the memoirist to a place of prominence in her own life-writing. Moreover, in providing a model for understanding and reacting to the gruesome, uncanny experience of the Great War, The Forbidden Zone reveals how the prominent subjectivity of the nurse, rather than presenting a distraction from the combat veteran, in fact facilitates the transmission of information from abject soldier to empathetic civilian audience, enfranchising the latter in conversations from which proponents of combat gnosticism exclude them. Structural echoes of each other, noise and the nurse appear in Borden’s modernist memoir as forms of mediation that link discourses of phenomenology and gender.

Noise, Modernism, War

Graves’s invocation of noise as a key factor in modern communication falls into a genealogy of artists who claim that noise is uniquely characteristic of modernity. Angela Frattarola has noted that “there is a heightened attention to sound and auditory experience in the modernist novel”; considering even a narrow sweep of modernist texts, this begins to look like something of an understatement.[8] In his 1913 “Art of Noises,” the Italian Futurist painter and composer Luigi Russolo agitated for the rise of a new noise aesthetic, arguing that mechanization had so spoiled the modern ear for “pure sound” (suono puro) that to inspire an emotional response in a modern audience an artist must turn to noise.[9] Russolo’s imperative bore fruit within and beyond Futurism, even as literary approaches to an art of noise reveal the difficulty of representing in text the experience of sound as continuous, immersive, and often indeterminatedly located—the basic possibility of transducing sound from first-order experience to viable, communicable information. Strategies for circumventing this difficulty tend toward a sort of conceptual onomatopoeia. Consider the noise of the Second Balkan War as recounted in F. T. Marinetti’s “Zang Tumb Tumb”:  

                        treno treno treno treno tren tron

            tron tron (ponte [di ferro: tatatluuun-

tlin sssssssiii ssiissii ssiisssssiiii[10]

—or the first appearance of James Joyce’s thunderwords in Finnegans Wake:


Each takes up and then quickly deforms the explicit language of a phenomenon into a phenomenological equivalent: Marinetti by gradually degrading the Italian word treno (“train”) into the sound of a train’s cars on a track (“treno tren tron / tron tron”), Joyce by stringing together the word “thunder” in a dozen or so languages until their accretion itself creates the rolling reverberation the words signify. In these instances, we move with Marinetti and Joyce from a noise to a concept and back again. This sideways investment in onomatopoeia reveals the breaks between hearing and recalling and writing and reading sound that call into question from another angle the communicability of noise.

If noise strains the limits of language and is thus a structural echo of war experience’s resistance to the same, it seems, perhaps unsurprisingly, a privileged way to convey war experience’s particularity. Graves’s own 1918 “Two Fusiliers” is a litany of things that marry a pair of soldiers in “lovely friendship.”[12] There is no need, Graves writes, for “pledge or oath” of friendship, for the two are bound “[b]y firmer stuff” than that, “[b]y all the misery and loud sound” that he later identifies as an insuperable obstacle to connection with the civilian world (7). But not all of war’s auditory misery can be so optimistically recuperated. As Siegfried Sassoon writes in his contemporaneous “Repression of War Experience”:

Hark! Thud, thud, thud—quite soft . . . they never cease—

Those whispering guns—O Christ, I want to go out

And screech at them to stop—I’m going crazy;

I’m going stark, staring mad because of the guns.[13]

After “[t]hud, thud, thud,” Sassoon abandons the sound of war in se, turning instead to Graves’s other descriptor of war noise—that it “never stopped for one moment.” Where Russolo looked for the redemption of music in noise and Marinetti and Joyce reveled in transforming language into noise and back again, Sassoon zeroes in on mental health. Each of these writers thus contributes to the matrix of trauma, sound, and art that Sara Haslam has recently claimed to be central to the modernist aesthetic: “[W]e need,” she writes, “to refocus attention on the ways that the experience of war, and therefore the development of modernism, were mediated through sound.”[14]

Borden provides a rich test case for the adjustment Haslam articulates, though it must be stressed that her aims and intended audience were not those of Joyce and the Futurists. On the first page of the first vignette of The Forbidden Zone, she assures her reader that the Front is somewhere safely “ahead of us,” out of sight over the horizon. “But if you listen,” she continues, “you can hear cataracts of iron pouring down channels in the sodden land” in the distance (7). Subscribing as she does to the idea that something about war might remain inexplicable, Borden constructs a memoir that nonetheless leverages phenomenological familiarity—as with the erosive pounding of a distant waterfall—to make a claim for access. Her modernist memoir does as much to parlay her highly individualized experiences into a generally accessible object of knowledge, to create a cultural understanding of war out of self-representation, as it does to highlight the mechanism by which such communication is achieved: the way retelling the experience of war is inevitably “mediated through.” What follows is a new reading of The Forbidden Zone—a text made possible in part by the fact of Borden’s proximity to the Front but that consistently avoids the experiential exceptionalism of the combat narrative proper—tracing in some depth the case she makes for her own authority to write the war, to construct a literary representation of “what [the war] was all about[,] . . . [n]oise [that] never stopped.”

Sounding Out War Experience: The Forbidden Zone

At the outbreak of World War I, Borden volunteered to staff, equip, and fund L’Hôpital Chirurgical Mobile No. 1, a mobile hospital unit operating under French authority. Borden, born into a wealthy Chicago family related both to Gail Borden, developer of condensed milk, and to Lizzie Borden, of bloodier fame, had moved to London in 1913, publishing two novels before the war under the pseudonym Bridget MacLagan. Borden spent much of the war following the French Army along the Western Front, nursing infantrymen and recording her time behind the front lines in a series of vignettes and poems. Austin Harrison at The English Review published a handful of these prose sketches and poems in 1916 and 1917, but the full collection proved too graphically violent for both French and English military censors. Given Borden’s refusal to edit out particularly brutal passages, the manuscript that would become The Forbidden Zone could not be published during the war. The memoir would be published by Heinemann, in revised form, only in 1929—the year that saw the publication of Erich Maria Remarque’s All Quiet on the Western Front, Graves’s Goodbye to All That, and Ernest Hemingway’s A Farewell to Arms. In the shadow of Remarque, Hemingway, and the men Paul Fussell would name “[a]ll three” of the war’s great English memoirists, Graves, [Edmund] Blunden, and Sassoon, Borden (along with other women war memoirists) was largely overlooked, achieving greater popular success first with a belle époque high-society roman à clef titled Jane, Our Stranger (1923) and later with the courtroom drama Action for Slander (1936), adapted into an Alexander Korda-backed film in 1937.[15] The Forbidden Zone itself fell out of print until a 2008 republication by Hesperus effected by feminist scholar Margaret Higonnet.[16

Title Page of The Forbidden Zone, Courtesy of Special Collections and University Archives, The University of Victoria, C. J. Fox Collection.

