Tarlo and Gregory read Collecott's H.D. and Sapphism
Diana Collecott
Cambridge University Press, 1999, ISBN 0 521 55078 5 (hardback), 364 pp., 13 half-tone illustrations

by Harriet Tarlo and Eileen Gregory


Perhaps the most striking element of this new reading of H.D.'s work is the meeting of two critical approaches which merge seamlessly in Diana Collecott's elegant, sometimes passionate, prose.?On the one hand, the book is impressively scholarly, particularly in its intertextual reading of Sappho and H.D.? Here Collecott provides detailed evidence of where and how Sapphic fragments, phrases and even individual words were reworked in H.D.'s poetry and prose. Her appendix will clearly be valuable to H.D. scholars to come. On the other hand, the book itself is an imaginative creative exercise in reading, a process Collecott is clearly fascinated by. Not only reading however: Collecott's work becomes its own signifying process as she writes herself into and through the key images, words and even letters that recur in H.D.'s texts and intertexts. It is not surprising that she often quotes from Susan Howe's My Emily Dickinson since, at times, her own process of engagement with her subject attains a similar creative intensity.

Through these critical and creative processes, Collecott teases out, to use her own phrase, that most elusive of qualities, a poet's sensibility. What I find most exciting here is how, throughout this process, H.D.'s texts retain and are reinforced in their specificity: their individual flowers, colours and qualities of light. Some of the most evocative readings are those of H.D.'s topography, the islands, beaches and crossroads that recur as key distinctive elements in her work. Yet, at the same time this book is about a tradition or a community of writing. The textual space Collecott explores here is also clearly related to its cultural contexts, particularly to the silencing and subsequent signifying of marginalised groups, particularly women-identified women. Here Collecott, wearing her learning lightly, draws her threads out through history from H.D. to Sappho to Swinburne to Shakespeare, whilst drawing detailed comparisons between H.D. and her modernist counterparts and H.D. and her poetic inheritors. The wide range of reference is kept in clear focus: a sense of writing in its own time and place is intrinsic to the volume and, throughout, Collecott retains a strong sense of H.D.'s own time as well as the history of her reception as a writer. It is Sappho however, whose writing and whose existence as a powerful imaginative construct for H.D. and for many others, to whom Collecott keeps returning and it is the Sapphic in H.D.'s poetics and sexual politics which gives her book its clarity and power.

—Harriet Tarlo


The importance of H.D. and Sapphic Modernism is in laying open, laying bare, many dimensions of H.D.'s "Sapphic" intertextuality: not simply her complex engagement with Sappho's poetry itself and its literary permutations, but, perhaps more importantly, the profound cultural, political, and artistic implications of "Sapphism" in the early twentieth century. This latter task entails the recovery of an intricate and dense network of women writers whose literary project and whose whole conception of intellectual exchange was distinct from the climate of early modernism and its male collaborators. This task also compels a engagement with a fraught and difficult theoretical territory concerning gender and sexuality, issues which Collecott negotiates with steadiness and clarity. Having persuasively established the centrality of this Sapphic project for H.D., she then gives a reading of the early career, showing the way in which H.D. situates herself in resistance to the contemporary critical programs that in large part determined her reputation. Thus Collecott prepares the way in the final chapters for the articulation of a lesbian poetics in the context of H.D.'s writing and for a brilliant exploration of H.D.'s negotiation of the tradition in her rereading of Shakespeare in light of an alternate, homoerotic tradition.

The individual chapters are quite persuasive in defining a cultural and literary territory of Sapphism in modern literature that otherwise is largely obscured in critical treatments. Many critics have preceded Collecott in giving primacy to Sappho as a precursor in H.D.'s poetry, and excellent studies by Friedman, DuPlessis, Koepfler, Laity, and others give due weight to H.D.'s lesbian relationships, especially to her relationships with Frances Gregg and Bryher, and to the implications of her bisexuality in her writing, both before and after her crucial analysis with Freud. Collecott acknowledges and benefits from this work. However, with regard to Sappho, her claim, substantiated by argument, is radical: that Sappho is to H.D. what Dante is to Eliot, or Homer to Pound. Moreover, her study represents, with regard to the issue of H.D.'s sexuality, a different kind of critical effort. Collecott's writing enacts in its own way the difficulties that she finds in H.D.'s lesbian poetics, the obliquity and displacement in attempting to say what is unsayable. Thus, the argument in individual chapters does not proceed in a linear fashion; rather it works by the accretion of overlays. Each chapter gathers up intricate sets of associations, from ancient and modern literature, from H.D.'s life and writing and from those of her associates and contemporaries, and from nineteenth- and twentieth-century cultural contexts. This mode represents an effort to amplify these many contexts substantially, so as to give body to an occluded and shadowy counterworld of significance that ordinary criticism, even sympathetic criticism, treats with some distance and abstraction, in acceptable theoretical fashion. Collecott, in other words, takes risks in both her critical focus and in her mode of procedure: but the risks are absolutely in keeping with the matter she explores in the book.

—Eileen Gregory



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