Sunday, November 11, 2007

H.D.'s Helen in Egypt


This weekend I’ve been reading Helen in Egypt. Let me first take a moment to just say, Wow. Helen in Egypt is an extraordinary epic poem. After reading Crane’s The Bridge and Williams’ Paterson, I don’t know whether to be pleased to reach this as it feels like a precipice or to feel somewhat resentful for the time I spent with Crane and Williams. I know, there is enough time for all but still I am just delighted and happy about reading Helen in Egypt. I finish sections and go back and read them again.

The things that I admire about this poem are many. First, the incredible use of form. The entire poem is in tercets with ample use of meter and rhyme such that it sings on the page. Seriously, I have to close the book and not just set it down otherwise there is this beautiful music come from the book. It seems to be silenced when the book is closed, though there is a small voice singing from it even then. Second, this is a book that both has a powerful narrative and that resists narrative in fascinating ways. H.D. really uses notes effectively to talk about the text throughout it, and not in the ways that create distraction as Crane and Williams did. The entire text is well-conceived and controlled in its execution. At the same time, the voices are many in the book and the perspective changes. It doesn’t comply with a master narrative but weaves itself together wholly and organically. I know that something will be made at the end, but not from a pattern, not form fitting, but useful. And meaningful.

This week for writing about this text, I am given these instructions:

H.D. was preoccupied with the myth of Helen, the face that launched a thousand ships, and with its grip on the Western imagination for her entire career. Susan Stanford Friedman argued that "Helen in Egypt, written from 1952 to 1956 and published just before H.D. died in 1961, epitomizes the impact of Freud's ideas on her development of aesthetic form." In the epic, Friedman argues, "the aesthetic image has become psychological hieroglyph, the visual script 'that concealed yet revealed' the enigma of the buried self" (see, for example, HE, p. 44).

For discussion board this week, please choose any passage you wish from Helen in Egypt, or any sequence of events or character, and muse upon the "aesthetic image" as "psychological hieroglyph," the buried self and its revelation or masking in mythological personae.

To respond to that, I’m going to look at the fourth poem in the second book of “Pallinode.” Here it is in its entirety.

This is the spread of wings,
whether the Straits claimed them
or the Cyclades,

whether they floundered on the Pontic seas
or ran aground before the Hellespont,
whether they shouted Victory at the gate,

whether the bowmen shot them from the Walls,
whether they crowded surging through the breach,
or died of fever on the smitten plain,

whether they rallied and came home again,
in the worn hulks, half-rotted from the salt
or sun-warped on the beach,

whether they scattered or in companies
or three or two sought the old ways of home,
whether they wandered as Odysseus did,

encountering new adventures, they are one;
no, I was not instructed, but I “read” the script,
I read the writing when he seized my throat,

this was his anger,
they were mine, not his,
the unnumbered host;

mine, all the ships,
mine all the thousand petals of the rose,
mine, all the lily-petals,

mine the great spread of wings,
the thousand sails,
the thousand feathered darts

that sped them home,
mine, the one dart in the Achilles-heel,
the thousand-and-one, mine.

It was Helen’s face that launched a thousand ships and brought about the war. In this poem, H.D. meditates as Helen on the ships that carry her face. In the first five stanzas of this poem, Helen thinks about from where the ships came. The Straits or the Cyclades both near the Greek islands, the Pontic seas, near Turkey, and then about what the conditions were for the men on the boats. Some declared Victory as they were leaving, others died of fever, while others came home. H. D. describes life on the boats and the raves of the sea in the stanza with worn hulks, half-rotted and sun-warped. She realizes that some of the sailors on these boats wandered as Odysseus, but all she asserts are one. She knows this not because she was instructed but because, “I ”read“ the script.” Here is where the poem turns and gathers its power driving to it’s conclusion.

Up until this point, the ship has been the aesthetic image that H. D. is working with as a psychological hieroglyph. The flattening of Helen as the face on the ships that launch the war is first used by H.D. in the description that launches this poem, but then the poetic ‘I’ enters with the knowledge of having read the script and then in an imbroglio with whom? - Osiris? the host of Spirits? Achilles? the men on the ships? He seizes her by her throat, but she grapples the anger back from him. Helen, once the voiceless face is not speaking and declaring that all of the ships are hers, all the thousand petals of the rose, all the lily-petals. Using anaphora from the beginning of the third from the end stanza to the final word, Helen declares definitively her agency and ownership of both her image and her psychological state of being.

This power and strength is emblematic of much of the book. H.D. has both a strong sense of imagery and psyche as well as a rhetorical power that is at the top of its form. If you haven’t read Helen in Egypt. Do so now. Don’t delay.

1 comment:

Amanda said...

It's a shame that H.D. doesn't seem to receive the amount of recognition she deserves. I've been reading Hermione, and even though H.D.'s better known for her poetry, her prose is very musical as well. It's absolutely captivating. I'll have to give Helen in Egypt a go sometime soon!

(And I'm sorry for commenting on such an old post, it was one of the first ones that came up when I searched for something to do with H.D., I can't recall what exactly, and I felt a need to comment since you seem to share my passion for her)