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H.D.’s Trilogy and Beyond


Edited by Hélène Aji, Antoine Cazé, Agnès Derail-Imbert & Clément Oudart


Collection Intercalaires : Agrégation d’anglais, Littérature et civilisation anglo-saxonnes

Nanterre : Presses Universitaires Paris-Ouest, 2014

Paperback. 181 p. ISBN 978-2840161936. 12 €


Reviewed by Nicholas Manning

Université Paris-Sorbonne


From the status of a periphery figure initially associated with the short-lived early twentieth-century movement of poetic Imagism, Hilda Doolittle – or “H.D.” as she not unproblematically came to be known – has experienced an extraordinary critical ascension. Like Apollinaire’s Christ as aviator – a famous and appropriately paradoxical symbol of Modernity – H.D.’s meteoric rise may seem like a swift and simple vertiginous climb: a sign, moreover, of the contemporary willingness to reconsider (and perhaps re-consecrate) literary Modernism’s unfairly neglected avatars. As always, however, such a re-evaluation is not without its concordant risks. H.D.’s ascent has in fact been long and arduous, won by hard critical struggle, notably on the part of feminist critics seeking to establish variant models not only of literary history, but of the more general relation of language itself to structures of dominance, hierarchy and orthodoxy.

In H.D.’s Trilogy and Beyond – edited by Hélène Aji, Antoine Cazé, Agnès Derail-Imbert, and Clément Oudart – Hélène Aji sets the tone of this crucial critical turn in her introduction to this, the second volume (after H.D. and Modernity, Éditions rue d’Ulm, 2014) to emerge from the international conference held at the École normale supérieure in December, 2013:

[H.D.’s] poems are not mythological musings, or fantastical visions, projected on the page by an aestheticizing post-Imagiste. They emerge from a world in turmoil and still attempt to abide by the Modernist imperative of “thought” and “invention”, which the terror of the war so radically threatens. [9]

We are witness here to a gesture representative of the volume as a whole, but also of recent decades of critical reappraisal of H.D.’s work, namely: the explicit historicising of this poetics, both within the context of modern literary histories (become necessarily plural), and within the lived, socio-political histories of the twentieth century. Such historicisation, both temporal and spatial, is often inevitably situated with relation to the spectre of the post. Post-war, post-Imagism, post-Modernity… While partly legitimate, this analeptic orientation risks limiting poets such as H.D. to a perspective of reflective witnessing “after the event”, at odds with the truly transformative energies at play in a poetics conceived as a veritable “chrysalis” of semantic and epistemological metamorphosis.

Christine Battersby precisely interrogates H.D’s link here to the notion of the “postmodern” (“H.D., the Postmodern and the Mending of Time: the Air War and ‘May 1943’” : 19-27), situating H.D. in terms of Lyotard’s argument that, as Battersby summarises, “the postmodern is not a period of history which is to be located on a linear time-line, and which succeeds modernity in a chronological sequence,” but rather “a disruptive tendency within avant-garde art which takes up and reworks that which modernity seeks to forget or repress” [19]. Disruption and remembrance are here explicitly linked, and the linking of the events of history comes to be associated not merely with a process of ordering – instigating a reductive unicity – but of multifarious breaking in order to repair. This quest for simultaneous renewal and remembrance is linked of course to what Hélène Aji calls H.D.’s “double function of the poem: to provide a discourse about the conditions of knowledge, and to generate plural interpretations of an incomprehensible, and unreadable modern world” [9].

The complexity of this epistemological task is, of course, not to be underestimated: it precludes a consideration of knowledge as a dominant, hegemonic category or discourse, apt to dictate what will, or will not, be considered as a worthy part of a limited epistemological spectrum. Instead, knowledge is necessarily exploratory, and enduringly partial; the critical challenge is to create a form of engagement with this poetic which reflects, both structurally and hermeneutically, this on-going quest for a never-settled teleology, whose openness and undecidability precisely constitutes its unstable value.

In other words, “inscription requires erasure” (Kalck : 56), and such erasure may imply, on the part of critics, an explicit and necessary scepticism regarding the tempting impulse to “canonise” H.D.’s poetics. Concretely speaking, H.D.’s recent place in the syllabus of the French Agrégation would have been unimaginable some decades ago. Is such canonisation an explicit risk for the contemporary re-evaluation of her poetics, for the reason that H.D. consistently opposes the reification of neglected texts (including, perhaps, her own) to the status of dominant codex? Must H.D. herself not become a “canonical” figure of modern poetics, for the reason that her very poetic project tirelessly seeks to undo such idolatry, which has a tendency to exclude so-called heterodoxical traditions to the margins of lived experience? Erecting a literary-historical statue to H.D.’s life and work would thus clearly be wrongheaded on many levels, negating one of the fundamental impetuses of this work. But is our reticence to approach H.D.’s status in this way also an engrained response, forged out of the repressive fire of dominant traditions themselves?

