Before we begin, a few biographical facts about the poet Hilda Doolittle (1886-1961), who was known by her initials, H.D.
+ Early adaptor of the bisexual bob
+ Had a problematic college boyfriend who failed to turn her into his muse and who ended up a fascist
+ Wrote a series of roman à clef to make sense of the entanglement of her creative and romantic lives
+ Had one child, one stillborn, and one abortion
+ Started both a throuple and an experimental film journal with her heiress lover
+ Sought out analysis with Freud to help her work through her trauma, confront her fear of the impending second world war, and to understand her bisexuality
This is to say that H.D. was a modern poet in the true sense of the term “modernist:” her newness remains new, her life alive.
When writing about poetry, sometimes biography matters, and sometimes it does not. Elizabeth Bishop didn’t care for her readers to identify her as a lesbian, for example, but it might mean the world for her readers to know, after reading “The Art of Losing,” what it was she stood to lose. To understand June Jordan’s work, on the other hand, one must have a sense of her political commitments and ongoing community engagement.
For H.D., writing was always a form of thinking through, a processing that was both ongoing and alchemical. Her material was her life, but life, for H.D., extended into past lives, into mythology, a palimpsest that showed traces of writing from long ago underneath the newest words. She was fascinated by ancient Egyptian art, Japanese haiku, and classical Greek poetry, especially Sappho. All of these layers of time are embedded in her work.
H.D. sometimes had a fraught relationship with her own bisexuality, feeling pulled towards either lesbianism or heterosexuality rather than feeling her queerness as an integrated whole. Reconciling her bisexuality was a creative project for her, causing writer’s block when she felt at odds with her own desire. Her work explores polarities that don’t always maintain consistency: what is hard melts away, what is austere turns luscious. Consider her early poem, “Oread,” written when she was twenty-eight.
Whirl up, sea—
whirl your pointed pines,
splash your great pines
on our rocks,
hurl your green over us,
cover us with your pools of fir.
H.D.’s early poems have a crystalline sensuality, glittering and cutting. These poems were part of the Imagist movement, which sought to capture “an intellectual and emotional complex in an instant of time.” Imagist poems are direct, word-pefrect, mellifluous. There is a coolness to them, but in H.D.’s work, this coolness comes from devotion, the appropriate affect when confronting the sacred and mysterious. (Think High Priestess more than the Empress.)
In this poem, an Oread, or a mountain nymph, addresses the sea, and with Sapphic entreatment, calls her closer. The land and the sea: separate elements longing for each other. But the Oread’s desire for the sea blurs the boundary between the two, so that the crest of her waves becomes the pines that form the nymph’s home. The sea is green sometimes, but so are firs, and when they meet, they aren’t separate. The sea reaches “our rocks,” and her green spreads “over us” to “cover us.” When the sea covers the shore, the water and earth overlap for a moment—an erotic ecosystem.
The word “metaphor,” as H.D. would have known, comes from the Greek word to transfer or carry over. H.D. is interested in the erotics of this early process, where the qualities of one thing become the qualities of another. So, here’s the metaphor: the Oread is not confused about whether she wants to be the sea or fuck the sea. The sea fucks her and she is the sea: she is solid and she is wet and she wants her waves on her.
In one of H.D.’s autobiographical novels, HERmione, the pronoun floats around and alights on both women, making it unclear to the protagonist who she is (“Her” is short for her name, Hermione), and who her lover is when she refers to her. Because for however fraught this question of being and having is, the answer is almost always, breathlessly: both.