Monday, June 12, 2017

Lorin Medley on H.D.

Beyond the Sheltered Garden: In Search of a Muse

Forty years ago, when I chanced upon H.D.’s autobiographical novel, Bid Me to Live in a bookstore, something stirred in my solar plexus. There was the title, of course, that beckoned me out of my malaise. And the story about writers living in London during the 1917 air raids, their romantic and literary tensions. But it was H.D.’s poetic prose that caused the biggest flutter: it seemed like a kind of golden joinery for her characters’ fractured worlds. I immediately tracked down a second-hand copy of The Sheltered Garden.
O to blot out this garden
to forget, to find a new beauty
in some terrible
wind-tortured place.


What’s in a name? I disliked mine. Lauren as in Lauren Bacall would have been fine, but not Lorin with an “i”, often mispronounced as the masculine, “Lorne.” Hilda Doolittle was equally underwhelmed with her name. Do little. She determined to write herself into being. At various times, she called herself Edith Gray, J. Beran, Roda Peter, Helga Dart, Helga Dorn, D.A. Hill, Hermione Gart, Julia Ashton, Delia Alton. Sigmund Freud called her “the perfect bisexual” and Ezra Pound called her “Dryad,” his wood spirit muse. When Pound scribbled, “H.D., Imagiste” on a napkin and then sent three of her poems off to Harriet Monroe at Poetry magazine, H.D. embraced her nom de plume. Neither male, nor female, it offered freedom from binary gender constraints.


At school in 1976, I worked hard and followed the rules, but apart from Lit class, life seemed humdrum. I envied the girl in the drama club with long black hair like Cher’s streaked chartreuse green. Back in 1905, at Pennsylvania’s Bryn Mawr College, H.D. was that girl: tall, smart, exotic looking.  She once shook ink from her pen over her clothes as a warmup for writing. And, just as I would drop out of university after my first year, H.D. dropped out of college after only three semesters. Still, she had her poet friends: Marianne Moore, William Carlos Williams, and the young man to whom she became engaged, Ezra Pound.

In my twenties, I spent hours in Special Collections at the University of Victoria transcribing the poems of a man I’d met in the bar while drinking underage. He would hold court on the virtues of Thomas Wolfe, cats, the Montreal Canadians, Robert Creeley, and Ezra Pound. His flaws are inconsequential—he had that quality I craved: a poetic mind. We lived together for seven years, but there comes a point in a relationship where you must choose between the comfort of adoration and the terror of growth. I took H.D.’s lead. She rejected marriage, but followed Pound to London to pursue poetry.


O snail.
I know that you are singing;
your husk is a skull,
your song is an echo,
your song is infinite as the sea,
your song is nothing
            H.D. “The Poet”

World War I changed everything. Artists, poets, and musicians tried to reassemble a fragmented world. Picasso painted Les Desmoiselles. Varese reorganized sound. Pound and his circle of avant-garde modernists (William Carlos Williams, Richard Aldington, H.D.) called for a new poetic style based on “direct treatment of the thing, whether subjective or objective.”[1] Something spare, modern, less metred and more musical: wet petals on a black bough, a red wheelbarrow glazed with rainwater.

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. 
                                    H.D. “Garden”

Despite the recognition she had earned, H.D. outgrew the Imagist birdhouse.

you are true
to your self, being true
to the irony
of your shell.
            H.D. “The Poet”

The call to poetry is a call to self and that requires both human and spirit guides. H.D. suffered a breakdown after the war and the muse failed her. With the support of her longtime lover, Bryher, she sought help from Sigmund Freud, the father of psychoanalysis. Feminism and penis envy may seem like an odd fit, but help can arrive in unexpected packages. Freud helped H.D. explore “the hieroglyph of the unconscious” (Tribute to Freud 93), her bisexuality, and all things Oedipal. He recommended that she write about difficult events without embellishment or a distancing mask. It worked: her writing block lifted.
H.D., I hear you: my biggest fear is to be without words.


H.D. explored archetypes and mythical patterns that resonated with her experience in a male-dominated world. In her last major work, Helen in Egypt, she offered a feminist perspective to the story of a woman conceived after a rape and whose beauty was blamed for starting a ten-year war:

All Greece hates / the still eyes in the white face
                                                            H.D. “Helen”
I love the claustrophobic assonance in that line, the close attention to syllables.

In her rendering of “Eurydice,” the long-suffering, previously silent Eurydice screams back at Orpheus:

At least I have the flowers of myself,
and my thoughts, no god
can take that;
I have the fervour of myself for a presence
and my own spirit for light.

H.D. had many visionary and paranormal experiences, including a gift for astral travel passed down from her grandmother. Her later poems incorporated teachings from the occultist Ambelain and his goddess-centered vision of spirituality.

I had psychotherapists and medicine women as guides. On retreat in Ontario’s Horseshoe Valley, I participated in sweat lodges and shamanic journeys. I learned to trust my intuition and listen to sources outside everyday experience.

H.D. describes her method as “a matter of being quiet and heeding the mental pulse of sound.” My numbed self—timid bird with its monotonous note—woke up to H.D.’s incantatory poetic voice. She taught me that we can grow into our writerly selves by dismantling the forces that would hold us back and looking for beauty in uncultivated places. Above all, she showed me that there is a palimpsest of poetic spirit that breaks through day-to-day life if we let it, if we hunker down in the lonely wind and listen.

[1] Pound, 2009.

Lorin Medley is a counsellor and writer from Comox, BC. Her poetry and fiction have been published in The Puritan, Portal, and an upcoming (Fall 2017) poetry anthology with Caitlin Press, Refugium: Poems for the Pacific. She won the 2014 Islands Short Fiction Contest and the 2015 Books Matter poetry prize and was long listed for the 2016 Prism International Poetry Contest.

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