As it appeared in 1929, The Forbidden Zone comprises a preface (in the earlier, unpublished manuscript a “prefatory note”) followed by two parts. “Part One: The North” contains ten atmospheric vignettes and short stories; “Part Two: The Somme—Hospital Sketches” is made up of seven sketches of particular patients Borden treated or towns the mobile hospital passed through. Fictionalizing events from her own experience of the Great War, Borden turns The Forbidden Zone into a memoir not just of her own life in the military hospital, but also of “the poilus [French soldiers] who passed through our hands during the war” and to whom the work is dedicated (The Forbidden Zone, 3).   

But Borden is not entirely sanguine about her work’s communicative power. Comparison of the manuscript and published forms of The Forbidden Zone, especially, reveals how alive Borden was to the potential for a communicative gap between herself and readers with a less direct experience of the war. As Jane Conway, Borden’s most comprehensive biographer, remarks, the wartime manuscript’s “Prefatory Note” is substantially more personal than the published 1929 “Preface.” Borden’s changes did not simply make the preface, as Conway writes, “less raw.”[17] The original prefatory note takes upon itself the job of explaining the memoir’s project:

Week after week, month after month[,] . . . I lived within range of the cannon, with the roaring of guns sounding in my ears, with the piteous horror of the wounded, before my eyes—and above and beyond, the noise, the suffering, the confusion, I gradually became conscious of the War as a being, an essence, with a quality, as unique as the quality of a race, a country, or a person. This quality I have tried to convey. That it can be conveyed to those who have never heard for themselves the voice of the War, I am not sure. (“Prefatory Note,” 607)

When Borden most wants to define her memoir as communicating what might be understood only with difficulty from a civilian viewpoint, she falls back on the phenomenal experience of war. But such experience is not simply a matter of “the roaring of guns.” As Joyce and Marinetti tacked toward thick description of noise by transducing sound from phenomenon to explanatory language and back, Borden approaches war experience by degrees: it is, at first, sensory (“the wounded, before my eyes—and above and beyond, the noise”); next, it becomes an embodied “essence” that can be studied, categorized, and interacted with (“a country, or a person”); finally, it is again diffused into the phenomenal (“the voice of the War”). While this spiral reveals the inherent discursive difficulties of her project, Borden’s circling around war experience is also a journey of mediation. And with mediation comes uncertainty: where the sensory immediacy of Borden’s own war experience is figured as immersive and unavoidable, and where even “War as a being” retains some of the concrete physicality of, say, a person or country named War, the prefatory note’s resolution of war experience into a voice, even as it returns an auditory experience to an auditory medium, is imperfect. Borden leaves open the possibility that the voice, no matter how faithfully she replicates it, might ring as noise—as interference rather than information—in the ears of those without the same personal phenomenological history (“those who have never heard for themselves”).

The published 1929 preface removes this moment of uncertainty. Whereas the original note allowed for the possibility that her text might fail her reader, the revision shifts some responsibility for understanding the evidence she presents onto that reader: “To those who find these impressions confused,” Borden writes, “I would say that they are fragments of a great confusion. Any attempt to reduce them to order would require artifice on my part and would falsify them” (The Forbidden Zone, 3). As though in reaction to the conflict with censors that the manuscript provoked, the revised preface represents something more than a statement of purpose; it is a defense of the memoir’s most formally progressive moments—as well, perhaps, as its more violent ones. Indeed, the first words of the 1929 edition function as a defense of the accuracy of “the bare horror of facts” presented in the pages that follow: “I have not invented anything in this book. . . . I was incapable of a nearer approach to the truth.” Abandoning the original prefatory note’s direct invocations of the noise of war, Borden’s published preface and added prose pieces incorporate the inescapable presence of noise into their textual fabric, exposing the reader as nearly as possible to the manuscript’s “voice of War.”

The Forbidden Zone has received increasing attention in recent years, most extensively in Higonnet’s invaluable criticism. Jane Marcus notably names Borden as “a modernist, obviously influenced by Gertrude Stein,” whose works she carried with her to the Front.[18] Reiterating Marcus’s assertion, Laurie Kaplan has argued that Borden relies on “compulsive repetition . . . us[ing] repetitio as a rhetorical strategy to convey the boredom, dreariness, and monotony of the quotidian routine of war.”[19] I would argue that just as often, Borden uses rhythmic and rhetorical repetition to convey the pulsing energy of her environment and the frantic logic of war. “Mud,” she writes in the opening vignette, “Belgium,” “and a thin rain coming down to make more mud”:

Mud: with scraps of iron lying in it. . . . It is quiet here. The rain and the mud muffle the voice of the war that is growling beyond the horizon. But if you listen you can hear cataracts of iron pouring down channels in the sodden land, and you feel the earth trembling. . . . [M]ud, and a thin silent rain falling to make more mud—mud with things lying in it. (7)

Borden turns the seven appearances of “mud” in even this small excerpt from monotonous, deadening, repeated schwa (recall Sassoon’s “thud, thud, thud”) to a reverberating medium that has “lying in it” not only vehicles and bodies but also the sound of war itself, the noise of the unceasing guns “trembling” through the earth to places otherwise out of the reach of “cataracts of iron.”[20] Sound thus travels as much through mud as through air. Borden’s repetitio goes some way toward resolving one of the basic problems of writing war noise—portraying it with the continuity with which it is experienced. “Can the noise [of military pomp],” Borden soon asks, “the rhythmical beating of the drum . . . make [the soldiers] glad to be heroes? They have nowhere to go now and nothing to do. There is nothing but mud all about, and a soft fine rain coming down to make more mud” (8). With nowhere to go, in Borden’s telling, the entire French military apparatus grows ever more enveloped in mud, an acoustic medium that is not the life-sustaining air through which martial drumbeats might travel but muffling filth, the bolus of the natural world rising up and combining uncannily with the sounds of mechanized warfare.

