Terribly human

'Helen in Egypt,' over-mind, and other hermetic definitions

‘Ecstasy of Saint Teresa,’ 1645–1652, by Gian Lorenzo Bernini. Photo credit Joaquim Alves Gaspar, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

The ability to see the self and one’s work in communion with one’s poetic ancestors is different from merely employing allusion or reference in one’s writing. Modernists like T. S. Eliot or H.D.’s friend/lover/mentor Ezra Pound made the past new by setting themselves among the dead and interpreting their work as such, to paraphrase Eliot’s essay “Tradition and the Individual Talent.” In works like Eliot’s The Waste Land, much of this deadness is referential. H.D. took the modernist impulse to call back on tradition differently by considering the interconnectivity of the ancient world, or the ancient mind-mythos, and today’s zeitgeist, particularly with her own mind. She was interested in the sympathetic possibilities of “the tradition” and the contemporary rather than emphasizing the mutual death of writers and their ancestors.

Myth, for H.D., is a living mind to enter into, a mystical tradition to apprentice oneself to. Her masterful and enigmatic (perhaps too cute, for some) essay “Notes on Thought and Vision” theorizes these lineage-based connections between artists of the ancient world and today while rejecting what Eliot calls death. “We begin with sympathy of thought,” H.D. writes, indicating that “brain work” is an essential component of communion that leads to a living physical, passionate connection akin to that of an ecstatic mystic such as St. Teresa of Ávila, whose visions of angelic bodies quite literally piercing her with points of fire led to her canonization and immortalization in sculpture by Bernini (22). H.D.’s chosen ancestor Sappho also wrote of poetry, love, physical passion, sex, and identity as living communions; because of them, H.D. called Sappho “terribly human.” We can assume a certain mythopoetics, an involving of the self in the mythical mind, by H.D. as we can assume a connection between the body, the mind, and the “over-mind” of sympathetic thought that H.D. indicates as a fountain of creativity.

The ancient world and the minds in it are not so distant from the writer that they are unreachable —their world, like the world of whichever ancestry, chosen or born, one might claim, is “never dead,” in H.D.’s words (24). On the contrary, spirits are always reaching out, and these spirits are in many ways alive. By spirits, I don’t mean solely metaphysical, noncorporeal beings, though I won’t count them out. Spirits, in one form we can point at, are in and of text. Texts are ghosted by writers and by cultures, for better and for worse. Poetry holds the spirits of those who wrote before us, and it also holds the spirit of the time it was written in. Heroic epics are nation-building exercises meant to create in-groups and out-groups; think of Aeneas and the Trojans-cum-Romans ethnically cleansing all native tribes from Italy, or think of Dante’s Divine Comedy as an epic construction in and of the new, uniquely Italian language and what culture was built with it. Language builds nation just as it build self, in H.D.’s sense, and poetry as a language construct thus involves the construction of  nationhood and selfhood. The spirits ghosting language are integral architects of these constructions, for without them and without their texts, language might not exist — certainly would not exist for readers of poetry, not in the same way.

What does this mean regarding magic in poetry? Because, as I continue to argue, poetry is a magical language potentiation, the poem is a site where readers and writers create, perpetuate, and deconstruct meaning, including the very meaning of identity. In so doing, writers perpetuate, deconstruct, and destroy nation, too. Writers can contact their dead by writing back to tradition and ancestors of chosen or born kinship, nationality included. So, poetry can create belonging.

I’ve previously written about Jack Spicer writing himself into lineage with Federico García Lorca, a man of another tongue and continent whom he found kinship with, possibly because of some shared sexuality and interests in ritual and the metaphysical. Spicer’s conception of talking back to the canon was just as problematic and complicated as his personality and his methods, which included alien telepathy (no joke, for those who haven’t heard). Acts like Spicer’s After Lorca, which is a communion and so is more act than text, show or create the tissue between writers across time. These are magical acts that sympathetically bind two writers, two minds, into one polyvocal location. Reading that text is reading a relationship, and the reading of it recreates the relationship every time, for every different reader. With enough “sympathy of thought,” the reader and writer communicate, as well, and in sympathy, identity and nation can be born.

H.D.’s Helen in Egypt, like Hermetic Definition, is crafted as a series of associations kept loose as correspondences and not denotations. H.D. translates through this text back to Stesichorus, the author of the Pallinode of apology to the mythic Helen, and so also writes back to the mythical character of Helen herself. H.D.’s chosen tool, translation, is the same tool Spicer uses to communicate with Lorca because translation is essentially a close reading. For some, including myself, it is the closest reading of a poet as well as a text that another person can enact, almost as in a séance. H.D. séances herself via Helen, which she accomplishes in part through her ingenious prefatory prose writing before each verse poem in Helen in Egypt. The prose and the poem are echoes of one another, in some ways repeating and elaborating content and themes while also complicating each others’ narrative. Translation further complicates this notion, making the text of Helen in Egypt an elliptical hall of mirrors. The H.D., Helen, and Stesichorus over-mind constellation is an understanding or vision by sympathetic magic, which is enacted on the page and conveyed to the reader.

As in Hermetic Definition, in Helen in Egypt, H.D. crafts a self by sympathy, associating with what she wants to become or be more like. H.D. and Helen author one another and themselves as the minds behind the text, but it is never clear (at least, to me) which is which because they are united. The magic of this sympathetic self is its ability to shapeshift and determine itself amongst other things, like an amoeba adjusting to its environs. The self is not fixed, but fluid, and in these texts, the self is crafted via other selves, telepathically. This is a sympathetic, magical poetry of communion.

— Eric