Friday, January 12, 2007

H.D., from "Helen in Egypt"


(L'isle blanche)

Book One


Why Leduké? Because here, Achilles is said to have married Helen who bore him a son, Euphorion. helen in Egypt did not taste of Lethe, forgetfulness, on the other hand; she was in an ecstatic or semi-trance state. Though she says, "I am awake, no trance," yet she confesses, "I move as one in a dream." Now, it is as if momentarily, at any rate, the dream is over. Remembrance is taking its place. She immediately reminds us of her "first rebellion" and the so far suppressed memory and unspoken name — Paris.

I am not nor mean to be
the Daemon they made of me;
going forward, my will was the wind,

(or the will of Aphrodite
filled the sail, as the story told
of my first rebellion;

the sail, they said,
was the veil of Aphrodite),
and I am tired of the memory of battle,

I remember a dream that was real;
let them sing Helena for a thousand years,
let them name and re-name Helen,

I can not endure the weight of eternity,
they will never understand
how, a second time, I am free;

he was banished, as his mother dreamed
that he (Paris) would cause war,
and war came.



But Thetis? She has summoned Helen out of Egypt with "Achilles waits." But Helen is back in time, in memory. While "Achilles waits," she reconstructs the early story of — "Eros? Eris?"

What is Achilles without war?
it was Thetis, his mother,
who planned this (bridal and rest),

but even the gods' plans
are shaped by another —
Eros? Eris?


Book Five


Helen must be re-born, that is, her soul must return wholly to her body. Her emotional experience has been "too great a suspense to endure." Theseus recalls names from his own past, Ariadne, Phaedra, Hippolyta, as if to balance or match Helen's menelaus, Paris, Achilles "with bones or stones for counters." But "of the many, many in-between?" he asks. "The memory of breath-taking encounters with those half-seen" must balance and compensate for the too intense primary experience.

There was always another and another and another,
shall we match them like knuckle-players
with bones or stones for counters,

the fatality of numbers?
the first? the last?
and of the many, many in-between,

importunate, breath-taking encounters
with those half-seen,
the wind billowing a sail

and the sail fluttering
and on half-balanced,
drawing the sail taut,

and then the sail is lost,
and we have only guessed
or half-guessed

at the turn of a head,
whose was the ensign (painted on the prow)
of one whose name, even will be

an eternal enigma;
who was it? who did I see?
was this the embodiment of the host,

the lost, Ariadne, Phaedra, Hippolyta?
or was it Helen on the way to Egypt,
or was it Helen returning,

or was it Helen on the sea-road,
nearing Troy? was it one of these
or all three? reflections...

and a head half-turned to watch
a reeling tern, a sleeve,
a garment's fold, no word, no whisper,

nor glance even...or was it a gull
she watched, a heron or raven
or plover? the eclipsed pillar

with the shadow showing darker,
for the white gleam above,
of sun-lit marble,

a certain sheen of cloth,
a certain ankle,
a strap over a shoulder?

remember these small reliques,
as on a beach, you search
for a pearl, a bead,

a comb, a cup, a bowl
half-filled with sand,
after a wreck.



And all this time, Helen has apparently been seated before the glowing coals. "Take this low chair," Thesues had said, and now, "shall I draw out the low couch, nearer the brazier?" he will cover her with fleece or if that is too heavy, with "soft woven wool," so that she ("my Psyche") may "disappear into the web, the shell, re-integrate." She is safe, she need not be afraid "to recall the shock of the iron-Ram, the break in the Wall," or equally, she is free to forget everything. But Helen's only answer to that is "never...Achilles."

Rest here; shall I draw out
the low couch, nearer the braier,
or will you lie there,

against the folds of purple
by the wall? you tremble,
can you stand? walk then,

O, sleep-walker; is this fleece
too heavy? here is soft woven wool;
wrapped in this shawl, my butterfly,

my Psyche, disappear into the web,
the shell, re-integrate,
nor fear to recall

the shock of the iron-Ram,
the break in the Wall,
the flaming Towers,

shouting and desecration
of the altars; you are safe here;
remember if you wish to remember,

or forget..."never, never,"
you breathe, half in a trance...


Book Six


So "Eros? Eris?" are again balanced in the mind of Helen, or Eros and Death.

Is there another stronger than Love's mother?
is there one other, Discordia, Strife?
Eris is sister of Ares,

his unconquerable child is Eros;
did Ares bequeath his arrows
alike to Eros, to Eris?

O flame-tipped, O searing, O tearing
burning, destructible fury
of the challenge to the fairest;

O flame-tipped, O searing,
destroying arrow of Eros;
o bliss of the end,

Lethe, Death and forgetfulness,
O bliss of the final
unquestioned nuptial kiss.


Book Seven


Achilles is "a sword-blade drawn from fire..." Menelaus, Paris had not yet been "tempered." Helen seems to ask, how can I compromise? My soul or my spirit was snatched from its body, or even more miraculously, with its body, by this "gerfalcon." All she asks now is "time to remember."

Helen — Hades —
do you know his face?
it is not dark but clear,

a sword-blade drawn from fire,
tempered, beaten till it grows cold,
cold, cold, colder

than the pole-star;
do you know his eyes?
they are not dark caves,

as the priests tell,
they are sea-gray, they are the sea,
crept from under an ice-floe,

they are not frozen, no,
but they keep the gray sheen of the sea;
do you know his hands?

(was he with you on the Argo?)
they are powerful but thin;
too fine for strength?

have you seen a gerfalcon
fall on his prey?
so my throat knew that day,

his fingers' remorseless steel,
when I had strength only to pray
Thetis, let me go out, let me forget,

let me be lost
could another touch you
after the Absolute?

hate? no; love? no;
nothingness? no, not nothingness
but an ever widening flight...

but I would not go yet,
I must have time to remember
Dis, Hades, Achilles.


From Helen in Egypt (1961)

For the final selection from our Egyptian/African week, I couldn't help but make a selection from H.D.'s book-length poem Helen in Egypt. The poem imagines what is supposed to be a bit of apocryphal mythology, that Helen was replaced by a sort of living doll in Troy when the city was burned, and the real Helen was spirited away to live in Egypt. There she meets and falls in love with Achilles (or his ghost), and is also visited by Theseus and Paris. It's hard to get any sense of the narrative from just selections - and, to be frank, it's not exactly easy if you read the entire book.
Rather than a narrative, the poem is structured as a series of lyric episodes, spoken by Helen, an omniscient muse/narrator, or the other players in the story. H.D. links these lyric moments with a prose commentary, which itself mixes narration, chorus-like commentary, and suggestive or speculative criticism of the issues and themes. The lyrics often function according to H.D. imagist beginnings, using a structured juxtaposition of images to convey meaning in the form of relationships between symbols, tones, emotions, icons, ideas, rather than by 'telling' through narrative or statement. Book Five [1] above is a compelling example of this technique; the context of the whole poem does not allow one to paraphrase what it 'means', but multiplies the resonance of the references and images, the way sunlight makes stained glass more brilliant and compelling, or the way a beautiful face is more expressive and endearing when owned by someone you know and love.
One can trace certain key themes developing through the book, as exemplified in the echo-connection between Eros, love/sexuality, and Eris, strife/discord. The destruction of Troy is largely taken as a war spawned by beauty, or by lust, once again implicating the codependence of sexuality and violence. Freud's thinking and interest in myth of significant influences on H.D. during this period - Eros and Thanatos certainly deserve reference, and there are also subtle allusions to the Oedipal structure.
But H.D. also questions the assignment of blame to Helen. The poem examines war as a homoerotic passion, the warrior as the masculinist ideal, where Helen, the feminine ideal, is just an excuse for men to engage with each other and admire each other (see the earlier post, Michael Longley's "Ceasefire"). The question is put whether Helen and/or Achilles and/or Paris can only experience love if they are dead, thus having forgotten about the Trojan War and moved beyond the passions it involved.

(Read more about H.D. and listen to her read from "Helen in Egypt":

No comments: