Headnote: Part 1 of this piece appeared here (on The Paris Review Daily), on Wednesday, May 3, 2017. Mr. Madrid originally intended to publish part 2 in June, but lost track of time. You needn’t read part 1 to understand part 2. There is no part 3.
Poetry readers who spend a lot of time in used bookstores will have seen some of H.D.’s novels from time to time. They stand out because their titles are unfamiliar, and because they are recently printed books. One does not find old-looking hardcovers.
Asphodel. What is that. HERmione. What is that. Majic Ring. The White Rose and the Red. Friends of modernism say: “Why have I never heard of these?”
Before my H.D. project, my assumption was that these books must have been previously judged unfit for publication on the grounds of their containing explicit scenes of girl love. Wrong. None of them have explicit scenes of any kind of love. The only hot-sex bit in any of the H.D. prose I’ve read actually was printed in her lifetime. Privately printed, but printed. It’s in her novella Nights, and it’s woefully hetero. (It’s her and that musician guy, father of her only kid.)
My next wrong thought was that she had written all those books “for the drawer,” just her way of working out her feelings, et cetera. This would have made her a very unusual case: a writer whose prose was private but whose poetry was invariably intended for the public. Most people are just the opposite, but that doesn’t matter, ’cuz she did intend to publish these novels and memoirs—the ones she finished anyway, with maybe like one exception. She sent ’em around or allowed Norman Pearson to send ’em around for her. They just never found takers.
This—or rather the equivalent of this—would not happen today. Or I doubt it. Semi-unintelligible melodramas, thoroughly interesting and impossible to care about, where the point of view is suppressed to the threshold of nonexistence—there are many, many small presses who would be happy to put these works into circulation in 2017. Their mission statements literally say this.
H.D. fans rightly bristle at the idea that her best and most characteristic poetic work is contained in the 1925 Collected Poems, published when she was thirty-eight. Much huffing and puffing has been huffed and puffed over the last forty years in an effort to distract potential readers from the pernicious idea that she was mainly an Imagist. She cannot have remained a mere party member, she must have struck out on her own. For such is the nature of genius, especially wronged genius.
That line of thought is so romantic and uplifting it’s almost impossible to accept that it has any truth to it. Yet it’s quite true. She really did go from being a kind of miniaturist, whose every poem was designed to stand alone like a carved stele in the middle of a field, to being a poet who thought in terms of book-length kaleidoscopic visions and static narratives. Little bit like certain long medieval poems that nobody reads these days. The density of the material—or better say viscosity—changes a lot. She becomes more fluid. Granted, all her life she was hard to understand, and she always has mythology on the brain, but—at least for some people—her last three books are where the action is.
I’m one of these. This, despite the fact that (a) I usually prefer steles to stories, and (b) I much prefer H.D.’s 1915 mentality to her post–World War II mentality. My considered opinion as to why I and so many others prefer her last books is that, simply, she became a better writer.
This is the place to mention: There is no need for a conspiracy theory regarding the fact that anthologists always reach for the 1925 Collected. The much more ready-to-hand explanation is that excerpts from Trilogy and Helen in Egypt and Hermetic Definition never “sound right” to people who like those books. Anthologies are for stele poems.
Reminds me of a joke Samuel Johnson alludes to in the preface of his edition of a certain Very Big Poet, whose greatness was (Johnson asserts) not to be found in particular passages but in the overall effect. The joke was: “He who tries to recommend him by select quotations, will succeed like the pedant in Hierocles, who, when he offered his house for sale, carried a brick in his pocket as a specimen.”
Speaking of Shakespeare, whoever has any doubts about H.D.’s later poetry should get a load of the recordings we have of her doing Helen in Egypt. I don’t know too many poets who sound like trained Shakespearean actors. I know plenty of people who can perform their own stuff, but not like that.
The comparison I am about to make has an element of wildness to it; I’m going to admit that up front. But surely you’ve wondered what Shakespeare sounded like when he performed parts in his own plays? He was, after all, a trained actor, and I think we can agree it would be, ah, challenging for any actor to be more Shakespearean than he … Anyhow, H.D. performing Helen in Egypt is the closest thing I know to that situation. She out-Helens Helen. Pray you check it out.
Just a few words about the rhymes in Trilogy. Nobody thinks of H.D. as a master rhymer, but if I ever write my rhyme book, she’s definitely getting a chapter.
Remember: H.D. was more of a priestess than anything else. She was more priestess than lover, more priestess than thinker, more priestess than woman, American, or (truth be told) artist. Trilogy is good partly because she directly made being a priestess her theme. The whole thing is spoken from the vantage of a tripod at Delphi. As it were.
What does that have to do with rhyme. Well. Trilogy is basically three half-hour-long incantations. Everything about them suggests that the poet is in a trance. And the stuff puts the reader into a trance, too. Long, breathless, agglutinative sentences serve this purpose; they “draw you by the nose”; they make you get used to that vatic atmosphere of semi-comprehension. They get you into a spirit of just going with it. It’s vital the language be heightened in a way that is convincingly superhuman: that’s where rhyme comes in.