The articles in this volume provide answers to many of these complex questions. For if Cristanne Miller (“Revising Whitman’s Repetitions, or H.D.’s Feminist Leaves of ‘dune-grass’” : 119-137) concentrates on affinities between H.D.’s poetics processes and Whitman’s “radically liberating free verse of the 1850s” – because of its “visionary linking of past, present, and future; its connection of historical and spiritual strains; and stylistically in its directness of expression, its strategic uses of repetition, and its manipulation of apparent dichotomies to debunk old assumptions or truths” [119] – it is not to “canonise” H.D. within an established (but revised) pantheon of accepted Modernism. Cristanne Miller’s aim is clearly not here to make of H.D. “the new Whitman”, or even to see in her a poet who bears the mantle of a Whitmanian process into Modernity. Rather, it is question of identifying, by way of detailed sonic and prosodic analysis, H.D.’s clear place in an exploratory, emancipatory, plural poetic lineage, which precisely aims “to liberate not through insistence or inclusion but by iterating steps or stages in a direction the reader may find open to exploration – making each repetition an opportunity to comprehend anew.” [124].

Plurality, then, does not necessarily imply eclecticism, and the declension of approaches evident in this volume in no way equates with diffusion or chaos. Far more so than her fellow Modernists, the margins of H.D.’s poetics are both tensile and highly porous: they invite an inclusiveness on par with the syncretic thrust which underlies H.D.’s federating aesthetic process.

One of the distinct advantages of the plurality of approaches evident in H.D.’s Trilogy and Beyond – which the supremely open horizon of the term Beyond in the text’s title accounts for – is its inclusion of what may still appear “marginal” concerns. Moreover, it is not about claiming that such margins are in fact central; on the contrary, the interest of many contributors, in a gesture reminiscent of H.D.’s own, is to claim that such questions’ marginality is what constitutes their value. Such marginality thus cannot be negated without negating a crucial scope of this poetics, which seeks not to “repatriate” marginality – whether concerning questions of sexuality, the psyche, occult or arcane traditions – back within the borders of the sphere of accepted thought or discourse, but, in an inverse process of legitimation, seeks to export such legitimacy, so that apparently “marginal” concerns become invested with a specific – and specifically periphery – value.

A variety of marginalised figures, traditions and texts are thus rehabilitated and reformed. Jane Augustine for instance (“’Do you want to be the founder of a new religion?’ H.D.’s Spiritual Politics and Path in Modernity” : 11-19) enlighteningly explores H.D.’s lesser-known Pilate’s Wife, which like Helen in Egypt, represents the giving of voice to a female historical figure alternately rejected, neglected and reviled by patriarchal traditions. Vincent Dussol (“‘Bags of Possibles’. Healing the Gap: On H.D., Thomas McGrath & Montage” : 45-53) and François Bovier (“H.D. et le cinéma : le modèle de l’« écriture pictographique »” : 27-37) explore in varying ways H.D.’s relation to visual language and representation. Cinema for Dussol (with its associated processes such as montage), and pictographic writing for Bovier, represent crucial alternatives for H.D. in the re-imagining of the potentially reductive dangers of nominal, designative, alphabetic inscription. Like Egyptian hieroglyphs or H.D.’s famous “The Writing on the Wall”, these varying experiences of signification provide H.D. with a new way to rethink poetic language more generally, partially liberating the signifier from the referential, representational, one-to-one correspondence of semantic orthodoxy.

Such semantic and pictorial liberation occurs here in the context of the revision of a number of key notions such as montage. As Dussol argues, H.D.’s poetic instigates, “a softer and broader view of montage” [48] more reliant on the specific vision of the notion in Eisenstein, over the “meticulous jig-saw puzzle technique” (H.D., qtd in Dussol : 48) which H.D. equates with the notion in her 1930 essay on the film Borderline. Indeed, as Dussol shows, this idea of a montage closer to H.D.’s familiar term of vibration provides us with a crucial point of distinction with Poundian techniques of cultural and linguistic disjunction, everywhere present in The Cantos, and particularly in the ambiguous “capitulation” of Poundian process: “I cannot make it cohere”.

