A Gift of Song: My Encounter with H.D.
by Frances Jaffer
Months after I had returned from a Mediterranean cruise, my parents asked
me, "What did you enjoy most about the trip?" Without hesitation I said, "The Parthenon."
It was my eleventh birthday in March, 1932. While our ship was docked in Piraeus, I climbed the Acropolis to the Parthenon in the company of the handsome German cruise director with whom I was secretly in love. He was being transferred to another ship, and I was in tears. The Parthenon was awesome--its pale marble had a lyrical austerity that dominated the Acropolis. My father, a structural engineer, had relentlessly taught his one daughter about architecture and religion. Though in tears, I was happy to recognize that the Parthenon's columns were Doric and that I had actually absorbed what my father had taught. That March day, I had my first mystical experience, what I would now call a spreading sense of spirit which manifested itself as a premonition of my father's death later that year. Walking under Homer's sky, we came upon two Greek children, younger than I--perhaps six or seven years old--who seemed to be waiting to be photographed. They stood with their backs to a fence, and I watched the photograph happen. The boy's green jacket and the girl's red dress signified something both knowable and unknowable, an opening into the real world of time and loss. In the instant of the photograph of these two Greek children (me and not me), I felt the touch of sorrow that subtly colors our experience of Art. What to an eleven year old was a stirring, even ecstatic, experience, became one of the determining moments of my life.
Decades later, when I discovered H.D.'s poems on the dirty floor of a San Francisco bookstore, I thought, "Again, Greece." It was as though H.D. had been waiting. I had found a poetry that opened and deepened the world for me in a way that felt akin to that instant at the Parthenon years ago.
I began to read poems seriously in my early fifties when I decided that it was time to make up for not having had a formal literary education. I read intensely in order to come to some understanding of what the canon was. Reading extensively in the major anthologies, I was sickened when I discovered the almost universal neglect, even absence, of women as writers of any significance or as truly human actors in the poems of men. There was hardly a poem in the anthologies that was not dismissive of women in one form or another. Although I had no political agenda, lesbian or otherwise, I was extremely depressed by what I was reading. These were the poems women are regularly handed and asked to identify with. I decided then that for a long time I would read only poems by women; after all, my literary education was mine to create. I wanted to know what women had written, but we were told that it wasn't very good, that the poetry women write has always been irrelevant, that it wasn't Art. But, as Carolyn Kizer insists in "Pro-Femina": "we are the custodians of the world's best kept secret: / merely the private lives of one half of humanity." I wanted the lives of that excluded half in a poetry free of misogynist attitudes. And I found in H.D., what I had been looking for.
The first poem I read in H.D.'s Selected Poems was "The Helmsman." In it, I heard a music that still delights me:
O be swift--
we have always known you wanted us.
We forgot--we worshipped,
we parted green from green,
we sought further thickets,
we dipped our ankles
through leaf-mould and earth,
and wood and wood-bank enchanted us--
We were enchanted with the fields,
the tufts of coarse grass
in the shorter grass--
we loved all this.
But now, our boat climbs--hesitates--
O be swift
we have always known you wanted us.
It was a new song that held me, intense at times and urgent, but also tenderly erotic. The insistence of rhythm and its hesitation, its constant variation and repetition, seemed at once freely active and constrained. There was a double mood, persistent and self-questioning. And the ambivalence toward violent resolution was both subject of the poem and a characteristic of its voice. In "Hermes of the Ways," H.D. embraces this irresolution, affirming its value:
the great sea foamed,
gnashed its teeth about me;
but you have waited,
where sea-grass tangles with
Here, before the sea, H.D. invokes a god "of the triple path-ways" who alone has waited for her. But he himself is "dubious," a vacillator, unsettled. "Facing three ways," one of which is death, Hermes is a god of change. In this poem, H.D. affirms life in all its contradiction, for she risks embracing a god of inconstancy, a constant in a world of violent upheavals.
Reflecting on my first readings of these poems, I recall my delight in having found a woman writer for whom there was violence in every landscape and whose reality was not a "sheltered garden" with "border on border of sheltered pinks" ("Sheltered Garden"). And so I entered her garden with its reeds "slashed and torn/ but doubly rich" ("Sea Lily"). "Sea Rose," one of H.D.'s ecstatic flower poems that bears witness to the rough, dark side of beauty, begins by invoking "Rose/harsh rose, marred with stint of petals, / meagre flower." Here, the cliche of poetic beauty is "caught...stunted...flung...acrid" and "hardened" as H.D. searches for a new kind of beauty that will compromise neither strength nor life. Again, in "Orchard," the lyrical voice pleads to be free of the object of its desire. Beauty will never be a source of comfort and this poem is a prayer to "spare us from loveliness." H.D.'s experience of beauty seemed very different from that of men for whom danger meant the beauty of women rather than the beauty of nature. Here was no Belle Dame Sans Merci .