Borden’s soundscape, replete with discord, is far too detailed and varied to be catalogued in full here. The auditory world of The Forbidden Zone features military bands whose music sounds pathetically like “the bleating of sheep,” an entire French territorial regiment reduced to “the dull sound of their feet tramping the road,” and a dying man’s body said to “hum and drum like a dynamo” (8, 22, 63).Where human sounds are often made ridiculous, fragmented, and mechanized, the noises of mechanized war take on qualities of the animate: an air raid siren rendered as “a scream burst[ing] from the throat of the church tower” and a “wail of terror rising from the great stone throat,” the klaxon of an approaching touring car described as “a scratching shriek”; in the hospital, which, like the dying man above, hums “like a dynamo,” boilers “whistl[e],” while outside the wind “howl[s]” and guns “grow[l]” (12–13, 96). Elsewhere, Borden notes that when the Germans shell positions behind the field hospital, “the big shells pass over the hospital screaming,” though in the vignette “The Priest and the Rabbi” an injured soldier recounts the noise of shelling as subtracting a human element from the soundscape rather than adding one to it: “Every now and then,” he says, “a shell would fall and a shower of shrapnel, and pht—some poor devil would stop groaning” (40, 107). Noise in these moments is presented on a spectrum of embodiment and personification that in fact highlights how ultimately disembodied it is; the auditory image of a great, wailing “stone throat” underscores particularly strongly the unassimilable inhumanity of even personified noise. “In the Operating Room,” which takes the form of a theatrical dialogue, begins with a stage direction that privileges the auditory: “The boiler is pounding and bubbling in the sterilising room. There is a noise of steam escaping, of feet hurrying down the corridor, of ambulances rolling past the windows, and behind all this, the rhythmic pounding of the guns bombarding at a distance of ten miles or so” (85). “In the Operating Room” thus explicitly foregrounds the unceasing background noises—the sounds made by unseen equipment, personnel, and the ever-present artillery—that would underlie The Forbidden Zone as a whole were literature as able as theatrical performance or cinema to represent the ongoing noises underneath the level of the narrative’s most direct attention.

As I have noted, The Forbidden Zone draws on noise both as auditory phenomenon—the mimetic representation of the disturbing sounds of war—and as cybernetic interference—an obstacle to the communication of information. The short story “Moonlight” provides a powerful example of how Borden wields both senses of noise to disorient, but ultimately enfranchise, the civilian readership of her war narrative. The seventh of the ten pieces in “The North,” “Moonlight” begins on a straightforwardly biographical note: “The cannonade is my lullaby. It soothes me. . . . If it stopped I could not sleep. I would wake with a start” (39). Conway writes that Borden in fact “grew so used to the accompaniment of shellfire” that, sent away from the Front on leave, she was kept awake at night by the silence of Paris (Woman of Two Wars, 48). But Borden’s attention to sound is more than an anecdote about habituation to familiar noise. “The thin wooden walls of my cubicle tremble and the windows rattle a little,” Borden writes. “That, too, is natural. It is the whispering of the grass and the scent of new-mown hay that makes me nervous” (The Forbidden Zone, 39–40). “That, too, is natural”: in the built environment of war, the rhythms of life are those of pounding three-inch guns and rattling windows, while the erstwhile natural world of growth and harvest is received as threatening interference.[21] Fussell notes that the literature of the First World War is frequently concerned with the relationship between war and nature: “If the opposite of war is peace,” he writes, “the opposite of experiencing moments of war is proposing moments of pastoral. Since war takes place outdoors and always within nature, its symbolic status is that of the ultimate antipastoral” (The Great War, 251). In “Moonlight,” Borden plays with and deforms the opposition of the natural and unnatural in wartime that Fussell would later take up. Even as her prose deploys the noise of war mimetically, Borden enacts a kind of narrative noise, swiftly and counterintuitively reordering of the categories of natural and unnatural. Defamiliarizing the pastoral as she employs it to familiarize combat, Borden capitalizes on the disturbance and discordance of noise to evoke the theater of war for a civilian audience.

One of the five prose pieces added to The Forbidden Zone for the published 1929 edition, “Moonlight” sees Borden retrospectively reorganizing narratives of wartime valor in response to an experience that forces her to wonder what is real and what is fantasy. In a totalizing realm in which “[t]he war is the world,” the realities of peacetime—or even of the civilian world during wartime, a world Borden denied herself—become sources of danger and anxiety (40). Better the terrors of war:

The little whimpering voice of a man who is going to die in an hour or two comes across the whispering grass from the hut next door. That little sound I understand. It is like the mew of a wounded cat. . . . Lying in my bed, I listen to the great, familiar, muttering voice of the war and to the feeble, mewing, whimpering voice of Life, the sick bad-tempered animal, and to the loud triumphant guttural shouts of Pain plying her traffic in the hut next to me. . . . Lovely night, . . . you are not true; you are not a part of the routine. You are a dream, an intolerable nightmare, and you recall a world that I once knew in a dream. The mewing voice of the wounded cat dying in the shed next door to me is true. (39–41)

Over the indistinct, bass womb-noise of the guns, Borden layers the opposing sonic contributions of Life and Pain. Life makes its pathetic appearance in the thready whimpers of dying men in the medical hut next door; Pain, deep and explosive, echoes war in a voice both crassly eroticized (“plying her traffic”) and subtly villainized through its Teutonic gutturals. Yet the most telling sonic engagement in the story is not with these grandiose avatars, given life and voice by the men in the medical tent, but with the utterances of a single, anonymous patient—the “man who is going to die.”

The man appears five times in the story’s seven pages, in each instance through the sound of his dying. His first incursion into the soundscape establishes an abiding analogy: his voice is “like the mew of a wounded cat.” Borden’s simile is designed to convey a functional correspondence between two sounds: over the distance between huts, and through the interference presented by both the mechanized and pastoral soundscapes, this man’s whimpers of pain resemble those of a cat. The representation begins straightforwardly, but Borden’s simile is far from stable; the content of the analogy persists, but its rhetorical form shifts even over the course of the quotation above. By the man’s second appearance, he has been entirely absorbed by his analog, and what was before a man who sounded like a mewing cat has become “the wounded cat dying in the shed next door to me.” In a story that sees Borden renegotiating her relationship to the war through a consideration of “true” and “dream” sounds, this transition from explicit simile to hypocatastasis is consequential. From an individual infantryman, the dying man turns into a pitiful creature; from an individual agent and victim of war’s destruction, he turns into a moral innocent (provided one does not think a cat can commit a war crime). Perhaps most telling, Borden’s figure for the wounded soldier is a domesticated animal. “That little sound I understand,” Borden writes, echoing her “[t]hat, too, is natural” and reinforcing a pattern, in “Moonlight” as in The Forbidden Zone more broadly, of using domestic rhetoric, frequently flagged as “natural” or otherwise proper, both to represent war and to highlight the aberrance of war experience.