David Ten Eyck (“The Modernist Poetics of H.D.’s Trilogy and Ezra Pound’s Pisan Cantos: A Comparative Study” : 157-171) explores the crucial similarities and distinctions between H.D. and Pound’s respective poetics, and proposes an enlightening exploration of “some of the main difficulties that arise when we attempt to associate Trilogy and The Pisan Cantos” [159], revealingly noting for instance that “H.D.’s handling of historical subject matter, by contrast [to Pound’s], involves felt presences (or absences) rather than voices” [162]. The contrast of varying poetic techniques, and the integration of the sacred in differing ways by both Pound and H.D., allow us to comprehend the fundamental distinctions at the heart of a key Modernist divide. For Pound, in stark contrast to H.D., “the individual’s life can be made to intersect with the sphere of the gods if he or she is prepared, and knows where to look – and he or she might be able to grasp these divine energies temporarily – but the mortal and eternal spheres cannot be brought into lasting correspondence with one another” [167].

From questions of the margins of spiritual and transcendent experience, we pass into the realm of practical, lived borders. For as Céline Mansanti observes in her detailed analysis of H.D.’s relation to the contemporary publishing landscape of literary magazines (“Scattering and Gathering: H.D. and Little Magazines” : 63-77), “H.D.’s marginalization as a writer is perceptible both in some critical reviews and in the way she was introduced to the reader in some bio-biographical notes of the magazines” – such as her indicated status as “Mrs Richard Aldington” in The North American Review [68], where, like a subservient partner, her poem directly follows Aldington’s own – and goes on to detail a range of patriarchal reactions to H.D.’s poetics in her contemporary critical climate. Already, the notion of H.D.’s “obscurity” is coloured by explicitly gendered overtones, as in F.S. Flint’s remarks in The Egotist that H.D.’s poetry represents “a kind of ‘accurate mystery’”, and that “the more you attempt to reason about it the less you will get out of it” (Flint qtd in Mansanti : 67). Céline Mansanti of course correctly sees in such gestures “the classic argument of women’s irrationality”, and the site of little magazines themselves as a paradoxical one, providing simultaneous (and partly desired?) marginalisation, as well as a place for identarian exploration and play.

We may give as further example of such margins Sanna Melin Schyllert’s analysis of the links in H.D. between feminism and spiritual experience (“H.D., Feminism, and the Modern Spiritualist Experience” : 111-119), or Matte Robinson’s analysis of H.D.’s relation, articulated in her Hirslanden Notebooks, to the kabbalistic practices of Robert Ambelain. Concerning the latter example, an analysis of what may initially appear a marginal reference on the contrary proves the extent to which, for the later H.D. and passing through Ambelain, inner subjective questioning was central: “the inward gaze, the desire to correct the inner imbalances through hermetism before correcting the outward ones through magic – choosing the Hermetist over the Magician – is the character of H.D.’s work in the 1950s, a departure from her soteriological work of the 1940s” (Matte Robinson, “Reintegration: Kabbalah and Spiritualism in H.D.’s Late Work” : 147-157, 154).

Such concentration on marginalised specifics of H.D.’s poetics is also theoretically justified by Xavier Kalck’s observation that “H.D.’s project relies on a logic of disclosure, enclosure and erasure”, implying that “if we wish to move beyond an understanding of H.D.’s syncretism in terms of its successful performance alone, we need to study her poetic particulars before they are fused into more ambivalent reconciliations than it seems” (“Temple, Tenet, Template: H.D.’s Trilogy of Disclosure, Enclosure, Erasure” : 53-63, 53). The critical error to which Kalck is specifically referring is the desire to see H.D. merely as a poet of harmonious, ultimate fusion, who proposes unproblematic coalescence as an invariable solution to an inherently problematic, agonistic world. The preservation of the particulars of this poetic is, in this context, a gesture of solidarity with such particulars’ unwillingness to entirely “cohere” (in a Poundian sense), and thus to conform. The final possible, but in no way unproblematic or guaranteed, reconciliation is crucial, but so too all prior stages leading to such fusion, as well as their autonomy and relative specificity. For, throughout this, “what is mourned”, as Cyrena Pondrom remarks in her analysis of the relation of H.D.’s poetics to T.S. Eliot’s, “is separation from the Other, the impossibility of absolute union. For both H.D. and Eliot this separation is figured – historically – in terms of a lost erotic union; transcendentally, the loss is figured as separation from an unnameable concept of Deity” (Cyrena Pondrom, “Literary Filiations: H.D. and Eliot (Re)Write History” : 137-147, 140). In this context, we never lose sight of the fact that, for H.D., this dialectic is a cyclical process, in which the moment of transcendent, perhaps purely projected, juncture is no more nor less important than preceding moments of spiritual disunity.

