Duncan's Divagations: On Robert Duncan and H.D. | The Nation


Duncan's Divagations: On Robert Duncan and H.D.

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The arcane, the esoteric, the occult—these were the elements of poetry in Duncan’s earliest memory. He tells the story of his adoptive grandmother, who wandered inconsolably among the spiritualist circles of the Northwest after the deaths of two babies. His Aunt Fay’s supernatural stories were yet another feeder stream back into his genesis as a poet:

The H.D. Book
By Robert Duncan.
Edited by Michael Boughn and Victor Coleman.
Buy this book

About the Author

Ange Mlinko
Ange Mlinko
Ange Mlinko is poetry editor of The Nation. The recipient of the Randall Jarrell Award in Poetry Criticism from the...

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Saving the venerable NYPL… cooperation, not capitalism… a jewel in the dross… you could look it up…

How was Emily Dickinson able to be frugal and fruitful in her art?

The soul, my mother’s sister, my Aunt Fay, told me years later, was like a swarm of bees, and, at night, certain entities of that swarm left the body-hive and went to feed in fields of helium…. Fate, faith, feign, and fair, we find, following the winding associations of fay, fey, and fairy, in the Oxford English Dictionary, are closely related. From many roots, words gathered into one stem of meaning, confused into a collective suggestion. There is fay, too, from old Teutonic *fôgjan, to join, to fix.”

Hence, too, to an embrace of “fairy” as in queer, effeminate.

The Duncan family’s enthusiasm for the Theosophist Madame Blavatsky was contemporaneous with her association with Yeats when he was in his early 20s. Yeats is a touchstone for Duncan. Through his friendship with Pound, Yeats became part of an Imagist circle where his Helen—the offspring of “Leda and the Swan”—mingled with H.D.’s Helen, and his membership in the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn, a group of occultists active in turn-of-the-century Britain, paralleled her obsession with the ancient temple complex at Karnak, Egypt. Blavatsky’s counterculturalism was of a kind with the poets’: Yeats believed that poetry had “a secret tradition and doctrine”; H.D. believed “we are the keepers of the secret.”

The arcane was not limited to the supernatural; after Freud, the natural was arcane too. H.D. wrote a memoir of her sessions with Freud, and averred that he had thought of psychoanalysis as a kind of religion. Despite this, his disavowal of the “oceanic feeling” of limitlessness induced by religion marks him as a man of science, not poetry. One of The H.D. Book’s most rewarding tangents is when Duncan criticizes Freud for his work of disenchantment, The Future of an Illusion: “The man who would present himself without the dimensions of dream and fantasy, much less the experience of illusion and error, who would render the true from the false by voiding the fictional and the doubtful, diminishes the human experience.” Duncan speculated that Freud repressed his own infant pleasure in fairy tales when he witnessed his father, who was from Moravia, chiding his nanny, who was overheard imparting Catholic nonsense to the child.

H.D. was raised in a pacifist Pennsylvania Moravian sect, her birthplace was Bethlehem and the eight childhood years she had there were some of the happiest she would ever know. Duncan believed there was a Moravian connection between Freud and H.D., just as he believed there was a rhyme between the baby that H.D. lost in a flu epidemic in 1915 and the mother who died giving birth to Duncan in 1919—the year H.D. almost died of the flu. Repeatedly in The H.D. Book he quotes her lines:

the meanings that words hide;
they are anagrams, cryptograms,
little boxes, conditioned
to hatch butterflies…

“The very heightened sense of the relatedness of everything,” Duncan wrote, “set poets apart.”

* * *

“All ages are contemporaneous,” Pound declared in The Spirit of Romance. The complaint against H.D. was that she was anachronistic, but Duncan’s apologia does not offer counterarguments. If Pound was right—and H.D., and Duncan—then the English mystical poet Thomas Traherne had had the last word in the seventeenth century: “Men do mightily wrong themselves when they refuse to be present in all ages and neglect to see the beauty of all kingdoms.”

An important conceit for H.D. was the palimpsest: the reusable parchment wherein new writing mingles with the ghostly, imperfectly erased text, and all ages seem contemporaneous. “Palimpsest” is the title she gave to a trilogy of stories Duncan calls a “study in reincarnations.” Palimpsest is the beaches of ancient Greece overlaid on the Jersey Shore of her childhood holidays, or lost Atlantis glimpsed in the Pacific off San Luis Obispo, where young Duncan visited extended family. Palimpsest was Pound writing in a poem “See, they return” at the same time as Williams was writing in a poem “Now—they are coming into bloom again!” in a spirit of renewal that harked back to the Eleusinian mysteries in Greece.