A Party of Mabel St Clair Stobart's Medical Staff Leaving for First World War Service, Courtesy of Wellcome Library, London.

As the man emerges and reemerges in “Moonlight,” his representation and the nurse’s sense of responsibility for him fluctuate. “The sick man is still mewing,” she notes next, and his rhetorical return to humanity seems to recall her to her duty: “I must go to him. I am afraid to go to him” (43). She does not go to him. Rather, her brush with the soldier’s humanity—a moment of clarity that seems entirely involuntary—and her violent retraction from the impulse to tend to him (“I cannot bear to go across the whispering grass and find him in the arms of his monstrous paramour [Pain]”) sends Borden back toward the figurative (43). “Listen. Do you hear him? He is still mewing like a cat,” she writes, “but very faintly, and the trees are still murmuring” (45). The soldier’s dying gasps are again likened to those of a cat, but notably without either direct invocation of the man’s humanity (as above, with “the sick man”) or a recurrence of the impulse to nurse him. Instead, the speaker’s quiet horror at the soundscape reappears (“the trees are still murmuring”). Two paragraphs later, as the story draws to a close, the soldier is decisively effaced: “Listen! The whimpering mew of the wounded cat has stopped. There’s not a sound except the whisper of the wind in the grass” (46). In this last iteration, the mew itself takes the position of the subject, removing the figure still further from the catlike man—now dead—from whom the sound had emanated. The pathetic sound of one of the war’s victims diffuses into the sound of the natural environment of war—a whimper resolving into a whisper.

A brief return to Graves highlights the original contribution Borden’s conceptual blending makes to Great War writing, even as it puts her in conversation with a broader discourse surrounding war’s domestic analogues. “A Child’s Nightmare,” a late poem in Fairies and Fusiliers (published during the decade between The Forbidden Zone’s conception and publication), tells of a man whose war trauma has reawakened his recurring childhood nightmare of a beast,

gigantic, formless, queer,

Purring in my haunted ear

. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .

Saying for ever, “Cat! . . .  Cat! . . . Cat! . . .” (67–69; suspension points in original)

A version of the “Cat!” refrain ends each stanza, and the poem closes with the soldier’s assertion that on his death, “shot through heart and head,” “The last word [he]’ll hear, no doubt,” will not be orders shouted by superiors or medics, “[b]ut a voice cruel and flat / Saying for ever, ‘Cat! . . . Cat! . . . Cat! . . .’” (69). Graves’s version of feline repetitio takes the name of the beast, rather than the sound it makes, as its object; his “Cat!” is more staccato, more martial than Borden’s “mew.” At once domestic and uncanny, Graves’s noise blurs time, blending boy and man, dream and truth, the natural and the something beyond. In “Moonlight,” Borden follows much the same track but shifts the hearing ear from soldier to nurse, from the idiosyncratic manifest content of a soldier’s dream to the nurse’s imaginative overlay of a domestic scene on the external auditory phenomenon of a man’s suffering moans. Borden’s noise is hers, not his.[22]

In “Moonlight,” that noise is found not only in Borden’s description of the mewing soldier but also in the conceptual structure of the story’s guiding metaphors. Recall that, even as the narrator of “Moonlight” rejects the “intolerable nightmare” of a peaceful pastoral world, her description consistently returns to some version of domestic intimacy. Of the mewing soldier she notes, “I go on duty at midnight, and he will die and go to Heaven soon after, lulled to sleep by the lullaby of the guns” (39). There is something of the nursery in the insistence that the soldier will “die and go to Heaven”; even before Borden’s invocation of cradlesong she is assuring her reader, as one might a child, of the immortality of the man’s soul. The hybridization of this familiar scene with another—that of the soldier as mewing cat—results in an unsettling, surreal blend of domestic analogues: when the man’s soul leaves his body, Borden writes, it will, catlike, “run lightly over the whispering grasses” and “leap through the velvety dark” before its final ascent to heaven (41–42).

On the heels of this circuitous track, we find an unadorned truth claim: “I know this is true. I know it must be true” (42). Borden’s insistent return to “mud” in “Belgium” telegraphed the quivering continuity of war noise, but here her repetitio is itself a form of cybernetic noise: the nurse’s repeated protestation telegraphs some skepticism that everything above—the feline soldier, the sinister grasses and trees, the purring personification of Pain—is “true.” The story thus sets up an opposition between the historical reality of war and the composed reality of narrative, until at last the intuited categories of fact and narrative are reversed—the “true” describes a man’s gradual metamorphosis into a cat, while what might ordinarily be thought of as the story’s factually pastoral setting is rendered as nightmare. In this transformation, the attempt to bridge the war experience gap through language evocative of hearth and home resolves at every turn into an uncanny bisociation of waking and dream narrative, combat and civilian life.

Borden devotes considerable energy to synthesizing the radically unfamiliar experience of the Western Front with familiar pastoral and domestic soundscapes while allowing the unsettling remainder of that synthesis to linger. The first vignette of the memoir’s second part, “The Somme,” condenses the figurative movement in evidence in “Moonlight” into a brief, five-page description of “The City in the Desert.” Borden drops her reader into this mysterious city without explanation. “H.O.E. 32 must be the name of the place,” Borden writes, “but why such a name? What does it mean?” (74).[23] Stubbornly refusing to identify the place as a military hospital, Borden instead insists on calling it a “new city . . . here in the wet desert” (74–75), in which “[s]ilent men in couples are carrying heavy bundles between them from one shed to the other” and “[t]here’s a noise of distant booming as if the sea were breaking against [the surrounding hills’] sides” (73). The noise of something that is not quite the sea spirals outward, affording Borden a flight of fancy that delays a confrontation with the awful truth of the field hospital: “If the booming noise beyond the hills were the roar of waves breaking, one would say that these old men were gangs of beachcombers, bringing up bundles of wreckage; that they go across the mud under cover of the night to hunt in the backwash” (75). The figurative steps from the inescapable soundscape of artillery fire to a picturesque beach scene are simple and direct, and make the eventual revelation that the bundles in fact contain men, “lost men, wrecked men . . . washed up against the shore of this world again by the great backwash,” men brought to the city in the desert “to have their bodies cut again with knives and their deep wounds probed with pincers,” all the more terrible for its jarring discord with the prevailing beach metaphor (76–77).