This process is nothing less than an explicit critique of conceptions of poetry’s relation to history as a simplistic, linear, meliorist teleology: “For H.D. and Eliot, as for Benjamin, the subject must give up the idea of progress, or arrival at a goal one selects" [145]. H.D.s’ Trilogy and Beyond consistently proves then the extent to which H.D., far from hovering “above” historical and contextual realities in a plane of abstract spiritual transcendence, is precisely a poet profoundly “of her time”. As Annette Debo demonstrates (“‘How many blitz-nights, did you spend in London?’ H.D., World War II, and (Re)Writing History” : 37-45), H.D.’s “epic Trilogy is widely acclaimed, but its critical reception has helped further the misconception that H.D. rejected her present in favour of ancient cultures and their mythologies” [37]. By analysing H.D.’s comparatively neglected Within the Walls, which deliver accounts of “the material realities of the war” – such as “a daughter driving a mobile canteen”, “the tens of thousands of civilian casualties by 1941”, “the political climate and Russia’s participation”, or the crucial importance of food and nourishment in this poetics – Annette Debo helps to dispel the myth of a detached, sublimated writing, focused primarily on the much longer chronologies of Myth over history. Food is not, then, simply “symbolic” of something else in a work such as Trilogy, but also “simply” what it seems; and the presence, in poems such as “May 1943”, of everyday “anaemic faces in the line/ waiting in the bread queue” [40], links physical deprivation with the spiritual deprivation omnipresent in the contemporary realities of the war.

This attack on H.D.’s status as poète engagé is representative of an unfavourable myth regarding modern poetics more generally: firstly, its dehistoricising nature – its tendency to prefer the personal, lyrical or expressive sublime, over pragmatic realities – and secondly, when it is engaged with historical context, its tendency to waver into violent ideologies (Marinetti’s martial Futurism, or Pound’s disturbing Fascism immediately spring to mind). Such myths, of course, while laden with their own part of truth, also effectively negate or underplay the work of modern poets deeply engaged in questions of social and political justice, such as Charles Reznikoff, Muriel Rukeyser, or Adrienne Rich.

In this specific type of historical engagement, H.D., as Fiona McMahon puts it (“Enchantment among the ruins in H.D.’s Trilogy” : 101-111), “may favor transformation over transmission” [104]. It is an elegant formula, partly because transmission always, necessarily, entails transformation as an integral part of its symbolic and temporal unfolding. In becoming else, “it” is passed on; and indeed, this process of transferral is not possible without the necessary subjective reception and modification of this history within the living subject. Or as McMahon later observes: “The re-enchantment of a world bound to a historical continuum of war is realized once poetry begins to mirror this transformational scheme” [109].

Susan McCabe explores one such transformational process in her “‘Geographical Emotions’: Bryher & Walter Benjamin, ‘the last European’”, which explores the pivotal impact Bryher (H.D.’s long-term partner), as well as H.D. herself, were to have on Benjamin’s life and philosophical project, through the stimulating notion of “geographical emotions” present in both Bryher’s and Benjamin’s work. Throughout this symbolic and real, affective and purely pragmatic (financial, logistical, administrative) help provided to Benjamin, McCabe traces a new landscape of Modernist interactions, wherein “Modernist geography became a matter of fractured movement, wired frontiers, visas, trains, ‘zones’: in short, triggers for emotions such as anxiety, dread and melancholy, each in part provoked by arbitrary national identities” [84]. Again, there is at stake here not only the historicisation of H.D. and her particular temporal continuum, but also the localisation of her poetics within a contextual environment, within a network of fellow uprooted intellectual “voyagers”, and within a changing and uprooted locale. Such poetic localisation implies a new definition of such notions as nationality, community, allegiance, and identarian belonging. “Bryher’s transnavigating role in modernism’s narrative”, as McCabe observes, “revises how we understand H.D.’s creative processes, sexuality and her geopolitics” [98]. Transnavigation is here another mode of the undoing of dominant borders – whether between periods, traditions, or physically traced across the surface of a devastated modern earth.

H.D.’s Trilogy and Beyond is an invaluable contribution to the present flourishing of H.D. scholarship, both within the United States and abroad. If it is indeed true that H.D.’s poetics is partly a work of “aftermath”, it does not see the various aftermaths characteristic of modernity as end-points, but rather as spatial sign-posts and temporal markers in an isochronic process of spiritual and hermeneutic renewal. The irony of H.D.’s neglected place in literary history thus links crucially with her focus, throughout her entire poetics, on figures, texts and traditions excluded to the margins. The marginalisation of a poet uniquely concentrated on the rehabilitation of margins themselves: this is the vital, solipsistic paradox of literary history to which this volume, like the entirety of H.D.’s contemporary re-evaluation, bears witness.



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