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":

Thursday, January 11, 2007

Paul Muldoon, "The Turn"

In those days when the sands
might shift at any moment, when his mother might at any moment lay
into him, he thought nothing of getting up half-way through a story about the Sahara,
the one about the tribesman following the scent
of water to a water hole, thought nothing of getting up and going out
while he was still half-way through a sentence, going out and taking a turn

about the house, sometimes not bothering to return
for an hour, two hours, a week, a year perhaps, perhaps not until the sands
of time had run out,
not until his favorite guinea hen had brought herself to lay
a double-yolked egg, or the double scent
of the sand-pile and the dunghill made a Sahara

of the yard through which Ned Skinner had moaned 'Saahaara, Saahaara',
the yard in which, after seeing The Four Feathers, he'd taken it upon himself to turn
a stack of pear boxes still redolent of the scent
of pears into a bolster-humped camel that carried him across the endless sands
to where Harry Feversham and himself lay
in wait in a gully for the last of those out-and-out

cowards and scoundrels, the yard in which he'd not only learned to spout
most, if not all, of the main languages of the Sahara
but had such a grasp of the lay
of the land, every twist and turn
of the ergs and regs which looked for all the world like featureless sands,
had so mastered following the scent

of water to a water hole, shielding his eyes from the hen house's flourescent
strip of light, under which he could make out a couple making out
in a featureless room in the old Sands,
or a featureless room in the Sahara,
a light by which he could make out every twist and turn
in what would have seemed to a lay

person a featureless hotel room, a room which offered him an instant replay
of the old bolster and pear-box scent
rising from the camel under him, a scent powerful enough to turn
him around, reminding him that he'd already been out
for an hour, two hours, a week, a year perhaps, having him turn back through the Sahara
in which so many had perished, back through the sands

on which lay the bones of thousands
of his countrymen, through the sand-pile that was not at all reminiscent of the Sahara,
having him turn back inside to pick up his own sentence, to hear himself out.


From Moy Sand and Gravel (2002)

I've heard tell that Muldoon, who teaches creative writing at Princeton, gave the sestina as the class' assignment for one of his workshops and, the next week, this was his own contribution. Of course, that story may be apocryphal, or its events a misleading feint, as Muldoon has also talked about working for years to get a poem to seem as if it was written in five minutes. "The Turn" certainly does strike one, in many ways, as a "workshop poem," in that its whole point seems to be to meet the demands of the form. Muldoon, of course, also plays with those demands — this is a one sentence sestina. It also provides meta-commentary on its form, specifically repetition. One of the narratives I find in this poem is a consideration of cyclic violence, which Muldoon, having lived through the Troubles in Northern Ireland, was very well acquainted with. There are allusions to his abusive and oppressive mother, to the necessary violence of farming (Ned Skinner castrates a litter of swine in a much earlier poem), the connections between sex and violence, and also violence from The Arabian Nights to the British and other imperial campaigns in Africa. Apropos of The Ceasefire Agreement in Northern Ireland, perhaps, the envoi imagines the possibility of escape from these cycles, the chance, as another poem in the volume puts it, of "parley", and understanding.

(Paul Muldoon homepage, including a recording of him reading "The Turn":

Wednesday, January 10, 2007

Dan Chiasson, "The Elephant (III)"

When he hit me square on the head I said Better to die
this way than in obscurity, on the empty plain.

A heron and a hawk, a monkey carrying a monkey skull,
a lion on fire and a pack of eyeless wolves

were what I feared, my rib cage rocking to and fro
in the sun, in the wind, all day and night, a dinghy

anchored in rough seas. Not this: my body a sack of
garbage, hooves bound, the world turned upside down.

This is a beautiful country, said John Brown on his way
to the gallows, I have not cast my eyes o’er it before –

that is, in this direction.
And I said, What a beautiful banquet,
I am honored to contribute.
They cleaned my skull

with pulverized mica for their cornucopia: those were
my eye sockets overflowing with black grapes, herrings

lying in piles of their own, jewel-like, dewlike roe
made the the crown of my head, and the bride was beautiful.


From Natural History (2005)

Another slight cheat, as "The Elephant (II)" suggests that this poem is set in Ethiopia - but Africa nonetheless.

(More on Dan Chiasson:

Tuesday, January 9, 2007

Flavien Ranaivo, "Song of a Common Lover"

Don't love me, my sweet,
like your shadow
for shadows fade at evening
and I want to keep you
right up at cockcrow;
nor like pepper
which makes the belly hot
for then I couldn't take you
when I'm hungry;
nor like a pillow
for we'd be together in the hours of sleep
but scarcely meet by day;
nor like rice
for once swallowed you think no more of it;
nor like soft speeches
for they quickly vanish;
nor like honey,
sweet indeed but too common.
Love me like a beautiful dream,
your life in the night,
my hope in the day;
like a piece of money,
ever with me on earth,
and for the great journey
a grateful comrade;
like a calabash,
intact, for drawing water;
in pieces, bridges for my guitar.



Tonight I asked my roomate if she knew any poems about Egypt, and she threw a Modern Poetry from Africa anthology in my direction. I picked this poem, because it was the first one I picked from the table of contents, because of its intriguing & amusing title - a lover who's average, or a lover who's held in common? Anyway, it turned out to be pretty decent (though also entertainingly indecent - though I wonder what of the double entendres exists in the original French) so I figured I would include it, since I don't know that many poems that feature Egypt, and unfortunately don't have quite the time or resources to be looking them up at the moment. Technically, I failed anyway - Ranaivo is from Madagascar. Oh well.

Monday, January 8, 2007

Percy Bysshe Shelley, "Ozymandias"

I met a traveller from an antique land
Who said: "Two vast and trunkless legs of stone
Stand in the desert . . . Near them, on the sand,
Half sunk, a shattered visage lies, whose frown,
And wrinkled lip, and sneer of cold command,
Tell that its sculptor well those passions read
Which yet survive, stamped on these lifeless things,
The hand that mocked them, and the heart that fed:
And on the pedestal these words appear:
'My name is Ozymandias, king of kings:
Look on my works, ye Mighty, and despair!'
Nothing beside remains. Round the decay
Of that colossal wreck, boundless and bare
The lone and level sands stretch far away."



In honor of my impending trip to Egypt, this weeks theme is - Egypt! Here we have quite probably the most famous poem in the canon associated with Egypt, Shelley's timeless "Ozymandias". It provides a moral theme of the hubris of pride, symbolized by the literally ruined monument to the Ozymandias, generally considered to be the Greek transliteration of a title for the Pharoah Ramesses the Great (Ramesses II), who did indeed have many great monuments erected to himself. Though some vestige of these monuments may remain, the man himself is long gone - likewise the power which he used to create awe and on which the poem takes his pride to be based. This moral theme - of the impermanence of all power and glory, and the inevitability of decay and dissipation - is made to seem all the more objective by being displaced as the wisdom of the anonymous traveler, rather than the opinion of the speaker himself.

(Read more about Percy Bysshe Shelley here: