On being 'ill'-informed
H.D.'s late modernist poetics (of) d'espère
Illness is not a metaphor. — Susan Sontag
Illness is a kind of knowledge. — Anonymous
In The H.D. Book, Robert Duncan aptly terms the work that H.D. produced during and after World War II a poetics of “testimony.” In the last twenty years of her life, she experimented with new hybrid forms in both poetry and prose, writing major innovative works that bore witness to the public and shared trauma of World War II and responded to the ensuing rise of the Cold War. At the same time, she was increasingly chronicling the very private trauma of variously disabling conditions following the war, the significance of which she came to explore for the rest of her life. In the essay that follows, I argue that H.D. complicates the concerns of late modernism to analyze the consequences of another traumatic war and war’s roots in nationalism and imperialism, as Lara Vetter has powerfully argued, by layering her late novels and poems with empathic insight drawn from the lived experience of impairment, the perceptual chronicity — in essence, the timelessness — of chronic conditions that have a beginning but no end. As such, H.D.’s late-life oeuvre comprises a space in which she amplifies the modes of embodiment that she explores. Reading these late works chronologically thus enables us to take into account the extensive, lyrically hybrid investigations H.D. made of the epistemological and ontological aspects of disability, and to consider — rather than to overlook — these aspects as they inflect our understanding of late modernist poetry.
H.D. chose to spend the war years in London, enduring the Blitz with Londoners as a show of solidarity with her adopted country. She was prolific and energized in those years, which she called her “vintage years, 1943–1945,” writing her great long poem, Trilogy, and such prose memoirs as Tribute to Freud and The Gift. For a time as well, she was deeply involved in spiritualism, starting her own séance circle with her life partner, Bryher, and engaging in activities which she continued on her own after the circle broke up. During those years, she was in close contact with the war hero and Air Chief Marshall of the RAF during the Battle of Britain, Lord Hugh Dowding, who had become an earnest Spiritualist after his retirement in 1941. H.D. believed they were soul mates, that there was a larger karmic purpose in their meeting. As the war’s tides turned, moreover, she was filled with a hope burnished by the glow of a near-apocalyptic sense of the potential for widespread spiritual transformation as a result of the war.
By the end of the war, however, the deprivations all Londoners suffered during the Blitz had taken their toll on H.D. Coincident with Lord Dowding’s personal rejection of her interested overtures, her physical and emotional health seriously deteriorated. Early in 1946, for reasons having as much to do with post-traumatic stress and malnourishment as Lord Dowding’s rebuffs of her efforts to join his social and Spiritualist circles, as Annette Debo has persuasively documented, H.D. suffered a total collapse. During most of the rest of the year, she recovered at Klinik Brunner in Switzerland.
H.D.’s late-life oeuvre comprises what I have termed for the purposes of this essay — in an effort to capture via cross-linguistic pun the tension of such opposite emotions as hope and despair — a poetics (of) d’espère. Always a disciplined writer, H.D. began as she recovered from her collapse to produce the first works — the hybrid text By Avon River and the first part of the posthumously published, mixed-genre roman à clef The Sword Went Out to Sea — which she was to harvest from those “vintage years.” Although she never fully regained her health, she endured, survived, and continued to write. As she puts it in Vale Ave so powerfully, she wrote her way “from despair to inspiration.” In the face of physical and emotional challenges brought on initially by wartime trauma, again and again, creatively, H.D. drew hope and renewed meaning out of the ashes of despair. As she writes in Hirslanden Notebooks,“Going over the years and checking up on the various break-downs and collapses, (including the two Confinements) I can philosophize and find a reason, more or less, for each one.” She dwells on the philosophy, the larger spiritual reasons for her physical challenges, seeking to understand their significance. Reason is held in the balance with the lived experience of disability, the myriad references in the later works to impaired author-surrogates, main characters closely identified with H.D. herself who struggle to find not only ways to share their gender-specific knowledge, but also the will to continue.The ideals of reason are tempered by the hard facts of corporeal reality.
After World War II, H.D.’s world was increasingly “influenced by an alternate body,” to borrow Jennifer Bartlett’s definition of the new poetry of disability. In paying attention to this body in its various changes due to aging, illness, and injury over time, I have drawn upon recent thinking in disability poetics, in particular, Hillary Gravendyk’s theory of “chronic poetics,” which she defines as a “phenomenological account of perception and artistic practice that allows the shared conditions of embodiment to emerge from the text.” In the years following the war, I suggest, H.D. forged a poetics that could encompass such creative concerns to inscribe the contours and changing conditions of embodiment — what Gravendyk describes as the “durational character of perceptual and sensorial experience” — in inventively innovative genres. Also central to my argument is Rosemarie Garland-Thomson’s call to consider disability in women’s writing in a feminist context, which not only exposes social standards that privilege culturally imaginary “norms,” but also encourages us to reimagine the term disability as referring to a spectrum of “bodily variations.”
According to Duncan, H.D.’s wartime and postwar poetics of testimony propose an “open form,” rather than an Olsonian “open field” poetics located most prominently in the self-expansive and vital (or virile) male body. Although H.D.’s openness to formal exploration is not, Duncan acknowledges, “experimental,” unlike open field poetics, it also has none of the poet’s “showing off” associated with Olson’s stylistic claims for projective verse. Rather, Duncan avers, an “open form” poetics such as H.D.’s offers a “showing forth … of a power — and hence toward a form — in the language.” H.D.’s postwar hybrid poems and mixed-genre novels unfold in an imaginative space that subsumes place. When counseled by her former husband, the writer Richard Aldington, to write conventional narrative novels for commercial sale (as he himself was doing), H.D. defended the hybridity of her poetics, writing him that she was “thankful to be here in this most startling oasis of mixed genres.” H.D.’s metaphor suggests that an “open form” offers her refuge from the vast desert of male-dominated conformity to either imperious manifestos or crass commercial demands. Although her metaphor is naturally gender-neutral in this passage, her eloquent resistance is not.
At a time when her place in the able-bodied world was narrowing, the sense of imaginative space opened as she began very specifically to bear gendered, embodied witness to physical as well as emotional travails. It’s a tonally jarring, often dissonant, but noteworthy intervention. This aspect of her testimony is not lyric but documentary and didactic (or sustaining of all three modes at once), which enables H.D. to amplify the range of “positions around embodiment,” as Michael Davidson advocates, sharing the space of the works. Approaching disability from a feminist perspective, moreover, as Garland-Thomson proposes, frames the far-reaching political and cultural concerns of late modernism with insights drawn from embodied specificity.
As Davidson observes, poets have historically represented themselves in some manner of physical and psychic extremis as a figure for the extreme state of inspiration necessary to write poetry. Consider the examples among H.D.’s contemporaries of such modernist tropes of illness as they figure into The Waste Land, Mauberley, or H.D.’s own Trilogy. At one striking point in Trilogy, to illustrate briefly, an ecstatic speaker claims the following:
No poetic fantasy
but a biological reality,
a fact: I am an entity
like bird, insect, plant
or sea-plant cell;
shun me; for this reality
is infectious — ecstasy.
Trilogy was written at the height of intensities during the war, but during the time it was becoming clear that the Allied forces would prevail. In the passage above, H.D. adopts the trope of infectious illness to advance a remarkable truth-claim: that the condition of ecstatic vision is both real (“a fact,” a “biological reality,” not “poetic fantasy”) and dangerous. The section works as elegant metaphor; like an illness, being ecstatic is contagious. It is not just the ecstatic who are ill, moreover: they spread it to others. The risky language of Trilogy soars to giddily lyric heights of hopeful vision.
In her postwar writing, however, H.D. was wary of representing disabling and traumatic experience in narratives of transcendence. Illness was no longer a resonant trope but an actual condition with which she was grappling in her life, and increasingly addressing in her writings. The mixed-genre composite work, By Avon River, is composed of two sections. The first part, “Good Frend,” is in traditional verse; the second part, “The Guest,” is an erudite, speculative prose mix of fiction and historical criticism of Shakespeare’s contemporaries. This composite text is transitional. Drafted in the spring of 1945, the opening poetic sequence was written to counter a generalized “despair” and bolster her strength as she “struggled to recover from the trauma of living through a second world war,” as Lara Vetter has argued. In essence, H.D. describes the perceptions and sensations of being in a fragile, dissociative state without naming it. As Vetter notes, By Avon River represents the actual process of her recovery.
“Good Frend” is exemplary of a speaking subject in such a process. The section is made up of three poetic series. The attenuated speaker of the second series, “Rosemary,” closely associated with H.D. herself, thinks to “efface myself” in order to touch, “un-noticed,” the embossed epitaph on Shakespeare’s grave. She has embarked on a pilgrimage to a poetic source as a means of self-reclamation, a return to her senses by activating their regenerative capacity:
My fingers knew each syllable,
I sensed the music in the stone,
I knew a rhythm would pass on,
And out of it, if I could stoop
And run my bare palm over it
And touch the letters and the words,
Reading the whole as the blind read.
If I could touch the stone, I knew
That virtue would go out of it[.]
Knowledge in this passage is remarkably embodied. The speaker’s “fingers” know what she can only sense: that there is something she needs to take in with which she has fallen out of touch. In a simile notable for its striking evocation of blindness to characterize a heightened sensory capacity, H.D. imagines that the tactility of reading oneself whole “as the blind read” (by touching words in their very materiality) will reawaken her body’s ability to heal and re-establish her mind’s neurological connections to language’s — poetry’s — restorative powers.
Although not maintained consistently throughout “Good Frend,” the evocative, regular iambic tetrameter of unrhymed folk meter in the passage above roots the speaker in an alternative to the inherited poetic tradition (Shakespearean blank verse), to which, ironically, she’s in Stratford-on-Avon to pay tribute. H.D.’s critical formal prosody in By Avon River resists the erasure or silencing of the figure of woman in dominant poetic tradition. The alternative, folk meter, is the Song of Anon, as H.D.’s contemporary Virginia Woolf might say, invoking the unrecognized creative work of anonymous women artists through the ages. In H.D.’s hands, it is “incantatory,” as Vetter remarks. By the last poem in the series, in rhymed quatrains and in folk meter, a ministering, feminine presence, Claribel, has been poetically conjured to replace the ailing speaker.
The poem’s song-like metrical regularity overlays emotional turmoil and physical debilitation with formal order. By Avon River is set in the spring of 1945, as Germany was surrendering, but before the Americans dropped the Bomb on Hiroshima and Nagasaki in August, and nearly a year before H.D.’s 1946 breakdown. We can locate in the wistful longing sounded by the meter of “Good Frend,” so unusual for H.D., a note I’ll call hopefulness. As Claribel disappears at the end of the sequence, the speaker comes to, finding herself “kneeling in Avon meadow,” hearing Ariel’s song: “farewell / Is only to pain, disaster […] / fear, despair, torture.” As she returns to herself, moreover, the self-portrait of the hopeful speaker effacing herself so she won’t be caught breaking the Bard’s rules (Shakespeare’s epitaph blesses the man who “spares” the stones) becomes a slyly cheeky comment on Shakespeare’s own claim to have written rhyme more durable than marble monuments. In “Good Frend,” the interplay of music and meaning seems composed as soothing anodyne for nerves frayed during wartime, the rhythmic regularity of ancient folk meter palpably productive of healing.
The Sword Went Out to Sea, the project to which H.D. turned as she recovered from her postwar breakdown, however, is permeated by impaired physical conditions of the main female characters from which we never see them recover. They are all in a never-completed process of healing. Writ large, the story of the novel involves the process, the hope, of reconstituting the main characters’ lost agency in the world as they convalesce. Mixing genres, The Sword Went Out to Sea is what H.D. termed “not so much experimental as explorational prose” of lyric testimony, prose romance or märchen (H.D.’s term), and memoir. Structurally a palimpsest, The Sword Went Out to Sea layers the characters in the first section, “Wintersleep,” over their analogues (or earlier incarnations) in the second section, “Summerdream.” The “author” of the novel, Delia Alton, is a Spiritualist who has suffered a breakdown. As the novel opens, Delia recounts her involvement in Spiritualism, and tries to understand her rejection by her fellow Spiritualist, the character based on Lord Dowding. She describes in vivid detail the point at which she lost spiritual confidence, when she was delusional during her breakdown. As such, “Wintersleep” is a reckoning with the failure of what H.D. had so fervently testified to, the linguistic heritage of feminine spirituality, the very thing that, but a few years earlier, Trilogy so resoundingly articulated.
H.D. describes the second section, “Summerdream,” as a series of “fairy-tales or Märchen,” as she puts it metatextually in the novel. These stories are in palimpsestic relation to the novel’s first section; each of the three major subplots is a variation on Delia’s story set in earlier times of war (Athens, Rome, and Normandy). In all three, the Delia-figure struggles with some kind of impaired condition, as a result of which she has withdrawn from — or lost — a previous position of worldly feminized power (either sexual or spiritual). As the three Delia-analogues struggle to understand their loss of place in society, they also psychologically process the reasons for that loss (the grief and illness accompanying the death of or circumstantial separation from a loved one in war time). At the same time, the characters seek to explore the possibilities of reasserting their power in a changing world.
To take one brief exemplar, the revisionary tale set in the time of the Norman Conquest shifts the focus of the section from medieval romance to losses suffered by civilians in war. The main character, the war-widow Rose Beauvais, who is part of a heretical sect dedicated to the Lady and the women’s domain of “Ladies’ Gard,” is worldly and astute about political structures which exchange women for power and land. Nevertheless, Rose encourages her protégée Blanchfleur to believe “that a woman … may one day have a complete life of her own.” But Rose is ailing, and dispenses her wisdom from her sickbed in the women’s quarters in the house of her late husband’s ally, the Duke of Normandy, with whom she sought sanctuary. It is the eve of the Norman conquest, and she is unwelcome, her religious beliefs repudiated — rather than embraced, as she’d thought — by the Duke himself. As she ponders his unexpected rejection, she concludes that it must be a test to try her strength. If there is no escape, if “Ladies’ Gard must meet the war,” as she reasons, then she must be strong. Ladies’ Gard has never known war or fear, but it finds that it “must” face both in the coming upheavals, the cultural shifts and new alignments resulting from the acts of invasion and colonizing occupation. H.D.’s late modernist fairytale locates the roots of the British nation-state in a long line of geopolitical reconfigurations of ethnic and tribal identities and ideologized nationalist borders, like those so recently resecured on the beaches of Normandy in 1944.
Although The Sword Went Out to Sea calls into question the role any woman might play in military and political history, in portraying Rose as ill, H.D. indicates no place for her in that inherited structure except in terms of her former connection by marriage to a powerful man. In a liminal position, betwixt and between her lost position as wife and a new position she might forge on her own, one that she has not yet established, Rose occupies the place of marginalized but engaged witness. Her illness is a physically static condition (she literally stays in one place), but she isn’t passive. Being ill creates a space in which Rose envisions new modes of being in relation to others, which she hopes to extend to all. At first, she demurs along conventional gendered lines, assuming a mantle of ignorance, but she soon dismantles that pose. She’s “ignorant,” she says:
That is ill-informed, as all women are, in these days. I mean, women will be allowed one day … but I do not care about that. What am I saying to you? I do not want to rule, nor to rule rulers. I want to creep softly into the circle of the Gard. I do not want to flaunt the dream. I only want to share it.
As this passage suggests, Rose seeks communal bonds instead of ruling power, and in so doing, she conceptualizes a different kind of power than Pound’s “hankering to get into government,” for example, as Nathaniel Mackey characterizes the impulse of the Cantos. In contrast, for H.D., Rose is ill-informed. Because of that ill-gotten knowledge, moreover, she has been able to reconceive her relationship to community, one based on care, concern, and the sharing of knowledge and vision. Gone are the confident imperatives of Trilogy (“Remember O Sword”), as well as the occasional resort to metaphors of impairment, as we saw in both Trilogy and By Avon River. Rose has come to her insights via another path, which she discovered because of actual illness. Her odd verbs now suggest a subtle critique of the unconscious privileging of prideful ableism, as the different inflections of “flaunt” and “creep” indicate.
Earlier in the novel, Rose’s present-day London reincarnation, Delia, has had a breakdown from which she is recovering. Her description of her condition casts light on the epistemology of illness toward which H.D. gestures:
If we think of policies or politics, we are forced to think in vague generalities. As the outer world has expanded, so has the inner. Probably, it was the struggle to comprehend the incomprehensible actions that were taking place outside, that forced me by a law of compensation, to try to grapple with the forces inside myself, or outside the material world.
Thinking policies (rather than poetics) forces us into “vague generalities” about political realities. Delia’s feminist insight is that while the turn within may not lead to understanding of “incomprehensible actions” in the outer world, it is productive of a critical poetic vision, akin to Virginia Woolf’s figure of the metic poet in Three Guineas, who is “a psychologist in action, of the effect of power and wealth upon the soul.” Delia’s ailment does not narrow but expands her perspective, not only turning her toward self, but also to the au-dela,the world beyond both self and the vagaries of the material plane. Her responses to a warring world are thereby enlarged, encompassing moral, cosmic, and psychological concerns.
Such a capacity to respond, I suggest — to be responsive, or, to put it another way, response-able, as the philosopher of witness, Kelly Oliver, has theorized the significance of the faculty of responding with empathy toward others — is a significant component in H.D.’s late modernist works. As a result of that capacity — developed out of the experiences both of loss sustained during war time and also of the ensuing illness — Rose becomes a woman whose compassionate vision transfigures her desires. She does not want to exercise power over others, but rather to share her dream (to summarize in brief, “the dream” of manifesting in the world the eternal truths of spirit). Sharing this feminist version of empowerment gets Rose accused of being “a witch, a fury” by Normandy, however, the language both disfiguring and endangering her. “Who,” as Hélène Cixous asked some time ago in “The Laugh of the Medusa,” “feeling a funny desire stirring inside her ([…] to dare to speak, in short, to bring out something new), hasn’t thought she was sick?” At the end of H.D.’s novel, however, Rose, an unwanted guest in the house of a war-leader, has learned what’s in a name in this play. Rose doesn’t “get better,” as is said of debilitating conditions in unconscious ableism. In contrast, in a characterization of femininity that anticipates the Cixousian figure of Medusa, H.D. suggests that Rose gets even, dismissing Normandy’s misogynist “truth” with her laughter.
Although Helen in Egypt does not sustain that laugh, it finds a grain of hope among the chaff of despair, in a double move I gesture toward in the cross-linguistic pun of my title, H.D.’s poetics (of) d’espère. H.D. herself comes to characterize the challenge as a struggle to “keep faith / with something”: “I called it writing, / write, write or die.” The choice isn’t whether one can choose between two existential absolutes, but how one chooses to face the only absolute “with something” — a poetic praxis that both acknowledges and transforms despair.
Composed during the intensification of the Cold War in the 1950s, Helen in Egypt is a hybrid serial poem made up of alternating prose commentary and lyric poems. It is, in brief, a feminist revision of Homer’s version of the Trojan War. The story of Helen of Troy is well-known, but H.D.’s poem is about Helen in Egypt, “the real Helen,” who was transported out of Troy, according to an obscure variant on Homer entitled Pallinode, an apologia for Helen by Stesichorus. This Helen speaks in her own right, and in fact is herself “the writing,” as the poem puts it. Helen of Troy was always an illusion, and thus, the war “The Greeks and Trojans alike” fought was “an illusion” as well. After the war, Helen tries to find her place in a new poem that poets haven’t as yet written, in fact, the poem H.D. herself has produced, one that creates a new plot and imagines Helen’s transformative role.
To be sure, in Helen in Egypt, there is none of the soaring lyrical vision that characterized Trilogy, for its tone of mourning and lament has been forged in the aftermath of war, years in which H.D. herself struggled valiantly with illness and post-traumatic stress. It is hard not to hear in Helen’s opening imperative plea,“Do not despair,” her acknowledgment of being in that very state of mind. Or, not to hear the waves of anguish in the series of amphibrachs — “another and another and another” — which articulate the waves of war’s victims and the impossibility of remembering, individualizing, honoring the rich human and nonhuman particularities of the losses due to war’s carnage. Or, not to catch trauma’s essential unspeakability when Helen — in the midst of remembering “her part in the greatest drama of Greece and of all time,” as the prose section tells us — breaks off, then avers, “I only remember the shells, / whiter than bone, / on the ledge of the beach.” The pull of the tide sounding in the shells and the lulling, liquid spell of the gynocentric vision in Trilogy have shifted to the long o of human lament in “bone,” the haunting plosives of unexploded shells on a beach. Or, finally, not to hear the absolute no-escape of Helen’s perspective as she sees at last that “it was nothing, nothing at all, / the loss, the gain; it was nothing, / the victory, the shouting // and Hector slain; it was nothing.” To H.D. and her generation — with their “enduring memory from this First World War that had revealed the deep-going falsehood and evil of the modern state,” as Duncan writes — the cycle was starting over again, the same illusions, with different players. So all of it, “the victory, the shouting,” was nothing? There would be “another and another and another” war into the future? Nothing is no laughing matter.
In embodied, psychosomatic response, Helen says simply, “a fever / ravaged my heart and my thought.” She struggles to understand what has happened. Although she never heals fully, that struggle is integral to the process: she is healing. At the same time, she is also, in turn, understanding. As in the statement so often quoted in conjunction with this poem, “She herself is the writing,” we might say that Helen is herself healing, herself understanding, herself embodying the process. At times she isn’t sure who or where or what she is, but there is the physical fact that she’s limping, that her feet are wounded, as underscored in the emphatic spondees of the “rest — rest — rest —” that she needs on Leuké. She is cautioned, “you found your way through despair, / but do not look back.”
The act of looking back, however, is how Helen — and H.D. to Duncan — describes what she is doing: “I reflect, I re-act, I re-live.” H.D.’s capacity to look back is surely thanks to her work with Freud. As Susan Stanford Friedman notes, “H.D. did not seek a cure-all, a heal-all […] What she found in his […] very grave philosophy was a way to endure, to seek understanding, and to keep the spirit alive in the face of death.” The act of looking back in Helen in Egypt is about looking empathically at what the other characters can’t or won’t face, and at times, in a revisionary move, about creating a relational gaze. H.D.’s amplified understanding of the act of looking back helps us to locate the poem in a poetics of gendered, injured witness. The fragility of Helen’s body encourages an attentiveness both to “old pictures” and “new patterns” (the ground of a late modernist poetry), until she can “see clearly at last,” having created the conditions not for consolation — to be sure, a major cultural function of the lyric genre — but rather for catalyzing a response-able healing process through an engaged, embodied poetic praxis. It is “the way” she finds through despair: that is, given the resonant ambiguity of the preposition, at once away from and via.
“Does writing equate walking?” H.D. asks at one point in Vale Ave, in the voice of a lyric “I” explicitly identified as the injured and convalescent poet herself. In the first poem she wrote following the fall that broke her hip in November 1956, H.D.’s style has changed markedly. The incantatory rhythms and sonic resonance have not disappeared, but are juxtaposed with moments of hesitance, anxious self-reflection lodging fragments of memories, and a discursive hybridity capable of interweaving Biblical midrash, narratives of historical and personal romance, alongside a daybook of convalescence. The stories of the various lovers meeting and parting — Lilith and Adam, Elizabeth Dyer and Raleigh, Julia and Julius — are paralleled with H.D.’s memories of her seven face-to-face meetings with Lord Dowding. In those sections, however, the spell that Shakespearian and folk meter might have cast in gorgeous sensual detail is rimed with the frost of fact.
Early on in the series, for example, a poem that opens as tender aubade (“Go now, my love, the cock has crowed again”) soon gives way to a portrait of age (“go now, my love, your face is haggard and worn”). H.D. and Dowding are represented as exchanging bits of mundane courtesies in lines of stuttered, conversational tone: “‘another cup of tea — a cigarette?’ ‘no, no — do you mind [my pipe]?’” He whose “heroic wings” had “beat back // the enemy” in the Battle of Britain fusses about whether “I left my car in order” and leaves to check. He returns, but doesn’t stay. Later, he will write H.D. about the Theosophic seven rays and, as she notes, get it “all wrong.” She roundly criticizes him in the poem for being “illiterate,” “uninformed,” little more than “an amateur.”
As she is recalling — reliving — these scenes, however, she is in fact confined to bed rest, and told by Schwester Trude that “God wanted this, so you could have a rest.” To comfort or to silence her? Juxtaposed with snippets of memories of visits and letters from Dowding, H.D.’s account of her own condition layers the cosmic love poem with medical discourse and ethical debate. Speaking of her impatience with her “Confinement,” H.D. writes: “I am ashamed to speak of my predicament.” Like the fish moving two ways in Trilogy, she both admits and denies impairment. She is aware that the plights of others are so much worse than hers — as she puts it, “my plight is nothing” — and she acknowledges her feelings of shame at even mentioning her own condition. Ironically, however, she must speak of her injury in order to admit her shame in speaking of it, and in fact, she continues in some detail:
“with bones like yours,” the doctor said,
“so elegant, you can’t expect a sudden miracle”;
he did not say, “at seventy, it takes forever for a bone to heal”
Much like Schwester Trude offering cold comfort, the doctor flatters and patronizes her, speaking of “elegant” bones, which H.D. translates into what he tactfully refrains from spelling out: it takes “forever” for aging bones to heal (the line itself is mimetically elongated). Her soul may have “forever” but her body does not. She is at once ashamed to speak about and daring to write of her particularized experience of incapacity, details to which the poem has opened.
The tension created in these poetic moves among points of focus is channeled, I suggest, in the couplet’s elongated, iambic lines, which dryly and imperfectly rhyme “heal” with “miracle.” Into the threads of historical and personal memories, the sections of revisionary myth-making, and moments when the text gestures vaguely toward a contemporary political reality beyond the poetic frame, H.D. weaves a medicalized language of tangible, bodily injury. Worldly and spiritual concerns are juxtaposed with reportage of H.D.’s physical condition in serial poems in paratactic relation, complicating with the specter of un-mending bones the pattern of parting and meeting (Vale-Ave) the poem constructs. This structure includes in-time moments by which H.D. punctuates her narrowed world with hopeful resilience: having vowed earlier never to write Dowding again, she thinks now, “maybe, I’ll write a letter.” At this point, “something” takes over: “my pencil wrote of the enchantment” of their first meeting. If we track H.D.’s perceptions as they are represented in relation to her condition, we note how the poem moves from direct reportage of bodily impairment, with its attendant implications of pain, to uncanny displacement of creative agency into the writing instrument, which is pain-free. The real suffering body is bodied forth (we might say) in poetic inspiration.
Vale Ave’s hybrid poetic modes ask us to pay attention to such narrative and tonal moves, to take into account representations of bodily and writerly challenges as they are dissonant with the enticingly sensuous sections about storied lovers. We must consider, as in a palimpsestic structure, the significance of the sections that recount how the invalid feels becoming an object of care but not of concern, how her body is hemmed in by her confining world, how time doesn’t pass but, spatialized, is filled as these poems overlay and annotate each other. As Gravendyk asserts, disability poetics allows us to “access more complicated modes of embodiment: duration, chronicity, pain.” It should also, as this passage I’ve worked through quite carefully suggests, inflect our understanding of the phenomenon of poetic inspiration and its relation to particularized conditions of embodiment. Navigating time and pain in poetic terms, which transmit her real-time response, H.D. impatiently recounts in the lines of her poem the weeks and hours of convalescence until she’s “free.” Geduld, Geduld, Geduld, she is told again and again. Her doctor may treat her but he cannot empathize with her; he says he cannot imagine why she is so “impatient.” To him, her experience doesn’t translate. He understands it (physiologically), but doesn’t comprehend it (psychologically). She mirrors him back: the resistant (im)patient H.D. understands the word Geduld, but doesn’t translate it; she makes us acknowledge the suffering body, but she doesn’t interpret it for us.
As Vale Ave recounts, there is no beginning or end to H.D.’s condition, only the duration (the “forever”) of the present progressive of the continuum of the middle: she is healing. Because of the chronicity of pain, to invoke Gravendyk’s term, time seems paradoxically timeless, “set in eternity but lived in.” H.D. faces — and poetically transforms — what she cannot escape. As she records in Hirslanden Notebooks at this time, she feels at first “depersonalized”:
But when the mood or the inspiration takes me, I am no longer self-deprecating. I am standardized. I have, that is, a center. But I have been forced to live in the trying, humiliating outer minutiae of life, here in the Hirslanden Klinik, now for over eleven weeks. I return to my center, I stand on my feet, in my dream of them, and in my dream-record.
In this passage, H.D. has underlined “standardized” as well as “I stand on my feet,” emphasizing the “stand” in “standardized.” The dream, however, is not only about standing up and walking again, but positing herself in the act of writing, the poet’s dream-pun on standing on her (poetic) feet. “Does writing equate walking?” she asks.The question, hovering unanswered, asks us to consider whether writing isn’t like walking the actual path she’s on (the narrowed circuit of bed, table, and armchair in her room), but its equal. She is standardized when writing, or to put it another way, centered (however marginalized she feels her actual social position to be).
The poem recasts normative standards of center/margin, able-bodied and disabled, as performance space: the stage. At one point, for example, Vale Ave encourages us to
Leave her, Elizabeth Dyer, the stage, the center,
she could walk, she could climb the attic stair.
The rhyme, though imperfect, is punningly apt: the stair Elizabeth can climb doubles as the stare at or from the center. In the passage quoted above from Hirslanden Notebooks, H.D. speaks of “having” a center, an imaginative condition that enables her to shed performative (not to mention feminized) stances of self-deprecation. If we leave the stage, the center to the able-bodied, where they’ve always been, do they remain central? The poem shifts perspectives on the range of embodied positions it represents in order to include corporeal differences, which have been previously marginalized, but without reinscribing their subordination to “normative” bodies. Vale Ave does not transcend H.D.’s “predicament” but manifests it, paralleling with love poems a portrait of impairment by patient documentation.
In a letter to H.D. dated August 15, 1959, Duncan agrees with H.D.’s own assessment that her lines in Vale Ave and Sagesse are “conventional,” and then proceeds to redefine her terms. According to Duncan, her “open form” line is “propositional,” as defined earlier, “rather than experimental,”
a showing forth not of an ability in the poet but of a power — and hence toward a form — in the language. Yes, I agree that your line is conventional, no experiment, “a re-living” you write. Just as the line [is] thot [sic] of as a showing forth of the form it belongs to … so there’s a double play in daily speech where convention can mean the meeting place … in a form that verges upon the conventionality we rightly distrust where the poet claims the place without the communion. But there’s an experiment, isn’t there? In both processes — in that we don’t know?
Duncan gestures toward an impulse that goes to the heart of a feminist late modernist project, as H.D.’s work helps us to define: she creates texts of meeting and communion — sharing, as she calls it in The Sword Went Out to Sea. She offers the poem as a space which affords access to varying modes of embodiment. As she transforms the pattern of mythologizing the history of war in Trilogy and Helen in Egypt, her late poems embrace the risk of late modernist self-disclosure over modernist impersonality, and the revelation of a full-throated empathic and ethical response-ability that illness and impairment deepen rather than quell.
Finally, in a letter to Duncan dated September 6, 1960, H.D. takes up the theme of “Risk” (the title of the poem Duncan had sent H.D.): “Does one have to write? It seems so, from your ‘Risk.’ Mine is a ‘Risk’ too.” Then, quoting the passage from Hermetic Definition to which I earlier referred, she changes her question tellingly from “must one write?” to “Does one go on?”
“Rhetorical question!” … (she) draws the veil aside,
unbinds my eyes,
write, write or die.
