Hybrid H.D.

 

by avon
By the Maury River–closest I’ve got

 

I’ve been swimming around in H.D.’s work since my undergraduate years, on the recommendation of the writer I eventually married. I started with her memoirs of Freud and Pound, trekking up to the sunny top floor of the University of Southampton library to find them, then worked backwards to the poetry, which became central to my 1994 dissertation and then my first book, The Poetics of Enclosure. I’m a poetry professor, primarily, with a deep love for lyric and lyric sequences, so most of the H.D. I teach is from the Collected Poems. But it’s been a 21st century thrill to watch a few of her other books come back into print, midwifed by generous H.D. scholars. The latest is the paperback version of By Avon Riverscrupulously edited by Lara Vetter (published in 2014 in hardcover, but now an eminently teachable $16.95 paperback, folks!).

The reason I use the word “hybrid”: H.D.’s book, like some proto-crypto-creative-writing-PhD-thesis, consists of three longish Shakespeare-related poems plus an extended prose meditation, full of quotes, about Elizabethan verse. Vetter’s introduction explains the project’s origin in three trips H.D. made from Blitz-ravaged London, at the close of World War II, to Stratford-upon-Avon. The first, on Shakespeare Day 1945, was almost a pilgrimage. As Vetter puts it, “Shakespeare is an icon, standing in for England in times of strife” (26). H.D. loved England and was thrilled to celebrate its survival, along with many other pilgrims, by immersing herself in English art and history. I agree with Vetter, however, that H.D. was far from Bardolatrous. By Avon River represents Shakespeare as a genius but also a poacher, implicated in British imperialist violence. Interestingly, too, Shakespeare is not so central to H.D.’s project as her title might imply. The literary-critical part of the book really concerns not so much Shakespeare as his milieu–less-celebrated poets, some very obscure now. And her poems revolve around a character referenced in The Tempest, Claribel, who never even appears onstage. Shakespeare mentioned her, more or less, and then forgot her.

By Avon River is resonating with me in part because of its hybridity. First published in 1949, the book did well–never a given for H.D.–receiving many laudatory reviews. This makes it an important precursor for later literary experiments. As Vetter argues, and as Cynthia Hogue reiterates in her back-cover endorsement, women writers late in the modernist period deserve more credit for their “hybrid works located at the juncture of personal, national, and nationalist concerns.” Hear, hear. But let me add: trying to publish hybrid work, many decades later, is still awful. I haven’t yet placed my creative- critical ms, Poetry’s Possible Worlds, even editors have praised it to me, and every time I reread it, too, having come to doubt myself, I get convinced all over again that it’s strong work. It’s just in the margins between everyone’s carefully articulated marketing plans.

And that connects to something else I appreciate about By Avon River. I read it as the meditation of an artistically ambitious woman nearing 60 who feels connected to Shakespeare (through bisexuality, among other ways) but knows she is not the Bard, not the poet who most indelibly articulates her time and place, if the 20th century even has one. I’m nearing 50 and while remaining as ambitious for my art as any poet you’ll ever meet, I find myself thinking a lot lately about my own unimportance. That’s not entirely a bad thing. It’s a condition I share, after all, with pretty much every other member of the human race. Sane people, I suspect, keep this demoralizing truth in the back of their minds and just keep trying to do their best work anyway.

H.D. writes of the more than 100 Elizabethan poets and dramatists whose names survive: “Not one is negligible” (76). She quotes their verses admiringly anrosemaryd speculates about their lives, respecting what it means to pen even just one poem that lasts for centuries. Their achievements, she insists, “must not be forgotten” (97). She also writes appreciatively of Shakespeare saying farewell to the court, and his own stature, through The Tempest: “there is no hint of bitterness or rivalry. If he is to be elbowed out, he will at least, give at the last, a demonstration of good manners” (101).

H.D. didn’t know if any of her own work would delight readers in 2017, and none of us knows if it will three centuries from now. In By Avon River, I hear her pondering this unpredictability and deciding she can live with it. All poetic effort matters, in the end, because the many strivers make a few shining successes possible. Besides, she’s on the side of the little guys, having vowed to be one of the historians, one of the rememberers. Bless them all.

I read her focus on Claribel in her lovely verses the same way. Maybe Claribel is not the hero of the drama, but “It is enough,/ I live forever” (61). H.D. knew, likewise, by the mid-forties, that she did have at least a small place in literary history. I personally rate H.D.’s work infinitely beyond footnote-status, but it’s bracing to dip into her thoughts about ambition and history and remember that she was just navigating currents, too, at water-level-perspective. Who knows where any of us will wash up?

Doctored

The latest Wheeler-Gavaler time-travel expedition: a Virginia bed and breakfast presided over by a former patient of Dr. William Carlos Williams.

anderson cottage

Ten or twelve years ago, my mom came to stay with the kids as Chris and I, feeling desperate from too much work and too much toddler-chasing, retreated to Warm Springs for a weekend. Thomas Jefferson made the same escape once, although he was more afflicted by rheumatism than toddlers or email. The Homestead in nearby Hot Springs being well out of our price range, we stayed near the Jefferson Pools and took the waters gratefully, although we did mosey into the resort for afternoon tea, as friends had recommended. We loved our B&B, Anderson Cottage, built around 1790. One of the oldest buildings in Bath County, it’s seated alongside a warm stream thick with tadpoles and loud with frogs by twilight. We stayed in the main house, which is full of interesting old books and Asian art, and enjoyed talking to the proprietor, Jean Graham Randolph Bruns. I told her I was a poetry professor and was startled to learn that Williams had been her pediatrician, although she doesn’t remember him. While she was still little, the Depression dried up most of the potential employment for her father, a civil engineer. Her family left Rutherford in the early 30s and returned to Virginia.

During our first visit, I decided we’d come back some year with somewhat older kids and stay in the adjacent cottage, formerly a separate kitchen built a few decades after the main house. I didn’t expect to wait so long!–virtually to the last moment, since Madeleine is off to college in September and won’t be making many, or any, spring getaways with us again. We brought baguettes and cheeses for a Friday night picnic by the stream, took walks, enjoyed the liberty of bad cellphone reception. The kids were pretty skeptical about spending the morning soaking in sulphur-smelling water, and the old wooden buildings are indeed decrepit. They look just as in old black-and-white photos, in fact, except that the men wear clothes now during “family swim” (rather than bathing naked) and women have traded in their rompers. They were surprised to enjoy themselves, I think. In fact, we probably soaked too long, because we were staggering around hot and dizzy for hours after.

I’m not sure how many guests Jean hosts these days, but breakfast table conversation at the B&B is still literary. The two other visitors were retired professors (linguistics and law) who have returned religiously since the 1980s. We talked about poems we’d memorized in school; I’m fairly certain Jean can still recite “The Raven” in its entirety, although she only treated us to a few lines. She’s a descendant of the Andersons for whom the cottage is named (it used to be Locustlyn before the locust trees died, and in other incarnations housed a tavern and Miss Daingerfield’s School for Girls). I had just been reading about John Randolph of Roanoke in connection with Ezra Pound’s Canto LXXXVIII, so I asked her if her maiden name linked her to the old Virginia clan. “Oh, yes, descendant of Pocahontas, cousin to Jefferson, all that,” she said, smiling, and yes, when I searched for her name just now, I found those genealogies. Jean has grandchildren in Thailand, so the First Families of Virginia have traveled far.

Our last stop before leaving on Sunday morning was to the Warm Springs cemetery. Bath County is Civil War territory, site of hospitals and skirmishes, and some of the old stones are dated even earlier. My daughter rolls her eyes when I want to poke around the clover: why, mom? Do you LIKE to get freaked out? In fact, nothing seemed eerie about that green hill or, for that matter, our 1820s kitchen cottage, although the lower floor seemed permanently damp and cool. Food storage, once? Servant and/or slave quarters? Bath County produced officers who served on both sides of the Civil War, but enslaved people certainly helped build and maintain a village that now seems so quaint and peaceful, the old violence effaced. And while the bathers at Jefferson Pools are multiethnic now, the attendants are still African American, just as in those black-and-white pictures. These creased mountains ought to be haunted.

Time past pervades time present, to mangle a T. S. Eliot quote–the quickly-shifting local mist seems like an apt metaphor for how yesterday obscures today, and then suddenly evanesces. Certainly I was tripping over my own temporal slippages all weekend. The little son who so tired me out once is taller than I am now and finishing middle school. I saw Warm Springs palimpsestically, with several kinds of history layered beneath its May greenery. There may be no more locust trees on the Anderson Cottage property, but there’s an enormous lilac, the biggest I’ve ever seen. And there are still a few cones of bloom left.