Duncan envisioned The H.D. Book as a palimpsest too: not only revisited and restarted many times over the years, but incorporating different sources from different points in time, insights from Bruno Bettelheim here, Erwin Schrödinger there. Duncan’s roving eye for patterns consistently saw relationships between the new science of his day and the ancient wisdom of the poets. His description of H.D.’s war poem Trilogy as “the story of survival, the evolution of forms in which life survives,” recalls the work of Darwin and Haeckel on the morphology and ontogeny of living organisms. For Duncan, William Harvey’s description of the blood’s motion is akin to the systole & diastole of the tide in Helen in Egypt. When Duncan quotes Alfred North Whitehead (“we should confine ourselves to time-spans of the order of magnitude of a second, or even of fractions of a second”), we perceive Harvey’s observation of the pulse behind it, so that the flow of history is just the flow in a man’s veins writ large, which is also the flow of the rivers and tides. Duncan compares H.D.’s figure of the palimpsest to the Oxford English Dictionary—which was still a new marvel of excavated meanings and usages in Duncan’s formative years—and, of course, to Freud:

Like the detective hero of the murder mystery which was contemporary in its rise with psychoanalysis and the O.E.D., Freud reads in the dreams and life stories told by his patients searching for clues to a prehistory or metahistory leading to the disclosure of some past event that will make clear what really happened, parallel with the solution that satisfies the form of the popular mystery novel. So, in the Theosophic mystery, the traumas of Hyperborea or of Atlantis come as disclosures of shaping forces in our own lives—they are still with us.

The past is still with us, in the reptile’s jaw recycled in the bone structure of our inner ear or the childhood trauma encoded in neurosis. Why then would it not be the poet’s primary task to explore the mystery of the myths that persist? Duncan was right. It is inconceivable to read these lines from H.D.’s Trilogy as an anachronism:

I assure you that the eyes
of Velasquez’ crucified
now look straight at you,
and they are amber and they are fire.

Velasquez is still with us, and so too the crucified. The further away we move from H.D.’s own time, the more timeless she becomes.

* * *

Duncan’s projected third section of The H.D. Book never progressed beyond a small collection of preliminary notes, which Boughn and Coleman present as an appendix. The notes contain some of the most fascinating material in the volume and, it seems to me, provide something close to evidence for the truth of Duncan’s arguments about the hidden lore of poetry and its coded manifestations in the world. The appendix concerns one of H.D.’s last great works, Helen in Egypt, a long poem that is habitually read as a feminist work of self-empowerment and reclamation.

The story is one that H.D. borrowed from Euripides’ play Helen, which derived in turn from a palinode by Stesichorus, a Greek contemporary of Sappho’s. A palinode is an apology in which a poet recants something said in a previous poem. Stesichorus had lambasted Helen of Troy for causing the deaths of thousands of warriors. He was struck blind. He wrote the palinode to declare that Helen was not in Troy during the war but was spirited away to Egypt where she awaited her husband, Menelaus. Only her eidolon (image or phantom) dwelled at Troy; therefore she was not responsible for the bloodshed. The spell was reversed, and Stesichorus regained his sight.

This vindication of Helen—and by extension all women—is indeed feminist revisionism, albeit from the sixth century BC. It’s a fascinating story, reimagining Helen as being, separately, a real person and a projection (clearly Greek fame is continuous with modern celebrity). But the practical issue the story raises is of great general interest too. Duncan’s reading of Helen in Egypt prompted him to delve into the history of the myth, and he discovers that “Plato had read the truth of Helen in Egypt to mean that men fought at Troy for an illusion, for a lie.” H.D.’s visionary poem, her bid for a grand-scale Modernist epic on a par with the Cantos, is staked on this claim.

What is real? What is an illusion? The H.D. Book as an apologia for the imagination comes down to its case for the truth of Helen in Egypt. A real person can have a double, an eidolon, through the collective mind (fame); the reverse is also true, wherein an eidolon, a mythical or fictional character, can become real. Everything our modern civilization is staked on is a matter of imagination: money, career, literature, “the public,” “are all realms that men in their phantasies invest with reality,” Duncan writes. They are all eidolons, and yet they lead, Duncan argues, to actions with consequences—the real as defined by the irreducible: bloodshed. So it was with all the hairs on my head rising that I read, toward the end of Duncan’s epic commentary: 

the cause of the war was fraudulent. So, too, we in our own time have seen two fraudulent wars and prepare now for a third, where no cause is raised but the threat of disaster. Freedom, Christianity, democracy—whatever wraith upon the walls to be defended or liberated—has not been in our lands since the beginning nor in the hands of the enemy, but spirited away to Egypt while we must be at it again to loose ourselves and our forces in the ruin of cities.

Was this 1961 or 2003? The poet risks blindness, like Stesichorus, if she does not ask right now, in 2011, whether “freedom, Christianity, democracy” are still in Egypt while we grasp at eidolons.

The H.D. Book is, at bottom, a spell book. I admit that very few readers will concur with its supernatural assumptions and its purist tenets. I also think that it is a fierce contribution to the Western poetic palimpsest. As a testimony to poetic vocation, it could not be clearer, and in these confusing times a young poet could use the encouragement: to continue her education—with or without the aid of a degree program (Duncan’s apprenticeship to H.D. was purely textual)—and to maintain a fine contrarianism:

After the excitement in the authenticity of masterpieces, having resistant individuality and a demanding skill, I have come to see such works not as the achievement of inventors or masters or diluters or starters of crazes, as Pound would have us classify writers in his ABC of Reading, not as objects of a culture, embodying original sensibilities, but as events in another dimension, a field of meanings in which consciousness was in process; where I saw psyche and spirit, as I had come thru Darwin to see the animal organism, arising in an evolution of possible forms, surviving, perishing, derived always from an inheritance in which the formal persisted, arriving always as a trial or essay in which the formal had to live the last of a species, the first of a species, and yet having only its own terms, its own life, in which to make it.

Is that contrarianism, or is it faith? For Duncan, as for all serious poets, there may be no difference.

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