Write, or die

H.D. and the image-imagined self

H.D. (Hilda Doolittle) in a c.1921 postcard inscribed to Marianne Moore. Courtesy of the Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library at Yale University. Public domain.

but She draws the veil aside,

unbinds my eyes,
write, write or die.­

— H.D., “Red Rose and a Beggar,” Hermetic Definition (7)

“Write, write or die,” the directive of H.D.’s goddess, is also the poet’s dilemma. If you do not write yourself into being, you do not exist! To create a self through writing is to envision or to sustain a vision, like a prophecy, of the self. If we write, we create a self of the page that is sustained despite death of the body. H.D.’s voice, narrator, or authorial self in Hermetic Definition, whichever you interpret them as in any given moment, is discovering themselves as they are written/as they write, and this discovery is explicitly written as part of the narrative play of the poem. “The writing was the un-born / the conception,” they describe, and they mean not only an unborn as in a child, though I think that reading is included, but also literally all the unborn, all that is not yet conceived, as in, brought into words, which includes the authorial self that is becoming (54). In writing, H.D. births a self magically steeped in mythos, which means that “write or die” can also be seen as the poet-magician’s mantra.

H.D. published under her initials rather than her full name Hilda Doolittle as a conscious separation of her person from her authorial persona. As Vincent Quinn writes, Hermetic Definition, which is possibly the last poem H.D. ever wrote, provided a definition of what that personae separation had meant: “the recurrent initials suggest equivalence, but the poem discloses the self-sacrifice she willingly, even proudly, made for the sake of art” (52). “H.D.” is a hermetic, esoteric incarnation and persona of “Hilda Doolittle.” The author is her own eidolon, a concept we see earlier in H.D.’s Helen in Egypt.

In Hermetic Definition as in other of H.D.’s texts, additional personae beyond the “voice” of the poem echo against one another: Venus and Venice are eternal feminine manifestations of one another and of Isis, while Bar-Isis and Paris (Par-is, in wordplay) are the offspring of that feminine divine entity (Vincent Quinn identifies this offspring as, particularly, the Egyptian Horus, son of Isis)(53). This Horus, both a “real” young man and poetry incarnate, calls H.D.’s poetry “fascinating … / if you can stand its preciousness” (7). This indictment (or indifference, for Quinn) at the beginning of Hermetic Definition spins H.D. into an associative spiral from which the reader gleans that, for H.D., language is an infinite series of potential correspondences, and no one poem can be perfect (54). Perfection is achieved, or aimed at, over the course of a body of work, just as H.D. aims at identity through correspondence over the course of a poem. In a way, Hermetic Definition is an incantation loosening the author-persona from the pretentions of a reader or a poetry like Horus, which is an embodiment of a masculine directive for a Perfect Poetry. By loosening, I mean that H.D. declares herself unbeholden to the opinions of a poetry that rejects “preciousness,” which is a form of attention that H.D. embraces. Hermetic Definition is a zodiacal, angelic, and astronomical contemplation. These constellations make the poem a spell, an invocation of self through the writing of the self.

Key to this invocation of self is the apparent dichotomy of male and female, which is arguably central to much of H.D.’s writing. I find that her positioning in history, in the early part of the twentieth century, denies a certain queer reading to H.D.’s texts that I would like to give them, but I do think that H.D.’s poetry is intensely radical in a different feminist sense. While Horus is the voice of masculine pretense--a poetry against preciousness--the aging poet, as H.D. calls herself in the first stanza, along with Venus and Isis and all of the divine feminine in the poem are affirming and delicate voices of the elliptical and precious. In the way I’m imagining them in H.D.’s poetry and in the semiotic-versus-symbolic sense of Julia Kristeva's Powers of Horror, the feminine converges back on itself, as an ellipse, while the masculine is a vector in one direction. H.D. writes Venus/Isis as her god commanding “write or die” for a reason; the feminine elliptical wiggle between subjectivities is where the precious, small choices of delicate lines are valued, as opposed to the direct and projective masculine, and in the power of the feminine Venus there is knowledge and power beyond that of direct denotation.

The semiotic and feminine respects precious and delicate correspondence rather than one-to-one denotation. In the subtle connections of each mythical persona to another, which manifest in the alliterative sounds of words comprising the poem, H.D. constructs a precious poem. I intend that the poem is precious as in delicate, but also as in of immense spiritual value. H.D.’s alchemy spins gold from correspondence — minute correspondences between words — and from this I think her work derives its most potent magic. “I didn’t know why / I must recover the human equation,” the voice of the poet intones (51). This human equation is written through and crafted as the poem is crafted, and I think the equation is an equation specifically of language magic. The persona-H.D. must “keep faith” in something, and that faith becomes manifested in the poem as a product of meditation, a faith in writing as a practice of generating (49).

The human equation H.D. seeks involves languaging the “answer,” whatever that may be, and across her oeuvre answers are almost always coded amongst symbols in sound — mythological characters, for instance, come to share syllabic sounds. These sounds echo and create a magic of symbols. H.D.’s symbolist wordplay holds together a world finely and preciously made from the tiniest threads of language. Small sounds connecting words cause them to seem significant to one another, to rub up against one another. These shared sounds are not proof of connection, but are certainly the crafting of it. Astarte as “a star” is fine and cute, in the way we might use cute today ("precious"), but is not etymologically serious, as in, denotative and masculine (“perfect”). The connections are instead semiotic, feminine, and swim together. H.D. crafts soundscapes in short, delicate tercets in Hermetic Definition; other texts include similarly delicate lineation. H.D.’s oeuvre invests in the depth of an essence beyond the image or symbol itself through sound and other constructed meanings, with the many facets of one symbol or concept reflecting upon itself over the course of a work.

H.D. writes in Hermetic Definition that the man, the “seigneur,” did not teach her how to make a return to reality or an ordinary chronology, which I read as Earth and the integration or sublimation of the experience of the transcendent (44). She writes that she needs that return, needs to be able to stand where she lives, to not step “over the horizon,” since she as a human cannot. This is a nod to the practical aspects of identity and meaning-making. The semiotic sublime may be experienced briefly “over the horizon,” but the return and the sublimation of that experience into the lived person is key. In other words, the symbol’s depth that is crafted through blips of the transcendent, visions of the beyond-the-word, must become rooted in authentic human experience. This is, I think, a forward-thinking reading of H.D.’s poetics that privileges the body more than the esotericism she is generally associated with, and maybe this belies a physical queer poetics to her work, after all. H.D. wants, in this poem, a return to the physical after the incorporation of the experience of the metaphysical. The metaphysical self, the correspondent magic beyond the written image, is only useful if it can be played upon in our “real” world, in our real self. Else, we die.

— Eric