  

Poems including history

I asked Robert Sullivan at a recent reading about the role of history in his poems. He replied, “I’m making a genre argument that historians are, like poets, imaginative writers; that poetry is also well equipped for these conversations; and that the historical can also be personal.” (I suspect those semicolons are all mine, but I’ll save my comments on orality for another day.) I admire his point—accounts of the past are never neutral and there’s no reason they need to be prose. The “poem containing history,” though (Ezra Pound’s phrase), is usually epic or long poetry. The brevity of lyric requires different modes of argument. Even in a lyric sequence with narrative elements, any tale is full of skips, blanks, recursions; metaphor and music have their own logic and can’t always accommodate names, dates, and other factual details.

So how can a lyric poem contain history? When in “Indian Cartography” Deborah Miranda remaps California, she embeds a narrative of colonization in her list of place names: “Tuolomne, / Salinas, Los Angeles, Paso Robles, / Ventura, Santa Barbara, Saticoy, / Tehachapi.” The displacement suffered by her family is the very ground of the poem, the landscape she assumes, and her poem constitutes an imaginative return to those waters, that earth. Words themselves, their textures and etymologies, widen a poem’s field. That’s also true in “The Day Lady Died” by Frank O’Hara, with its train times and brand names. The speaker grabs “an ugly NEW WORLD WRITING to see what the poets / in Ghana are doing these days” and suddenly race is in the poem, many lines before Billie Holiday sings. Think even of Emily Dickinson’s “Publication – is the Auction / Of the Mind of Man –.” The first word sends you in one direction, chasing after the agoraphobic belle of Amherst, but this is a politically astute New Englander writing in the middle of the nineteenth century. After images of auctions and whiteness, she concludes her four quatrains with the ringing imperative: “reduce no Human Spirit / To Disgrace of Price –.” Of course she’s thinking about abolition. It’s tricky; I say she’s condemning slavery but you could also accuse her of using that vast, terrible trauma as a metaphor for her own situation. That’s one risk of opening a newspaper inside your stanzas. Your poem can gain power, or the world can shrink absurdly.

There are stories inside words themselves, but collage and direct quotation are also important strategies; visual elements such as typefaces, margins, and gaps can signal temporal and spatial shifts; titles, dedications, and notes can carry some of the burden of context. Within the lines, verb tenses and pronouns also involve highly-charged decisions. The poet is always in the poem somewhere, but how far inside the frame does she stand? In one of Robert Sullivan’s sequences about Captain Cook, “For the Ocean of Kiwa” in the book Voice Carried My Family, he represents the Polynesian members of Cook’s various crews, beginning well inside the frame. Addressing one of those men, Mai, Sullivan protests, “I just can’t take the middle of your throat. / Who would I pay for the privilege?” (28). Nevertheless, he keeps stepping back, out of the picture. That anxious “I” appears only once in the following poem, and by the next, the first person pronouns belong to those Polynesian crew members, speaking in the present tense.

When fictionalizing a real person’s voice in a poem, I think it’s best to acknowledge the transgression as Sullivan does. However, when I brought up that issue on Wom-po, The Discussion of Women’s Poetry List, a couple of writers, Eve Rifkah and Pat Valdata, explained why they disagreed. Valdata wrote, “if you have no personal connection to the people involved then it seems self-serving to make the poem about your own life and your own issues” (Fri, 18 Mar 2011 16:40:26). Many problems unfold from our contrasting views: what stories does a person own? Are there tales a privileged European-American like me should never presume to tell? Is there an extra burden on poetry as a genre (as opposed to, say, historical fiction)—is it inevitably personal? And anyone writing history as lyric has to decide what her goals are, what kind of experience she wants her readers and listeners to have. A poem engaging the past can provoke, evoke, give answers, or leave disturbing questions hanging in the silence.

Addressing history in a poem is one way of constructing a community. The affiliation is through time rather than, or as well as, across space. Some might say that cross-temporal community can’t exist because one side of the conversation is always already over. I talk to dead poets all the time, though, and their poems are complex enough to present new answers. And I recently heard a similar point made by digital archivists who are trying to change the ownership of history by making original documents available online—letters, maps, early printed texts, often in nineteenth-century Maori. One of them said at the end of his presentation, almost as an aside, that he often felt guided by the tupuna; his ancestors collaborate in the project. Some documents pop up just as you need them; others hide, or the computer breaks down. “You know they want you to tell the story,” he said, smiling, “because they allow you to.”