All rhyme does that. Anything in a poetic presentation that “could not possibly be improvised” yet seems improvised—does that. But H.D. engineers something quite out of the ordinary. We have no established term for her technique. I call it “peek-a-boo rhyme.” I just mean unmistakable rhymes and rhyme effects in places you don’t expect to find them. The middles of lines, say, or just really close together. Things like this:
Good was the tasteless pod,
stripped from the manna-beans, pulse, lentils:
they were angry when we were so hungry
for the nourishment, God;
they snatched off our amulets,
charms are not, they said, grace;
but gods always face two-ways,
so let us search the old highways
for the true–rune, the right-spell,
recover old values …
For my purposes, it’s specially interesting that though she is deeply in love with occult semantic connections between words, she still follows the classic procedures for rhyme selection. The ideal rhyme pair, to her as to almost everybody else, was one in which the two words bore no relation to each other except that of sound.
The Freud book. It’s called Tribute to Freud, written in 1944, published in 1956. At the time of publication, Freud had been dead seventeen or eighteen years.
What you won’t find in the book: H.D. revealing to Freud anything about her family, her lovers, her ideas, or her activities. She did tell him about those things, as we know from other sources, but the author of Tribute to Freud was much more interested in (a) the interpretation of one or two dreams, and (b) parading the personal relationship she had with “the Professor.”
I’m not speaking loosely when I say she very much liked the idea that she was to be, in some sense, Freud’s successor. Whoever is interested in that, and the fact that she saw herself as the necessary corrective to skeptical, unbelieving Freud, will find Tribute much more revealing than anything else she ever wrote.
For example, there is an unforgettable scene where Freud has an “outburst.” Paraphrase will not do here; you must see H.D.’s exact words:
I did not know what enraged him suddenly. I veered round off the couch, my feet on the floor. I do not know exactly what I had said. [A page and a half of slow-burn divagation omitted here.] The Professor himself is uncanonical enough; he is beating with his hand, with his fist, on the head-piece of the old-fashioned horsehair sofa that had heard more secrets than the confession box of any popular Roman Catholic father-confessor in his heyday. This was the homely historical instrument of the original scheme of psychotherapy, of psychoanalysis, the science of the unraveling of the tangled skeins of the unconscious mind and the healing implicit in the process. Consciously, I was not aware of having said anything that might account for Professor’s outburst. And even as I veered around, facing him, my mind was detached enough to wonder if this was some idea of his for speeding up the analytic content or redirecting the flow of associated images. The Professor said, “The trouble is—I am an old man—you do not think it worth your while to love me.”
Anyone reading this who has a soul will certainly want to see H.D.’s reaction shot. What in the world did she make of this shocking revelation? Yet anybody who knows H.D.’s prose will tell ya: she would never, ever give a “reaction shot” for a thing like that. Outbursts are followed by white space.
“The artist presents; he does not comment”—nobody ever took that maxim to heart more than H.D. The scene must speak for itself. And if it’s hopelessly ambiguous, essentially mute—tough titty.
One turns to H.D.’s letters partly longing to hear her come off it. And she does. Her letters, for example, to Norman Pearson and Robert Duncan, are utterly straightforward. She seems neither coy nor self-important nor straining for effect. The problem is she doesn’t touch on any intimate themes whatsoever. The “gossip” element is very mild, the way one might venture a little dot of gossip with a new acquaintance, to sound his or her taste for gossip itself. That kind of tentativeness makes perfect sense in dealing with Robert Duncan, with whom she only corresponded for a brief period before she died. But Pearson she knew for twenty or thirty years …
If you want to check the real H.D. against her character in Bid Me to Live, you would think the ideal thing would be to spend some quality time with her letters to Richard Aldington—one of the other main characters in Bid. But a big disappointment awaits you! The son of a bitch burned all of her letters from that time period. H.D., however, did not destroy his letters, so all we get, covering World War I and the next twenty years (in Richard Aldington and H.D.: Their Lives in Letters, 1918–1961) is literally hundreds of pages of Aldington’s letters, all written in his distinctively rich vein of self-approval. H.D. speaks for the first time on page 245—Halloween 1939, ætatis suæ fifty-three. The letters I want to read haven’t been printed.
The phenomenon of staying friends with one’s ex-lovers. All of ’em—or anyhow all the ones who were up for it. Which was almost all of ’em. As far as I can see, she never got rid of anybody.
I somehow want to find a reason to fault her for this, but I can’t find any. On this point, I think she was a Buddha. All the rest of us have to “work on accepting people as they are.” The Buddha does not have to work on that.
I need to read Hermetic Definition much more closely. Her weird love-mind, age seventy or whatever, is on display there, and nowhere else. “Perhaps I’ll find some kind of clue, / So I can be a Buddha too.”
Anthony Madrid lives in Victoria, Texas. His second book is Try Never (Canarium Books, 2017). He is a correspondent for the Daily.