Robert Duncan did not know anything about the Modernist poet H.D. in the mid-1930s, when as a teenager in Bakersfield, California, he listened with voluptuous interest to his schoolteacher read H.D.’s poem “Heat.”
Fruit cannot drop
through this thick air—
fruit cannot fall into heat
that presses up and blunts
the points of pears
and rounds the grapes.
“The thick air of adolescence, the thick air of Bakersfield,” Duncan later remembered, “the pervasive oppressing atmosphere everywhere of social forces seeking to govern…gave substance to the immediacy of the poem as she read.” The richness of the poem belonged to “a larger life—la vita nuova, Dante had called it.” Duncan’s love for his teacher, Miss Keough, and her ardor for H.D.’s poem illumined the natural relation between beauty, intelligence and vitality. “It was a responsibility to glory that she touched in me.” Could that recitation of “Heat” have given Duncan an intimation of his affinity with H.D. and his identity as a poet (also committed to free verse, amplified into what he and Charles Olson called “the open field”), homosexual and free-thinker?
Several decades later, his ardor for H.D.’s verse unabated, Duncan sent a birthday poem to the poet. Her reputation had waned since she touched fame as an Imagist in the early twentieth century. Sea Garden (1916) was still regarded as her signature work, even though she had written—among other poems, translations, memoirs and novels—Trilogy (1946) and Helen in Egypt (1961), epics that rivaled Ezra Pound’s Cantos and William Carlos Williams’s Paterson. Her austere style was described as “clear,” “frigid,” “pure,” “beautiful” and “inaccessible.” Her work was deemed unstylish by the reigning critics—Randall Jarrell, Louise Bogan, Lionel Trilling, Robert Hillyer—and she was summarily dropped from a renowned anthology, Louis Untermeyer’s Anthology of British and American Poetry, when Karl Shapiro and Richard Wilbur joined the editorial team in 1955. Conventional men, Duncan scoffed: “Their name is legion; they swarmed and swarm in competition with one another to establish an idea cut each to his own limitation for the poet.” Legion was the group of demons Jesus cast out of a man and into a herd of pigs.
Duncan recorded this observation in a daybook devoted to H.D. that he began keeping in 1959 and that quickly grew into a wide-ranging study. Published in bits and pieces in small magazines, revised and returned to repeatedly, “The H.D. Book” amassed itself into a volume much as Fernando Pessoa’s The Book of Disquiet did, by slow accretion during its author’s life and curatorial handiwork after his death. What editors Michael Boughn and Victor Coleman present to us now is the first comprehensive edition of The H.D. Book, a text of nearly 650 pages in which Duncan traces the divagations and derivations of H.D.’s major works, with digressions on Imagism, Pound, Williams, female Modernism, occultism, evolutionary biology and psychoanalysis. Into this eldritch tapestry Duncan weaves patches of poetic autobiography, strands of family history and reflections on his intellectual development.