In this remarkably clear and gracious book, the H.D. scholar Eileen Gregory argues for a new understanding of H.D.'s hellenism, one that would place H.D.'s complex intertextuality of classical allusions and references within the context of competing "fictions of classicism" swirling around the literary communities of the early 20th century. The stakes were high, involving nothing less than the "direct transmission" of inheritance for what in Western Anglo-American and European literary traditions often stood in for the highest examples of valor, virtue and moral character. "H.D.," Gregory writes, "certainly knew what she was up against in entering, even as an amateur, the domains of traditional classicism . . . . She fully understood the violent discontinuities within classical transmission, coming in part from the political and religious biases: the gradual removal, even deliberate destruction, of manuscripts (lyric/erotic poetry) thought to be indecent or heretical, the haunting loss of all but a few poems and fragments from what appears to have been a vital female poetic tradition." Against the guardians of the "pure" transmission, Gregory argues, H.D. sought a more eclectic body of information from the devalued Alexandrian line, with its inclusions of hermeticism, mystery religions, ambiguous sexual identity and homosexual desire -- well-suited to elevating the female figure as the source of spiritual energy and erotic presence and desire.
Again, Gregory: "As H.D. consciously shaped her role in the survival of the classics, however, she imagined it as clearly marginal to the life of letters as traditionally conceived and practiced, even by her fellow imagist rebels, with their scorn for traditional scholarship. She saw her role in terms of a subversive, erotic and visionary endeavor fundamentally challenging the assumptions of classical transmission; or, in [Walter] Pater's terms, she saw herself speaking from the "centrifugal" margins, against the Germanic dominance of classical learning." In the midst of this academic and literary war, H.D. developed her own specific hellenic tradition across the boundaries of multiple sources to find a use for the materials quite unlike any one else's. The great gift of Gregory's book is that now, with a scholar's help, we are finally able to see the full range of her texts and, through Gregory's guidance, to begin to understand the felt intensity of these references, particularly in the early lyric work of Sea Garden, and in the later refinement of understandings in Helen in Egypt. The founding editor of the H.D. Newsletter in the mid-1980's as well as a full professor of classics at the University of Dallas, Eileen Gregory takes on the challenge of revising our understandings of H.D.'s work with an enormous command of classical material matched with a writer's attention to the subtleties of H.D.'s poetic line. "Until recently," Gregory writes, "critics have dismissed the classical allusiveness in her poem as trivial or contrived, and the critical climate has not existed in which her lyricism or her hellenism could be taken very seriously." Weaving a web of multiple texts that stand outside the "whitened marble" of traditional classicism, Gregory uses sources as diverse as William Pater, Jonathan Culler, Robert Duncan and Euripides as critical tools to approach more closely the intertextuality and hence, poetic intelligence, underlying H.D.'s work. While the pioneering scholarship of Susan Stanford Friedman has gone a long way in uncovering the "left-handed" sense of hermetic and esoteric traditions which influenced H.D.'s entire body of work, no other critic of H.D., except perhaps the poet Robert Duncan in his legendary The H.D. Book or, later, the poet Diane Di Prima in her privately printed The Mysteries of Vision (1988), has made the connection between the early lyric and the harsh personal demands of the hermetic traditions which were part of the more diverse and erotically-charged Alexandrian classical transmission. Understanding poetic forms of hellenic inheritance as inside a felt experience of vision, H.D. placed her work outside an academic commodity culture and inside a "gift economy" in a circulation of exchange. Her inheritance, then, was not a "bartering of word for word before a tribunal of literary guardians" but an act of creative response and "reciprocation" as "tribute to the original gift": a writing that could bear the weight of vision.
This insight of the oracular impulse of H.D.'s early lyric leads Gregory toward what might be the most important contribution of this book to H.D. scholarship as Gregory re-reads the early poetry through an understanding of voice which re-casts the task of H.D.'s lyric as that of creating and sustaining immediate presence. Gregory takes seriously "as its own quest" that which is "often subsumed in another guise" of biographic information, and, in so doing, complicates our previous critical understandings of H.D.'s strategy of personally-inflected poetic "masks" by bringing her project, particularly in Sea Garden, into a long line of transcendent lyric associations. Reading Jonathan Culler's notions of the uses of the lyric voice against her own readings of the early work, Gregory argues that H.D.'s lyric voice occupies the "oblique and marginal" territory of a poet whose own poems might (as Gregory describes the "fully engaged hermetic mage") respond to and generate "the animation of the spiritual in things . . . through sense and bodily desire." In this remarkable chapter, Gregory deepens our understanding of H.D.'s work as a "deliberate affiliation with a wide and diverse set of lyric predecessor and contemporaries, among which [her work] makes its own very large claims for poetic presence through voice" -- that is, for the poem's power to actually "make something happen." In H.D.'s lyric, Gregory writes, the tradition of oracular and visionary poetry marries "scientific precision . . . eroticism, and . . . mystical clairvoyance" to enter the hidden matrix of the creative act, with its dark, occluded shadows of absence and self-doubt as well as its shining white of crystal. Whatever sparseness of voice is there, Gregory implies, is there in part because of the poet's necessity to make of the larger project of writing its own vehicle of enactment, and to follow, therefore, the demands of the craft. This interpretation is a long way from the "disembodiment, depersonalization, repression, flight [and] stasis" of the pure "crystalline" line with which the poems of H.D.'s Sea Garden are often associated. "H.D.'s classicism first attracted me to the study of her writing," Gregory writes, "but her keen-edged heterodoxy, rebelliousness, and surprising strangeness have sustained my fascination and compelled my labor." In situating this "surprising strangeness" and "rebelliousness" within new readings, Gregory suggests H.D.'s work as "an antinomian move against the stilled bodies of the Gods" -- the lifeless perfection of classicism whose anti-presence constituted the return to cultural traditions of "purity" that so engaged Pound and Eliot. The reference to antinomianism is telling; like the earlier outlaws Ann Hutchinson and Emily Dickinson, H.D. understood her work as outside the traditional readings, either of source or of interpretation, and therefore fashioned a personal language which vision alone recovered. H.D.'s early work, long considered as of lesser value than the later, more discursive narrative work of Trilogy or Helen in Egypt, is given new context by which we can read again works with which we were once familiar.
In the past, we have had precious few sympathetic guides to take us to the select world of classical references in order to begin to read H.D.'s classical intertextuality in all of its fullness; and now, with Eileen Gregory's book, we are, quite simply, allowed entrance. Listening to the poets and theoreticians but never obscuring her arguments with pseudo-linguistics of any kind, Gregory offers a sophisticated and highly learned interpretation for material which many of us thought we already knew. Her own original thinking on these matters and her considerable control of scholarly materials presents in such an engaging prose as to make the reading of this book an open invitation for others to enter. I wish her as wide and generous a readership as this book deserves.
--Eileen O Malley Callahan
Bio: Eileen O Malley Callahan has worked in the book business all her life as a poet, printer, editor, publisher and graphic designer, working with a variety of small presses and little magazines. After twenty years away from academic studies, she is currently working on a doctorate in English literature at the University of California, Berkeley. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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