Borden’s troubled insistence on the “truth” of the sonic journey in “Moonlight” and the persistence of her seemingly maladroit figurative language map onto the apparent irresolvability of the memoir’s concurrent ethical questions. What is the war nurse’s immediate responsibility toward her patients? And in war’s aftermath, what is the nurse memoirist’s testimonial responsibility to herself, her patients, and her audience? On the one hand, “Moonlight” denies the pastoral, positioning it as an insidious dream of beauty and peace that estranges the nurse from her own work amid destruction and death. On the other, the text reports on the war zone in a manner that connects it, via the language of domestic idyll, to a civilian readership’s immediate environment. Rather than being baldly familiarizing, this connection is deliberately unmooring, its use of comforting metaphor to convey the pain and confusion of the war experience at once mediating and estranging, and in that is a structural echo of what I have termed modernist noise, which leverages discomfort to supply information.

Borden thus recasts the war experience gap as an epistemological impasse that nonetheless, given the proper mediator, might not be as intractable as Graves would have us believe. Two such mediators are at play in The Forbidden Zone: noise and the figure of the nurse. Noise takes on a disembodied, almost hallucinatory character that plays into Borden’s deracinating metaphoric structures. Borden’s noise coats and confuses the senses, standing in the way of a straightforward narrative of war, but in so doing reveals the truth of the “great confusion” of war experience. The nurse, echoing the constructively obstructionist character of modernist noise, redirects the reader’s attention from the pure suffering of the injured soldier. But even as she refuses to step out of her patients’ spotlight, the nurse provides a model for a listener who might engage with their suffering more completely for witnessing the confusion, perhaps even the meaninglessness, of the violence done them. Whether or not Borden’s work to close the war experience gap would satisfy a combat veteran, The Forbidden Zone presents a strong challenge to combat gnosticism.

Listening to the Nurse’s Text

Reading noise in Borden expands our understanding of how modernist literature takes up the constitutive experience of war and creates from it a broadly accessible cultural understanding of a fundamentally alien experience. But this reading has another effect. As Borden informs through distortion, she recasts the war experience gap as a gendered empathy gap. If Borden’s noisy metaphors contest Graves’s assertion that noise, and thereby war, cannot be communicated, The Forbidden Zone contradicts a second strain in his insistence that “you can’t communicate noise”: the idea that there is on the one hand an accredited epistemological community made up of those who can be said to have access to an authentic experience—and therefore a genuine understanding—of war, and on the other hand narrative interlopers (the “you” in Graves’s imprecation, if we perhaps modulate his emphasis slightly). This is a well-trodden site of contestation for scholars of modernist war literature. Over the past two decades, the study of women’s war writing has been heavily invested in disentangling what Higonnet identifies as the “conflation of war with combat” responsible for the disparagement of women’s literature of war experience, arguing instead, as does Ariela Freedman, that “dividing the front of war writers along gendered lines is insufficient.”[24]

As writers such as Borden, Brittain, and Ellen La Motte—who nursed for Borden’s ambulance unit—have received increasing attention, memoirs of war nursing have become an ever-expanding topic of study. But as much as the inclusion of female war narratives represents a critical expansion of the canon of war literature, their discussion has sprung from, and to a large extent continues to follow, a set of standard patterns of thought about how women’s war writing goes about balancing the experience of women as individual subjects against the experience of active-duty soldiers and the world-historical experience of war. Against this tendency, I would note that personal narratives by female war nurses make unique demands of narrative empathy. In the most general sense, as Higonnet writes, the animating problem of the genre is that of reconciling “self-control and technical efficiency” with “emotional investment and the threat of hysteria” (Nurses at the Front, xvii). Or, as Kaplan has it, “the arc of action in what has been called ‘the nurse’s text’ develops when women face head on the extremes of physical and psychological trauma of trench warfare while simultaneously projecting an image of efficiency, competence, and intelligence” (“Deformities,” 35).

The propulsive force of women’s war writing, for Kaplan and others, springs from the conflict between a desire to maintain a long-idealized image of the war nurse and the felt responsibility to communicate the experience of war in all its unassimilable violence. Kaplan goes on to note that war nurses’ writings “challenge assumptions about what is ‘appropriate’ for the woman writer to take on in terms of form, content, imagery, and realism,” over and above the government censorship they frequently faced (“Deformities,” 35).[25] Contemporary reviews of The Forbidden Zone certainly took issue with Borden’s content. Cyril Falls, who seems concerned simultaneously that Borden’s memoir does not constitute an accurate portrait of war and that it does, wrote in 1929 that Borden’s hospital scenes were “dreadful” though powerfully rendered: “It is perhaps right that this aspect of war should be made clear to the public which knows nothing of it, but there is some risk that the fashion in which the subject is handled will make it appear that the hospital was for the wounded a place of horror rather than of relief.”[26] Falls lauds the educational mission of Borden’s work, but he bemoans its major tools in wishing that her stories included less of what is “horrible to laymen”—that they were not so noisy.[27]

Even in Kaplan’s able definition of the form, there persists a telling ambiguity: whose “physical and psychological trauma” do these women war writers face? Is an efficient, competent, and intelligent self-presentation made difficult purely because of a nurse-writer’s emotional investment in her patient, her vicarious horror at witnessing the destructive power of trench warfare? Or can “the nurse’s text” also act as a record of her own trauma—of the suffering of a woman who, though rarely in the same physical danger as the men she treats, faces the horrors of war firsthand while working steadily to ensure there will be soldiers to continue the fight, perpetuating the casualties she must face by the very work of healing? In a general sense, to question the attribution of trauma in the nurse’s text is to ask where the war nurse falls on a spectrum running from civilian to soldier and of what experience she is thereby authorized to offer testimony.

Mary Borden Working at Field Hospital in France

If, again on Kaplan’s reading, the works of male war writers such as Hemingway, Remarque, and Sassoon “seem less concerned with how to write about physical wounding”—and, by extension, the fates of individual soldiers—“than how to describe in general the effect of the war and war wounds on survivors and society,” female war writers are expected to concern themselves precisely with the individual victim, to demonstrate an ability to feel for the patients they describe (“Deformities,” 39).[28] More often than not, to comply with this expectation is to become the conduit of that victim’s trauma, channeling its narrative to a broader audience and largely disappearing in the process. As Carol Acton and Jane Potter have argued, the ideology that dictates that the nurse’s text be populated primarily by “narratives of resilience,” designed to boost the morale both of the caregiver and of her charges, in practice “often stood in the way of medics claiming a place at the center of the narratives emerging from [the Great War] or encouraged them to remain silent about their own suffering.”[29] In many senses, The Forbidden Zone is a model of the empathetic nurse’s text. But despite that empathy, the trauma of war, in Borden’s telling, is not solely the purview of the male soldier.