The slippage between having to write and marshaling the will to continue fully to live out one’s embodied particularity is made possible by the capacity and courage to witness, and eloquent by the specificity of what is shared in the poem’s frame. The emotional risk H.D. takes in the process of arriving there is not restrained, lulling, enchanting, or lyric. She risks all — from “illumination, to despair, // and from despair to inspiration,” as she describes her embodied poetic praxis of what I have argued is her late modernist poetics (of) d’espère.
When the first symptoms signaling that the RA had returned after a decade’s remission I cannot say. Over the next year, pain drew its gossamer lines on my face and emptied me. The next summer, taking notes for this essay, I’d been rereading H.D.’s late works, carrying the books as I traveled, mulling over possible approaches, none of which were working. In July I was at the shore, desultorily scanning the poems in By Avon River, thinking I might work up a theory of H.D.’s “wave poetics.” Nothing was clicking. I went for a swim. Swimming in the ocean that week, I’d discovered that immersing myself in salt water eased the pain awhile. On this day, the waves were high in a stiff wind. I danced and bobbed in the huge waves to escape a strong undertow. When I got back to the beach, towel, watch, sunhat, book — all — had been soaked by a rogue wave and lay drying. My husband sat shivering and miserable on the nearby seawall, for he had been on the towel, napping. The pages of my book were crinkling as they dried, almost, I thought, in waves. I couldn’t decide if it was a sign that I should pursue the idea or forget it. Later, however, when I sat down to write, I started tracking the figure of the impaired woman at the heart of H.D.’s postwar works. I hadn’t given her impairment a thought before. As I wrote, the pain that had been my daily companion for a year eased for a day. I continued. The pain eased for another day, and another. By the time I’d finished the draft a few weeks later, the pain was gone. The body in pain knows only itself. Pain circumscribes the body’s world. Everything in the mind runs through that sensor. Is it painful? Yes, it is painful. That is all. Very well, then, Pain said, Write me. Write or die.
My deep gratitude goes to Professors Scott Paul Gordon, Chair, and Seth Moglen, organizers of the conference, H.D. and Feminist Poetics, sponsored by the Department of English held at Lehigh University, Bethlehem, PA (September 17–19, 2015), for their invitation to give an early version of this essay as one of three keynote talks at the conference. This essay would in all likelihood not exist in its current form without the inspiration of Annette Debo’s and Lara Vetter’s recent scholarship on H.D., and our discussions of their work in progress, which changed and deepened my thinking about H.D.’s postwar oeuvre. I can at last thank both my two research assistants, Dr. Sarah Grieve and Natasha Murdock, whose help over the years was crucial, and also the Marshall Chair for funding the research for and the writing of this essay. I want to express my gratitude as well to the editor of Poetics Today,Brian McCale, and three anonymous readers, all of whom wrote generous and constructively rigorous reports. This essay benefited from their expertise. To the editorial team of Jacket2 — Julia Bloch, Kenna O’Rourke, and Divya Victor — and to Susan Hardy Aiken, Jane Augustine, Karen Brennan, Annette Debo, Zita Ingham, Linda Kinnahan, Susan McCabe, and Demetres Tryphonopoulos: heartfelt thanks for nuanced responses to this essay in various drafts, for your own awesome work, and for your fellowship and encouragement.
Grateful acknowledgment is also made to the following sources for permission to quote from H.D.’s oeuvre:
Excerpt from Trilogy by H.D. (Hilda Doolittle), from Collected Poems, 1912–1944, copyright © 1982 by the Estate of Hilda Doolittle. Reprinted by permission of New Directions Publishing.
Excerpt from By Avon River by H.D. (Hilda Doolittle), copyright © 2014 by The Schaffner Family Foundation. Reprinted by permission of New Directions Publishing.
Excerpts from The Sword Went Out to Sea by H.D. (Hilda Doolittle), copyright © 2006 by The Schaffner Family Foundation. Reprinted by permission of New Directions Publishing.
Excerpts from Helen in Egypt by H.D. (Hilda Doolittle), copyright © 1982 by the Estate of Hilda Doolittle. Reprinted by permission of New Directions Publishing.
Excerpts from Vale Ave by H.D. (Hilda Doolittle), copyright © 2013 by The Schaffner Family Foundation. Reprinted by permission of New Directions Publishing.
2. For a related analysis of narratives of aging in the late modernist poetry of H.D. and her generation, see Brian Brodhead Glaser, “H.D.’s Helen in Egypt: Aging and the Unconscious,” Journal of Modern Literature 28, no. 4 (Summer 2005): 91–109.
3. In this magisterial study, which places H.D.’s postwar novels persuasively in the context of late modernism edging toward postmodernism, Lara Vetter argues that critics have neglected the aspect of H.D.’s late works that critically analyzes nationalism and imperialism as well as gender and racial discrimination and endless cycles of war. See Lara Vetter, A Curious Peril: H.D.’s Late Prose (Gainesville: University Press of Florida, 2017).
4. For scholarly work that applies disability theory to H.D.’s late-life poetry, coincident with the writing of the original version of my own essay, which I delivered as one of three keynotes at the same venue, see Sarah Nance, “Bodies at the Margin: Lyric Representations of Embodiment in H.D. and Later Female Poets,” H.D. and Feminist Poetics, conference held at Lehigh University, Bethlehem, PA (Sept. 17–19, 2015).