Discovering these poems was a turning point for me. I was fifty, just diagnosed with cancer and beginning to write. And I had found a great poet.
It was 1976. For the first time in seventeen years of marriage, I had taken a trip by myself: a week in Palm Springs where I could write, and swim. I was sitting in the sun thumbing through an anthology I had picked up to take along with me, The Voice That Is Great Within Us (Hayden Carruth, ed., 1970). I was looking for poems I liked and admired, written by women.
To say that H.D.'s "Eurydice" changed my life may sound hyperbolic, but it is not an exaggeration. I found myself shaking with angry pleasure. Here was a volcanic poem, an angry poem that dealt passionately with the difficult reality of women's lives. The language, too, exceeded the limits prescribed by the feminist poems of literal statement I had until then considered appropriate models:
So for your arrogance
and your ruthlessness
I am swept back
where dead lichens drip
dead cinders upon moss of ash
In the early years of feminism, stating the facts of women's lives was considered artistically sufficient. But here was a poem untamed by the mould. I read "Euydice" out loud to myself many times. And with the song came the powerful reversal, Eurydice's defiance. Her loss of the upper world of light becomes a triumphant discovery and embrace of herself:
against the black
I have more fervor
than you in all the splendor of that place,
against the blackness
and the stark gray
I have more light.
No longer did the story belong to the man, nor was the woman a possession. This remarkable poem--written before 1920, long before the second wave of feminism-- strengthened me in my fragile, feminist identity.
I was a middle aged housewife struggling to give myself permission to write when I discovered H.D.'s version of Sappho's "Fragment Thirty-Six":
I know not what to do,
my mind is reft:
is song's gift best?
is love's gift loveliest?
My mind is quite divided,
my minds hesitate,
so perfect matched,
I know not what to do:
each strives with each
as two white wrestlers
standing for a match,
ready to turn and clutch
yet never shake muscle nor nerve nor tendon;
I too was torn between the demands of art and the demands of love. Echoing my own struggle, H.D.'s extrapolation of the fragment acknowledged and honored my difficulty. I was truly encouraged.
As I continued to read I was surprised by the flatness of many of the poems in Red Roses For Bronze; this master could stumble. But in the late great epic works, I rediscovered her music, though in a radically different form. The early poems were purely lyrical with varying line lengths and irregular stanzas. In Trilogy , her flexible two-line stanzas sustain a narrative voice which ranges from the early lyricism to ordinary speech. Any number of passages might illustrate how this form is able to accommodate these extremes. In section 32 of The Walls Do Not Fall , for example, H.D. summarizes all the objections that might be raised against her, then answers them in a flying affirmation of possibility:
Depth of sub-conscious spews forth
too many incongruent monsters
and fixed indigestible matter
such as shell, pearl; imagery
done to death; perilous ascent,
ridiculous descent; rhyme, jingle,
overworked assonance, nonsense,
juxtapositions of words for words' sake
you find all this?
separated from the wandering stars
and the habits of the lordly fixed ones,
we noted that even the erratic burnt-out comet
has its peculiar orbit.
H.D. was almost sixty years old and writing at the peak of her powers. But even after this great epic work, she continued to write strong poems throughout a long life. In fact, she wrote some of her most beautiful and revealing series of poems in the last years of her life; Winter Love for example. Many older women might find this series of poems embarrassing because the erotic life of old people is taboo. But H.D. had the courage to declare her vulnerability.
How could I love again, ever?
repetition, repetition, Achilles, Paris, Menelaus?
But you are right, you are right,
there is something left over,
the first unsatisfied desire--
the first time, that first kiss,
the rough stones of a wall,
the fragrance of honey-flowers, the bees,
and how I would have fallen but for a voice,
Helen, Helen, come home ;
there was a Helen before there was a War,
but who remembers her?
Upon reading these poems, I thought to myself that not many women would take this risk and I was deeply moved and inspired.
Enthusiasm for H.D.'s work led me to a widening circle of feminist poets. Reading periodicals like Signs and Feminist Studies, I found frequent references to H.D. Across the country I made contact with fellow enthusiasts. In my local community, my goal was to introduce her to as many women as possible and I proceeded aggressively. I gave readings of H.D.'s poems and lectured. To my delight, an "H.D. Network" developed.