Sounding out The Forbidden Zone reveals how deeply noise is constitutive of, rather than incidental to, this repudiation of the soldier’s monopoly on war trauma. “Conspiracy,” a three-page meditation in the second part of The Forbidden Zone, highlights Borden’s horror at the revolving door of war nursing:

[W]e send our men to the war again and again, just as long as they will stand it; just until they are dead, and then we throw them into the ground. . . . It is only ten kilometres up the road, the place where they go to be torn again and mangled. Listen; you can hear how well it works. There is the sound of the cannon and the sound of the ambulances bringing the wounded, and the sound of the tramp of strong men going along the road to fill the empty places. (79–81)

Again, Borden figures the trauma of war in a stark repetitio of sound. Yet it is the nurse rather than the gunner, the ambulance driver, or the infantryman who acts as the antenna for the soundscape, the nurse who, as she does several times in “Moonlight,” bids her audience, “Listen.” Foregrounding the nurse’s perspective, “Moonlight” validates her idiosyncratic auditory phenomenology of war at the expense of a fuller narration of the dying soldier’s plight. The reality of patient care drops away, and the nurse’s experience—her experience of living through and listening to war—becomes the necessary mediator for a public who, like the nurse herself, cannot see the action at the Front. In Borden’s version of the nurse’s text, sound fills the vacuum left by the failure of visual witnessing to affirm the nurse’s experience: noise recuperates a broken gaze.

An early vignette, “The Regiment,” echoes Acton’s description of “a traumatic witnessing where events cannot be wholly seen or understood, nor can they be fully conceptualized by the observer/participant”:[30]

She opened the door of the motor and put out her white foot and stepped down, and her delicate body dressed in the white uniform of a hospital was exposed to the view of the officers of the regiment. . . . She was a beautiful animal dressed as a nun and branded with a red cross. Her shadowy eyes said to the regiment: “I came to the war to nurse you and comfort you.” . . . Her red mouth said to the officers: “I am here for you.” And the officers said: “We know why you are here.” (The Forbidden Zone, 28)

If in “Moonlight” it is ultimately the soldier, not the nurse, who is gradually eroded, here Borden registers the basic threat to a nurse’s subjectivity as she enters a war zone dominated by a very specific mythos. “The Regiment” narrativizes the struggle for primacy between the individual nurse’s experience of war and the demands imposed on her by her work precisely by narrating a failure to be “wholly seen.” Rather, the nurse here is fragmented along several axes. First, she breaks into the “foot,” “body,” “uniform,” “eyes,” and “mouth” that silently transmit and receive messages across the square. Next, she resolves into a series of figures that highlight the complicated meaning the regiment reads in her: the objectified and potentially sexualized “animal,” the revered and unsexed “nun,” and finally the meeting of the transgressed/transgressing object and religious mother figure in the symbol of the nurse, “branded with a red cross.” Fragmented, too, is the idea of the nurse’s role in the war: her “I am here for you,” ostensibly as a source of empathetic comfort and medical succor, is met with a peremptory “We know why you are here,” ringing as a challenge to her claim to determination of her own value and function in the war zone. In these various divisions, war’s violence extends from soldier to nurse, reifying her conflicted, definitively gendered subjectivity. Borden may not fear dissolution by bomb, but disintegration by gaze—as Acton has it, a breakdown “into partially seen and incompletely comprehended images”—is never far off (“Diverting the Gaze,” 70).[31]

It is the insufficiency of the soldiers’ gaze to the complete and independent subjectivity of the nurse, I submit, that accounts for the minimization of the external visual emphasis evident in “The Regiment” in the remainder of The Forbidden Zone. In a later story, as a priest prays over the “Enfant de Malheur” [“child of misfortune”], a dying infantryman to whom Borden and her staff have come to be particularly attached, Borden notes that the priest’s “words came to my ears like the soft raps of a small muffled hammer, hammering away, hammering and hammering” (59).[32] If “The Regiment” revealed the inadequacy of the gaze to account for the nurse’s war experience, here the limitations of the nurse’s own hearing threaten to erode her account from within. She has absented herself from the dying man’s side, going about her rounds among the surrounding beds, and she is not privy to the content of the priest’s prayers. All she can tell us is that the priest was “talking with a breathless intensity, saying apparently the same thing over and over, as if he were trying to drive home into that maddened brain a single important fact” (58). Borden’s nurse is by no means the character with the highest degree of access to the scene. Her distance from the bed, her exhaustion, and her dread at the unfolding events seem to have depleted her auditory sensitivity, inhibiting her finer sense perception in favor of the muffled, repetitive “hammer, hammering . . . hammering and hammering.” But it is again from the nurse’s perspective, rather than the soldier’s or the priest’s, that the reader experiences the moment. The content of the priest’s repetitio, the identity of that “single important fact,” remain unknown to an audience inhabiting the nurse’s mediating subjectivity through what she hears.

Read through its soundscape, The Forbidden Zone thus falls somewhere between the standard combat narrative of a strong male protagonist with sweeping ideological concerns and the empathetic nurse’s text. It ends by stretching expectations of both forms. For Higonnet, writers such as Borden and La Motte argue “that nursing must be a kind of resistance to the physical and spiritual destruction wrought by war”; at once taking on the role of physical and psychic custodian and working to destabilize propagandistic accounts of the war, they enable their readers’ “understanding of war as a social trauma” (Nurses at the Front, xx–xxi). That understanding in turn opens a dialogue about psychic injuries that has the potential to extend the nurse’s capacity for healing from the direct and isolating experience of war to the secondary, collective experience of war writing.