6. Until Annette Debo’s 2012 monograph, The American H.D., any scholar who weighed in mentioned the coincident rejection in 1946 by Lord Dowding. For an overview, see Cynthia Hogue and Julie Vandivere, introduction to The Sword Went Out to Sea (Synthesis of a Dream), by Delia Alton by H.D., ed. Hogue and Vandivere (Gainesville: University Press of Florida, 2007), xxv–xxxi. For a thoroughly nuanced discussion of H.D.’s experience of breaking down, see Vetter, A Curious Peril, 9–12. For the memoir-novel that contains the remarkable letters exchanged between H.D. and Dowding while they were both actively conducting séances, and superb scholarship on the esoteric tradition in which both were involved, see Demetres P. Tryphonopoulos, introduction to Majic Ring by H.D.(Gainesville: University Press of Florida, 2009), ed. Tryphonopoulos, xxi–xxxix. As Debo contends, Bryher noted the severity of H.D.’s physical condition as well as her emotional fragility in letters and the memoir Bryher herself wrote of the war, Days of Mars.See Annette Debo, The American H.D. (Iowa City: University of Iowa Press, 2012), 96–97.
10. Hillary Gravendyk, “Chronic Poetics,” Journal of Modern Literature 38, no. 1 (Fall 2014): 1–19. Gravendyk writes brilliantly about the poetry of Larry Eigner, for whom the poem is connected to the expansive “open field” method of composition that Olson theorized, but not to the “normative” model of embodiment Olson assumed, which in Eigner’s poetics is complicated by the determining particularities of his cerebral palsy. See also Jennifer Bartlett’s mini-biography of Eigner, Anything has to be easy enough to get done (Philadelphia: Albion Books, 2012).
12. See Rosemarie Garland-Thomson, “Integrating Disability, Transforming Feminist Theory,” in Feminist Disability Studies, ed. Kim Q. Hall (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2011), 16. Garland-Thomson contends that the term is generally used to refer to “many kinds of bodily variations” (17). That is, the range of “bodily variations” such as illness, physical injury and incapacitation are categories on the same spectrum, different in degree but not kind.
15. Unpublished letter to Aldington dated July 26, 1947, held in the Richard Aldington Papers at Southern Illinois University Morris Library. For a full discussion of H.D.’s long exchanges with Aldington as he was closely reading and responding to early drafts of The Sword Went Out to Sea, see Hogue and Vandivere, xxii–xxv.
19. See Madelyn Detloff, The Persistence of Modernism: Loss and Mourning in the Twentieth Century (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2009). Detloff contends that H.D.’s writing (like that of Woolf and Stein) “questions the construction of believing, heroic, sacrificial, even fascist, subjects willing to fight and die in order to belong to a larger collective entity” (4).
24. The unpublished letter to Aldington in which H.D. describes her writing in Sword as “explorational”is dated May 20, 1947, and is held in the Richard Aldington Papers at Southern Illinois University Morris Library. See Hogue and Vandivere, xxiii.
30. Nathaniel Mackey, “From Gassire’s Lute: Robert Duncan’s Vietnam War Poems,” in Reading Race in American Poetry: An Area of Act, ed. Aldon Lynn Nielsen (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 2000), 218.
35. For a related definition of late modernism (albeit not in connection with H.D.’s work), see also Ana Mitrić, “Turning Points: Atonement, Horizon,and Late Modernism,” Modernism/modernity 21.3 (September 2014): 715–40. Mitrić invokes Sartre’s postwar existentialist philosophy to characterize the period as responsive to others, that is, “responsible” (725).
36. Hélène Cixous, “The Laugh of the Medusa,” trans. Keith Cohen and Paula Cohen, in New French Feminisms: An Anthology,ed. Elaine Marks and Isabelle De Courtivron (New York: Schocken Books, 1981), 246.
39. H.D., Helen in Egypt (New York: New Directions Books, 1961). For a discussion of H.D.’s strategic use of Stesichorus’s variant version of Helen, see Susan Stanford Friedman, “Creating a Women’s Mythology: H.D.’s Helen in Egypt,” in Signets: Reading H.D.,ed. Susan Stanford Friedman and Rachel Blau DuPlessis (Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 1990), 376–78.
42. For an incisive reading of Helen in Egypt’s revisionary mythopoesis, which argues for Helen’s reclaimed agency and wise realization that love is more powerful than war, see Jeanne Heuving, The Transmutation of Love and Avant-Garde Poetics (Tuscaloosa: University of Alabama Press, 2016), 100–109.
46. H.D., Helen in Egypt, 255. For an important discussion of the context in which H.D. wrote Helen in Egypt, see Elizabeth Willis, “A Public History of the Dividing Line: H.D., the Bomb, and the Roots of the Postmodern,” Arizona Quarterly 63, no. 1 (2007): 81–108.
54. For a useful overview of the stylistic as well as thematic shifts in H.D.’s late poems, from the “hybrid style” of Vale Ave to the “spiritual journalism” of Hermetic Definition,see Susan Edmunds, Out of Line: History, Psychoanalysis, & Montage in H.D.’s Long Poems (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1994), 149–76.
61. For a discussion of the disturbing political context in which H.D. wrote in the 1950s, which included above-ground atomic bomb testing (something about which H.D. had fruitlessly tried to warn Dowding a decade earlier), see Kathleen Crown’s superb article, “‘Let us endure’: Atomic-Age Anxiety in H.D.’s Sagesse,” Sagetriebe 15, nos. 1/2 (Spring and Fall 1996): 247–72.