February 24, 2012

Traveling in the Astral: H.D.

Hilda Doolittle, known as H.D.  (1886-1961)

As a young poet, I was often looking for models for myself. Too often, the women poets I admired had committed suicide.  But not H. D. I reached for her, and still do. She still sweeps me off my feet. She was also a poet who became an expatriate. She lived in Europe for many years, was married to poet Richard Aldington, was an analysand of Freud, a friend of Ezra Pound, involved in the new medium of film as an actress and writer, and a lover of Bryer, a wealthy woman novelist who during the war had financed the escapes of several Jewish people.  In the following, H. D. shows her artistic abilities. The poem is firmly embedded in the body-- and it stays physical-- and it draws on both landscape and mythology.


Nor skin nor hide nor fleece
     Shall cover you,
Nor curtain of crimson nor fine
Shelter of cedar-wood be over you,
Nor the fir-tree
Nor the pine.

Nor sight of whin or gorse
     Nor river-yew
Nor fragrance of flowering bush,
Nor wailing of reed-bird to waken you,
     Nor of linnet,
     Nor of thrush.

Nor word nor touch nor sight
     Of lover, you
Shall long through the night but for this:
The roll of the full tide to cover you
     Without question,
     Without kiss.

H. D. is one of the great American poets.  In this poem, her power is evident. The sound and rhythm of the language, hypnotic in its accumulation of nor, causes the poem to rise and break in the last lines in the last k sounds, "Without question,/ Without kiss." In Greek mythology, Lethe was the "river of forgetfulness" or the goddess of the underworld river of oblivion. The poem works on more than one level, decrying the losses of love on the physical body. The river likewise is stripped of the beauty of tree and flowering shrub at its banks, as if the river and the land were lovers.  Wanting to be annihilated by flood, a victim of its own qualities, of too-muchness, the longing is palpable.  It is both real and mythic.  

There is a record of letters between H.D., Bryher, and May Sarton. At the time, May was discouraged in her efforts of publishing. H.D. wrote: "O, my dear--don't worry about your work. It is wonderful, you have wonderful gifts. The fact of the writing is the thing--it trains one to a sort of yogi or magi power, it is a sort of contemplation, it is living on another plane, it is 'travelling in the astral' or whatever it is, they are supposed to do. That is the thing" (July 26, 1941).

Trilogy: The Walls Do not Fall, Tribute to the Angels, The Flowering of the Rod is my favorite. H.D. was in London, England with Bryher during the bombing. This was written afterward. I read it again and again, marveling at the tumble and flow of syllables and her deft use of metaphor.  In The Flowering of the Rod, excerpted here, the migration of geese and Jesus' resurrection speak to new beginnings in life:

I would rather beat in the wind, crying to these others:

yours is the more foolish circling,
yours is the senseless wheeling

round and round--yours has no reason--
I am seeking heaven;

yours has no vision,
I see what is beneath me, what is above me,

what men say is-not--I remember,
I remember, I remember--you have forgot

again, the steel sharpened on the stone;

again, the pyramid of skulls;
I gave pity to the dead,

O blasphemy, pity is a stone for bread,
only love is holy and love's ecstasy

that turns and turns and turns about one centre,
reckless, regardless, blind to reality,

that know the Islands of the Blest are there,
for many waters can not quench love's fire. 

Her poem soars and circles in this series, moving between opposite poles, touching the images of war and the distance of airborne flight, faraway islands, the vision of divine love and ecstasy.

H.D. as an imagist was much more powerful than her cohort Ezra Pound. She deftly used history and mythology in her work, and her vision was much greater. This poem has been my center during change in my life. I am restless by nature, settling and unsettling as a flock of birds. Along the shoreline of Lake Superior where I have lived for so many years, the migrations of birds have entered my internal landscape. Perhaps my grandparents' migration to the U.S. has had a residual effect, the impetus still echoes like waves from the stern of their ship stirring the ocean. 

H.D. has captured the heart-breaking truth of leave-taking, of striving, of being in the air, in the midst of perpetual change. Her words whisper in my ear--in moments of uncertainty, at times of break-up and loss and sorrow--to remember:

"In resurrection, there is confusion
if we start to argue; if we stand and stare,

we do not know where to go;
in resurrection, there is simple affirmation..."


H. D. biography http://www.poets.org/poet.php/prmPID/234

Mandell, Charlotte. "Letters Across the Atlantic:  H.D., Bryher, May Sarton, During World War II" This article originally appeared in A celebration for May Sarton : essays selected and edited by Constance Hunting. Orono, Maine : Puckerbrush Press (c/o University of Maine, Dept. of English, 5752 Neville Hall, Orono, Maine, 04469-5752), 1994, p.89-104. http://www.imagists.org/hd/hdcmone.html

Martz, Louis, editor.  H.D. Collected Poems 1912-1944. New Directions, New York, 1983. 

Ponsot, Marie, "Shot Through with Brightness: The Poems of H. D." http://www.poets.org/viewmedia.php/prmMID/19222

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