In Borden’s hands, the nurse’s text models a relation with a traumatic event that resists effacing the recording witness: The Forbidden Zone testifies to a war experience in which the nurse-witness herself is doubly, if differently, traumatized—once by participating in war’s violence via the practice of healing and once by recording that violence, even years after the event. The force of The Forbidden Zone rests in its refusal to allow the nurse to be divided up and parceled out by the regimental gaze or tucked away in the story of entrenched infantrymen. Borden’s work thus validates a form of war trauma that does not depend on having fought in the trenches but instead allows for the possibility that a noncombatant might engage intimately with war experience. Just as noise remains noise even when useful, Borden’s prominent nurse figure is a barrier to the traditionally direct flow of information from combatant character to civilian reader even as she facilitates communication. Redirecting the war narrative’s attention and energy, Borden’s obstructionist nurse presents a new opportunity for communicating war experience. Refusing to efface herself in the service of evoking sympathy for wounded men, Borden implicates the reader not in empathizing with war’s victims as such, but in experiencing the deracinating effects of total war through her own ears.


[1] “The Great Years of their Lives—Robert Graves, Brigadier C. E. Lucas Phillips, Henry Williamson and Lord Chandos Talk to Leslie Smith about the First World War,” Listener, July 15, 1971, 73–75, 74.

[2] James Campbell, “Combat Gnosticism: The Ideology of First World War Poetry Criticism,” New Literary History 30, no. 1 (1999): 203–15, 203. A modulated version of Graves’s concern can be found in Walter Benjamin’s oft-cited claim that “at the end of the war . . . men returned from the battlefield grown silent—not richer, but poorer in communicable experience” (“The Storyteller: Reflections on the Works of Nikolai Leskov,” in Illuminations, trans. Harry Zohn [Hammersmith: Fontana, 1992], 83–107, 84).

[3] These definitions of “noise” are both in evidence in the OED, though the latter is relegated to the status of an “extended use”: “Sound; the aggregate of sounds occurring in a particular place or at a particular time; (also) disturbance caused by sounds, discordancy, (in early use) esp. disturbance made by voices; shouting, outcry. . . . In scientific and technical use: random or irregular fluctuations or disturbances which are not part of a signal (whether the result is audible or not), or which interfere with or obscure a signal. . . . Also (in extended use): distortions or additions which interfere with the transfer of information” (OED Online, December 2016, s.v., “noise, n.” 1a, 11a).

[4] In his pivotal Noise, Water, Meat: A History of Sound in the Arts (Cambridge: MIT Press, 1999), Douglas Kahn writes that “of all the emphatic sounds of modernism, noise is the most common and the most productively counterproductive” (20).

[5] Mary Borden, “Prefatory Note,” Modernism/modernity 16, no. 3 (2009): 607. See Mary Borden, The Forbidden Zone (London: William Heinemann., 1929); all quotations in this article derive from the recent reissue (London: Hesperus Press, 2008).

[6] In contradistinction to literary attempts to describe the soundscape of war that employ what has been termed “battle music,” using the conceptual framework of musical language to communicate the chaos and horror of combat (F. T. Marinetti’s Zang Tumb Tumb, for instance, prominently features dynamic indications taken from music), The Forbidden Zone’s soundscape is alienating, phobic, delirious, and thoroughly non-musical (Cecil Barber, “Battle Music,” Musical Times 59, no. 899 [1918]: 25–26, 25). For a sensitive discussion of Barber’s reading of the impact of World War I on contemporary music, see Josh Epstein, Sublime Noise: Musical Culture and the Modernist Writer (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2014), xvi–xvii; on the unmooring potential of the specifically non-musical soundscape, see Drew Daniel, “All Sound is Queer,” The Wire 333 (2011): 43–46.

[7] Susan Sontag, Regarding the Pain of Others (New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2003), 126, emphasis added.

[8] Angela Frattarola, “Developing an Ear for the Modernist Novel: Virginia Woolf, Dorothy Richardson and James Joyce,” Journal of Modern Literature 33, no. 1 (2009): 132–53, 132.

[9] Luigi Russolo, L’Arte dei rumori (Milan: Edizione Futuriste di “Poesia,” 1916), 10. Where I distinguish between sound and noise as counterpoised terms in modernist auditory topography, Russolo’s manifesto pairs mechanical, natural, and otherwise incidental “noises” (rumori) and “pure sound” against a third term: the organized chaos of his “art of noises” performed by an orchestra of “noise makers” (intonarumori), custom noise-making instruments with which he put on a handful of ill-received performances in Milan during the First World War (10, 8).

[10] F. T. Marinetti, Zang Tumb Tumb (Milan: Edizione Futuriste di “Poesia,” 1914), 35.

[11] James Joyce, Finnegans Wake, ed. Robbert-Jan Henkes, Erik Bindervoet, and Finn Fordham (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2012), 3.15–17.

[12] Robert Graves, “Two Fusiliers,” in Fairies and Fusiliers (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1918), 7.

[13] Siegfried Sassoon, “Repression of War Experience,” in Counter-attack and Other Poems (New York: E. P. Dutton, 1918), 52–53, 53; suspension points in original.

[14] Sara Haslam, “The ‘Moaning of the World’ and the ‘Words that Bring Me Peace’: Modernism and the First World War,” in The Edinburgh Companion to Twentieth-Century British and American War Literature, ed. Adam Piette and Mark Rawlinson (Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 2012), 47–57, 49. Certainly, then, modernism is noisy to the extent that it has some of its roots in the soundscape of mechanized war. But just as noise must be taken not only as phenomenal discordancy but also as informational interference, to attend to modernist noise is not only to catalog onomatopoesis but also to analyze the prevailing informational system within which some element of a signal is defined as noise rather than useful input. The dependence of the concept of noise on a contextualizing order against which it reads as chaos is highlighted most forcefully by Jacques Attali, who proclaims that “[w]ith noise is born disorder and its opposite: the world” (Noise: The Political Economy of Music, trans. Brian Massumi [Manchester: Manchester University Press, 1985], 6). Juan Suárez has written more recently that noise “is another name for the otherness that modernism, as an art of practice, discovered. . . . Modernism and the everyday life of modernity were actually full of noise: not only the clang of machinery and the din of traffic . . . but also occurrences and recesses that simply refused to yield sense” (Pop Modernism: Noise and the Reinvention of the Everyday [Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 2007], 8).

[15] Paul Fussell, The Great War and Modern Memory (1975; rpt. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2013), 79.

[16] Higonnet’s Nurses at the Front: Writing the Wounds of the Great War (Boston: Northeastern University Press, 2001) had previously republished selections from the work, alongside excerpts of Ellen La Motte’s The Backwash of War.

[17] Jane Conway, Mary Borden: A Woman of Two Wars (Chippenham: Munday Books, 2010), 149.