All the while, of course, with growing freedom and energy, I was writing my own poems. At that time, I had to deal with the knowledge that I had cancer. Suddenly, one afternoon, a poem came to me, quickly, the way some poems do. In the middle of a long serious poem about the cancer, a piece inspired by H.D.'s language and image appeared:
Oh the tomb, delicate sea shell, H.D. said
the temple or the tomb, but there are
the waves holding the moon, the flicker
that holds light, the space
between columns where shape
dances, bright fog sings--
the ride undersea, the leap
spraying the world pink, the sun
swings on the sea
I won't sit still
I felt this was the most lyrical poem I had written. I was ecstatic because I had been able to write a poem whose song I loved and because it was so affirmative. It seemed to signify a connection between H.D. and myself as poets.
My introduction to H.D. not only opened me to the work of a great poet, but to the realization that much of what we know as Modernism was perhaps inaugurated and sustained by an entire milieu of women, long neglected originators on the left bank of Paris and in London. When H.D.'s work was revered, as it was by Pound, it was admired as he defined it, not as she herself would come to understand it. She would, of course, eventually abandon Pound's narrow requirements in order to become her own poet. This, of course, is the subject of much of her
I have dealt almost exclusively with the poetry, but I don't want to overlook her unpredictable and beautiful work in prose. HERmione, Palimpsest, and Bid Me to Live all excited and surprised me. With considerable effort , I had to learn to read HERmione. Initially, I was afraid of it. I thought she was too crazy and I was put-off by her use of the objective case:
I am the word...the word was with God...I am the word...HER. Hermione Gart hugged HER to Hermione Gart. I am HER. The thing was necessary. It was necessary to hug this thing to herself. It was a weight holding her down, keeping her down. Her own name was ballast to her lightheadedness. (p.33)
But as I taught myself to read it, I was struck by its intended psychological and literary effect. It was beautiful desperation. I was eventually captivated by this perfect rendering of a young woman's struggle to hold on to her subjectivity. And although Bid Me To Live is more conventional then HERmione, it bears the imprint of a remarkable sensibility exploring the creative self.
Ever since my first visit to the Acropolis, I'd been drawn to the Greek myths.
I was fascinated by the irresponsibility of the Olympians, their hijinx, their peculiar morality, their beauty and drama. For me they signaled a continuous sensuous awareness of the cosmos and its unmanageable authority. H.D.'s obsession with them enhanced my own.
For many years, I had been hoping to get back to Greece. The truth is, I had become fixated on the goddess Athena. I had found an image of her that astounded me, a photo of a statue of the goddess without her military head dress. She was softly beautiful and sweet-faced, more maternal than I had ever imagined. This statue was only about four inches high. But that was enough. I knew I had to go to Greece and find this goddess. Waking from a dream one morning, I had a prophetic vision. I heard a woman sternly ordering me to go to Greece. And in this
dream, there was a Woman in a boat. A baby was beside her and a green snake sweetly swimming. From the top of a hill, the goddess shone a great beacon into the night. She would protect the baby, she was Athena leading me back to Greece with H.D.
In Greece again, on Patmos, the small white buildings looked like toys and marked the turns on hillsides. And there were the powerful icons. I found a picture postcard captioned Virgin Almighty and Guiding, and began my search for this Christian vision of the virgin goddess. A breathless woman in high heels and a black skirt came tripping down the stony path from the Twelfth Century monastery. Gleefully she said, "Tomorrow is Ascension Day! Its a great day for the Virgin!" I followed a little boy who took me to the woman who cared for the church which
housed the icon I was seeking. Years later, I would recall this quest in a poem:
stares from the shadows at the back,
I know her! Zeus' motherless Daughter. She
holds an angry Child.
When I recall writing this, the central debt to H.D. is clear and I am moved by the recollection. It was she who inspired this religious quest, just as she helped me see Athena in the image of the Virgin. Indeed, my indebtedness goes far beyond this discovery on Patmos: H.D. sanctioned me as a fully human woman and artist open to the deep unity of experience.
In the years since my astonished discovery of "Eurydice," H.D. has gained a
great following. Her collected poems have been published, books have been written about her life and her works, and it seems strange to remember the days when most women, and men, would say, "Oh, that Imagist. I haven't read much of her work." I have to admit, I miss some of the intensity of those missionary days; to be a lover of H.D.'s poems no longer excites comment. At a recent feminist literary conference, the embattled were the ones who (courageously) stood up and said, "I
don't like H.D.!"
I didn't feel it was necessary to argue. H.D.'s reputation is relatively secure.
Disagreements are merely interesting. And every time I open a page to one of her poems, I'm transported again by her song.
Frances Jaffer's essay will be published by the University of Iowa Press in H.D. and Poets After, ed. Donna K. Hollenberg.
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