Friday, September 05, 2003

In order to fully read Robert Duncan’s The H.D. Book, which I’m still doing one year after starting this weblog – it was one of my very first items on the blog – I’ve been immersing myself in the life & poetry of Hilda Doolittle. I’m in the middle of her poetry & also reading Barbara Guest’s biography, Herself Defined, which I heartily recommend. I’ve also read Paint It Today, a novel written mostly in 1921 that felt stiff, as though Doolittle was uncomfortable with prose, and Tribute to Freud, mostly written in the mid-1940s, with prose that struck me as supple, nuanced & powerful. I have H.D.’s Pound memoir sitting atop one stack of unread books so that I don’t forget it & Duncan’s correspondence to H.D. sitting atop another. I’m also reading Letters, Duncan’s book of poetry from the mid-1950s, which precedes Opening of the Field, the book with which I began my own Duncan initiation back in the mid-1960s.


It’s not clear to me that one actually needs to read H.D. to make sense of The H.D. Book, given that Duncan’s critical structure – at one point he actually called this project The Day Book – is literally eccentric, moving away from any center, circumambulating about an imaginary cathedral under constant reconstruction. In one sense, The H.D. Book is a bit of a blog, the daily critical musings of a great poet composed at the height of his powers as a writer. The version I’m reading is the “pirate” PDF that is credited to Frontier Press – I don’t know if this means that Harvey Brown set the type or if, as I suspect is more apt to be the case, that designation is a nod to Brown’s own noble efforts getting Spring & All back into print in 1970.


H.D. serves as a beacon & homing point for this effort, though Duncan’s actual topic is profoundly Whatever. But I find it interesting that he should pick her – the clean hard edges of her poetry are so unlike the multi-stable wobble of voices that emerge in his own writing, voices that are governed only by an almost Miltonic code of prosody. When Duncan’s not hitting at his best level of work, his writing is like singing in a room in which a vacuum cleaner is loudly running. Whatever one might say of H.D., that is not a characterization one would ever make of her lesser work.


The obvious points of comparison might be that Duncan responded to H.D.’s mysticism – she really is the one major modernist to have this as a strong influence in her writing – and the fact that both were gay. I’m old enough to recall a day when poets like Paul Mariah did much to keep the memory of Jack Spicer alive when his writing was largely out of print not so much out of any aesthetic agreement, but simply because the number of accomplished out-of-the-closet gay authors was still so few that it served a major political purpose as well.


One of the side effects of being an autodidact – a trait I share with both Duncan & H.D. – is that I get around to things when I get around to them & not before. While I’d read Trilogy when it first came out as a New Directions volume in 1973, goaded in good part by Duncan’s many poems to & about her in Roots and Branches, the poetry Duncan was writing right as he began The H.D. Book, I can now see that I will return to these poems of Doolittle’s &, as I do, will set down the Collected Poems 1912-1944 to return to the New Directions. It was these lines of Duncan’s, from the first section of the poem “Doves” that first made me seek out her work:


Mother of mouthings,

the grey doves in your many branches

code and decode what warnings

we call recall of love’s watery tones?




     hurrr     .


She raises the bedroom window

to let in the air and pearl-grey

     light of morning

where the first world stript of its names extends,

where initial things go,

beckoning dove-sounds recur

     taking what we know of them


from the soul leaps to the tongue’s tip

     as if to tell

                 what secret

in the word for it.


Thirty-seven years after I first read those lines – I am almost positive that I did so on the N-Judah trolley heading out to SF State – I understand really for the first time that Duncan is trying here to offer H.D., who had just suffered a stroke, a different measure for the idea of naming, one that will speak to her own sense of a secret language & yet relieve her of any requirement to remember the actual words. That seems a particularly generous gesture, especially coming from someone like Robert, ever parsimonious in his generosity.


Love’s watery tones – the echo from spring’s flowery markets, the phrase that concludes the second line of the first (and title) poem to this book is inescapable. Duncan’s repeating himself here, a consequence I suspect of that ever-present rhythm that underlies so much of his work. I think of H.D. as being much more a poet of sight & of a Spartan sensibility when it comes to the question of ornamentation in her verse – it’s hard for me to imagine her writing either of those two phrases.