[18] Jane Marcus, “Corpus/Corps/Corpse: Writing the Body in/at War,” afterword to Not So Quiet . . . Stepdaughters of War (1930), by Helen Zenna Smith (New York: The Feminist Press at the City University of New York, 1989), 241–93, 247. Margaret Higonnet’s work includes “Telling Trauma: Women and World War I,” in Savoirs et littérature (Paris: Presses Sorbonne Nouvelle, 2002), 123–36; “Authenticity and Art in Trauma Narratives of World War I,” Modernism/modernity 9, no. 1 (2002): 91–107; and “The Great War and the Female Elegy: Female Lamentation and Silence in Global Contexts,” The Global South 1, no. 2 (2007): 120–36. See also Jennifer Breen, “Representations of the ‘Feminine’ in First World War Poetry,” Critical Survey 2, no. 2 (1991): 169–75, and Nosheen Khan, “Mary Borden’s ‘Unidentified’ and W. B. Yeats’s ‘The Second Coming,’” ANQ 4, no. 1 (1991): 20–21, 20. While I remain suspicious of some of Borden’s more recent champions’ tendency to use the identification of modernist technique and influence as shorthand for literary value, I join them in characterizing The Forbidden Zone as a modernist text.

[19] Laurie Kaplan, “Deformities of the Great War: The Narratives of Mary Borden and Helen Zenna Smith,” Women and Language 27, no. 2 (2004): 35–43, 36. Kaplan adds Ford Madox Ford (a friend of Borden and her first husband), Wyndham Lewis (for whom Borden acted as both benefactress and lover before the war), and Virginia Woolf to her list of artistic influences on The Forbidden Zone; for her part, Gertrude Stein, whom Borden would meet in Paris during the war, remarks that “Mary Borden-Turner had been and was going to be a writer. . . . Mary Borden was very Chicago and Gertrude Stein was immensely interested in her and in Chicago” (Stein, The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas [New York: Vintage, 1990], 170).

[20] The excerpt also obviously calls on the haptic; for helpful work on the role of touch in texts such as Borden’s, see Santanu Das, “‘The impotence of sympathy’: Touch and Trauma in the Memoirs of the First World War Nurses,” Textual Practice 19, no. 2 (2005): 239–62; Das, Touch and Intimacy in First World War Literature (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2005).

[21] Borden’s lullaby of the guns runs counter to David Trotter’s characterization of the sound of the large guns as “a primary terror for the soldier in the trenches” (Trotter, “The British Novel and the War,” in The Cambridge Companion to the Literature of the First World War, ed. Vincent Sherry [Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2005], 34–56, 38).

[22] In being “hers,” Borden’s noise shares some of the functionality that Patricia Meyer Spacks attributes to gossip (itself largely gendered feminine): “Gossip’s way of telling can project a different understanding of reality from that of society at large, even though gossip may claim to articulate the voice of the community. A rhetoric of inquiry, gossip questions the established” (Spacks, Gossip [New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1985], 46). That said, outside the appearance of Pain in “Moonlight” as a figure of military prostitution, I think it is difficult to see the noise in Borden’s writing as itself explicitly gendered.

[23] Borden’s H.O.E. 32 is likely the evacuation hospital [l’Hôpital d’Évacuation] at Mont-Notre-Dame in Picardy.

[24] Margaret R. Higonnet, “Another Record: A Different War,” Women’s Studies Quarterly 23, nos. 3–4 (1995): 85–96, 86; emphasis in original. Ariela Freedman, “Mary Borden’s Forbidden Zone: Women’s Writing from No-Man’s-Land,” Modernism/modernity 9, no. 1 (2002): 109–24, 112. Samuel Hynes, whose A War Imagined: The First World War and English Culture is for Higonnet exemplary of such conflations, has argued that “[w]ar—any war—is for women an inevitably diminishing experience. There is . . . nothing like the war experiences of men for making clear the exclusion of women from life’s great excitements” (A War Imagined: The First World War and English Culture [London: Bodley Head, 1990], 379; cited in Higonnet, “Another Record,” 86). What Hynes overlooks, as critics such as Higonnet and James Longenbach have argued, is that the experience of war must be understood in terms more capacious than those of the direct experience of battle. See Longenbach, “The Women and Men of 1914,” in Arms and the Woman: War, Gender, and Literary Representation, ed. Helen M. Cooper, Adrienne Munich, and Susan Merrill Squier (Chapel Hill: The University of North Carolina Press, 1989), 97–123.

[25] As a fundamental conflict between representation and propriety, this can be seen to shadow women’s writing on a larger scale. Indeed, those averse to the nurse’s text on the grounds of its unseemliness might be further unsettled by Florence Nightingale, founder of modern nursing, who reminds her reader that “[e]very woman, or at least almost every woman, in England has, at one time or another of her life, charge of the personal health of somebody, whether child or invalid,—in other words, every woman is a nurse” (Notes on Nursing: What It Is, and What It Is Not [London: Harrison, 1859], 3).

[26] Cyril Falls, “The Forbidden Zone,” Times Literary Supplement, December 5, 1929, 1030.

[27] Cyril Falls, War Books: An Annotated Bibliography of Books about the Great War, ed. R. J. Wyatt (1930; rpt. London: Greenhill Books, 1989), 267.

[28] Higonnet advances a compelling motive for conforming to these expectations: “While men’s experimental forms and hyperrealism about their wartime experience have been praised for their transgressions and bitter ironies, the impropriety of shocking descriptions and open-ended structures in texts by women has led critics to characterize them as inartistic ‘commercial opportunists’” (“Another Record,” 87).

[29] Carol Acton and Jane Potter, “‘These frightful sights would work havoc with one’s brain’: Subjective Experience, Trauma, and Resilience in First World War Writings by Medical Personnel,” Literature and Medicine 30, no. 1 (2012): 61–85, 78, 81.

[30] Carol Acton, “Diverting the Gaze: The Unseen Text in Women’s War Writing,” College Literature 31, no. 2 (2004): 53–79, 62.

[31] Compare Borden’s earlier description of the regiment itself: “Their gait was the steady jolting gait of weary animals. . . . They did not look quite like men, and yet they were men. Nor did they behave like men . . . and yet they assuredly were men. I saw in their eyes that they were men” (The Forbidden Zone, 23).

[32] This language is particularly evocative in light of an earlier story in the collection, “The Beach,” in which the sound of distant shelling at sea is described as “the sound of a distant hammer tapping” (37).