Indecipherable Hieroglyph



L'Orecchio di Dionisio

“There’s nothing ornamental about the style of the real poet. Everything is a necessary hieroglyph.”
—Fredrich Schlegel, “Fragment No. 173” 

In Dionysus’ Ear (L'Orecchio di Dionisio), one can hear echoes, songs of past performances. Dionysus’ Ear is a real place in Syracuse, Sicily. A cave built from the neighboring limestone cliffs, its reputation as a dynamic acoustical space surrounds the island. Once upon a time, its acoustics were so precise you could hear the screams of the prisoners locked inside. The poet Hilda Doolittle (H.D.) writes herself into the lyric and dramatic tradition by way of noise, by way of the Greek god, Hermes. Michel Serres speaks of the creative and productive spaces of transformation, where “noise, through its presence and absence, the intermittence of the signal, produces the new system, that is to say, oscillation.” [1] Serres describes a phenomenon H.D. knew quite well. As “original rune-maker, the majic-maker,” H.D. stands outside various systems (of genre, form, and language), translating the interference into new orders of poetic language. [2] See her free-standing choral translations of Euripides’ Bacchae in Red Roses for Bronze. See her translation of Ion, finally published in 1937 but begun in 1916. H.D. speaks to the dead, on behalf of the dead, as a sympathetic transformer. Her peculiar ability to pick up—distinguish the crash and fall of rising waves in a neighboring kingdom—speaks to her radicalness as a true innovator of modernist forms. 

This scene is an echoing cave, cut from wet limestone rocks. This scene is a type of container, a vessel, an amphora. It carries voices that cannot be expressed. 

Writing beyond the brink of one’s beyond body. Breaking self—something outside of self’s limited lunacy. That secret self hidden in reserve for just such acts of breaking. Disclosure or exposure or revelation—they’re all of the same idea. An unfolding in static time of hidden visionary spaces. Beyond the bride of oneself, the ultimate sacrifice. According to Roland Barthes, I cannot give you this language but I can dedicate my giving it to you.

Not breaking walls, but building them, paving an ecstatic bridge to beyond self. Building walls so new chambers can be created, a sonic space, as well an inscription surface. Song pushed to the selfsameness, a strange noise pulsing underneath the earth. For Alain Badiou, the theater offers a “fascination with the visible. For H.D., it’s the fascination with the aural that haunts her work. H.D.’s fascination with the audible places her in front of the shell—the bandshell, the acoustical shell, the choral shell that provides a hard surface for the reflection of sound. H.D. writes: “We wander through a labyrinth. If we cut straight through, we destroy the shell-like curves and involutions. Where logic is, where reason dictates, we have walls, broad highways, bridges, causeways.” [3] The shell’s ability to provide passive sound amplification immerses us in sonic vibrations. Plenty of books ruminate on H.D.’s relationship to the image but few speak to the sonic dressings and modes she employs in her work. [4]

If the poet’s responsibility lies in the preservation and restoration of cultural memories, H.D.’s sonic transmissions, rosemary-scented, cascade generatively down through the generations. (Smell the sprigs of rosemary stashed around her house. Rosemary for remembrance.) H.D.’s revolutionary and multiple forms, which include the poem and dramatic script, encourage a phenomenological memory-making where her necessary hieroglyphs, her wavering hieroglyphs, can be seen as continuance and endurance, entire worlds endlessly interpreted from sacred words. [5]

H.D.’s hieroglyphs do not represent the sound of language, but the noisy sounds of an inhabited world studded with Greek rocks. Stop at the noisy river: hear it flow, see it bend into multiple streams—a complex system that not only transforms in time, but collects and releases Time itself. Our ears perk up when we hear music and emotions in poems. Although we expect such things in poems, we often grow tired waiting and listening for them.

Hermione: “Words make tin pan noises, little tin pan against my ear and words striking, beating on it, bella, bella, molta bella, belissima, you are, he was saying belissima and he must see Belissima.” [6]

In her memoir, end to torment, H.D. writes on April 9, 1958: “No, my poetry was not dead but it was built on or around the crater of an extinct volcano.” [7]

Poetic, her dramatic translations sing in felt intensities. See Scene Nineteen.

Her translation as performance. The Chorus marches across the stony landscape. It carries volcanic rock and the power of incantation: calling forth presences, the Greek texture of limestone. An instruction.


Greek Instruction

Through a veil, translation appears. All of translation makeshift: floating
islands on caramel seas of spun sugar. Translation collaborative in nature,
a tulle netting hiding cross-hatched lines. Chorus as translator: blocking
scenes of instruction, blocking scenes of feeling. On the matter of choral
odes, however, we conclude they are dangerous volatile places. Either
discarded by Greek teachers for their intensity of feeling or read slowly
in private make-believes. No one knows what to make of Greek prosody,
perhaps the reason why H.D. was so drawn to it. Especially the odes
with a band of women speaking in lyric meter, performing a newly formed
women’s university, dead-dark Greek letters, volcanic rocks hot to the touch.
We poets feel most at home in lyric meters rather than in dramatic dialogues,
T.S. Eliot wrote. H.D. repurposes tragedies into hauled-offed fragments.
In her translation of Ion, she smashes the mosaic of Euripides’ decadence
into glittering pieces, black eighth notes.


From the Commonplace Book of C. Theis

“The translation would not seek to say this or that, to transport this or that content, to communicate
some particular charge of meaning, but to re-mark the affinity among the languages, to exhibit its
own possibility. And this, which holds for the literary text or the sacred text, perhaps defines the
very essence of the literary and the sacred, at their common root. I said re-mark the affinity among
the languages so as to name the strangeness of an "expression" ("to express the most intimate
relation among the languages") that is neither a simple "presentation" nor simply anything else.”

                                                          —Jacques Derrida, “Des Tours de Babel”

“…a translation touches the original lightly and only at the infinitely small point of the sense….
                                                        —Walter Benjamin, “The Task of the Translator”

One thing is clear: every language-act has a temporal determinant. No sematic form is timeless.
When using a word we wake into resonance , as it were, its entire previous history.”

                                                        —George Steiner, After Babel


Text— ION

What will the choros comment on?

Rough proofs & this and that (1936)

H.D. scratches out “a” before “god”

and writes in “the” when naming Hermes

as to “distinguish the different qualities

and intensities”

Remember, the choros’ function is spiritual

(hear the outside voice of the collective)

Its “decorative expression” its accordion pleating trans-

forms as it dances across the stage

Remember, the choros’ function is psychological

(feel the inner mood)

Remember, the choros’ function is utilitarian

(see curtain)

Betrayal happens first, then the leaving [transpose please] (44)

H.D. the editor makes the proper edits here:

 Leave  betray

betray  leave]

“is hence, outcast”   “will be banished” (97)

The future has arrived

Block? Frustrate? Thwart? (104)

“wind-olives” to “wild-olives” (114)

The same worry re placement of the final words of the play

What’s a king without a child?

A flowerless court budding dead buds

What does Euripides really mean today?

H.D. cuts from the newspaper Dr. Murray’s reviews

in which she is sometimes referenced:

“Her translation of the Ion reads as if she had reassembled, piece by glittering piece, the shattered fragments of the play just recovered from the sands of time. It may profitably be compared with Dr. Murray’s.”

Some men see H.D.’s freshness

Her refusal of dead poetic customs

Some men hear in “rattle of short lines”

the emotion behind acts of language

Some men say the “sanctuary taken in her notes”

offers a holy place

But some men hear a tedious prattle

like Pater’s meditations on the Mona Lisa rings false

Some men say a skeletal translation

might work well on the stage

A woman reviewer says of Ion:

“It is Greek, and it is poetry. It could not be acted as straight drama, but it might be danced.”

She recognizes H.D.’s bird motif

“Translated with commentaries by H.D.”

is how her newspaper lists her translation of Euripides’ Ion

“Dawn translations” is what I call it

“As an adolescent, I loved the Murray translations, and they had a great influence on me, but now I want something different, some turning up of another side of the Hellenic world. H.D. is in some ways more like Murray; she gets the “early morning” feeling, the edge between horror and God.”

The “Ion” of Euripides as BBC recording so the page is left blank

Empty seashell of listening

so much so little

a tulle travelling veil

words as textured sonorous forces


In the Yale catalogue one series of H.D.’s writings are described as follows:

Series II. Writings                                                1918-77
11.0' (27 boxes)


Series II, Writings, contains 27 boxes of writings. The material consists of Novels, Poetry, Short Stories, Autobiographical Writings, and Miscellaneous Writings. The arrangement is alphabetical by title within each subseries. Two boxes of Writings of Others are placed at the end of the series and are arranged alphabetically by author.

No folder marked as “Translations” per se

Again, choros as inevitable “curtain”

A curtain of flowers like in a love poem

“If people would forget a bit more, we might have a real love poetry.” (Ezra Pound)

“meadow-floret” from “tiny floret”

a column of “I” running down the left margin—a curtain of earthly delights

But are we too forgetful?

Do we drink too much from the river Lethe?

Felt on the inside

Or described from the outside

What is the true task of the chorus?

“Where a Greek voice speaks there are rocks.” (opening sentence from unpublished “Curled Thyme”)

Into that “noon-heat” where the revising rocks lie

“‘I am no Greek’ you said” (To W.B.)

In her unedited “Notes on Thoughts and Visions” H.D. labels certain sections as “Conversation I”

“May I interrupt? / Do you ever do anything else?” (retracted text)

Reminding me of all her versions of Cassandra

Multiple cross-hatchings of lines, scores, traced texts

The nakedness of her speech

The material heaviness of language litters the poem

“written in a time of war” and “lapidary” reviewers tell us of her poems

(….time passes….)

The time is 3:42 (ET) when I find “Prose Corybantic” or “Proses Choruses (incomplete)”

Are these prose poems? What are you,

little seashell, pulled from ocean blue?

Selections published in 1929 in Blues

I search under “translation” “translations” “chorus” “choral odes” “Bacchae” “The Bacchae” “Euripides”

But I cannot find any of her translation notes for “Choros Translations”

Prose chorus uses strophes (a long-limbed turning), antistrophes (a reverse swerving) and epodes (a mismatched couple who line dances for the win)

Constant conversation, constant chatter and interrogation

Cassandra, the Barbarian, makes an appearance in the epode

“pasteboard pomegranates”

“shut you up in strophes”

The choros is directed to sing of Beauty
The choros is directed to sing of Beauty
The choros is directed to sing of Beauty
The choros is directed to sing of Beauty
The choros is directed to sing of Beauty
            (ad infinitum)

Is this what the choros sounds like 

without a dramatic script? 

No Cithaeron mountain?

Serpents in their hair stung-in bugged in

chirped out disastrous notes? What notes?

Choros trapped in flame, in volcanic rock

“a solid wall written over and over with still

rarer phrase, painted with stranger pictures.”

(“Those Near the Sea”)

Sound of waves.
Sound of rain.
Sound of birds singing.
Sound of turning pages.

“Hurry up,”

the chorus a silent tomb.

Time passes.

(over intercom): The library will be closing in one hour. Please see the desk for any final materials you would like paged. We cannot fulfill requests past four-fifteen. The library will open tomorrow at nine o’clock. Thank you for your attention.


Ionic Iconicity

Of her stony marks in Ion, the nineteen explanatory notes she adds before each division in the play, we might come to think of them as entrance & exit ramps H.D. builds onto the play’s pre-existing structure. In writing about H.D.’s epic poem Helen in Egypt, Susan Barbour describes the prose passages as “interpretative captions” which extend the figurative field. [1] Rachel Blau DuPlessis defines them as midrashes. “Midrash makes annotation keep perpetual dialogue, conflicting interpretations put next to each other…So write crossings, contradictions, the field of situations, the fields of ‘placeness’ and mobility.” [2] Instead of closure or a fixed authoritative statement, the midrash generates “continuous chains of interpretation….where the production and productivity of meanings is continuous.” [3] Ion employs such prose passages. They appear as italicized paragraph asides. I consider them alternate routes for the voices of the play. But a route marked by text (littered by letters, pounded on parchment) that is material. This way in, this way out. The page materially scored with presence, but also able to record where the one’s walking across disintegrates its very material. H.D. does not seem afraid of objects becoming animated. In this way, these prose sections can be materially experienced, like a layer of sedimentary rock, a container, a superstructure, a note-field to hold un-previously released sounds, visions, sparks, or radiances.

In H.D.’s Ion, there is something I call the nuance of entrances and exits. H.D. seems concerned with how song-refrain occupies, interrupts, and enlarges spaces. Her speakers make territorial claims with their voices. Prose sections have been added by H.D. to the play’s original lineated lines. If we think about Adelaide Morris’s idea—found in her study of H.D. called How to Live/What to Do—of how poems exist as historical documents that capture an “acoustical richness” promoting ongoingness, what do we make of H.D.’s relentless interruptions? Do they enlarge space (political, historical, social) or limit it? Is there one voice? Or a cacophony of voices in the monument of history?

The composition of Ion most likely begins in 1916. H.D. works again on the translation during the years 1920 through 1924 but does not finish the play until 1935. Finally published in 1937, its curious composition cycle mirrors the narrative arc in the play that charts the confusions, delusions, and swerving escapes which finally result in a circuitous closure. Embedded in its form of double voicing (in lyric lines and prose) is the wish to go beyond duality. Because H.D. keeps re-engaging the play over so many years, its completion marks an important turning point for her. Its lyric suspension of nearly nineteen years corresponds to the nineteen entrances into the play itself. In a letter to her friend and once lover, Annie Winifred Ellerman (Bryher), dated August 14, 1935, H.D. writes: “I do miss you, but feel if I get this Ion done, it will break the backbone of my H.D. repression.” [4] H.D.’s translation project represents a return to her Greekness, her inherited, albeit constructed, poetic identity. We must remember that at this point H.D. did not publish much after 1931. Her next major publication wouldn’t be until 1934 with Kora and Ka, with Ion following in 1937. Indeed, her Boston editor at Houghton Mifflin, Ferris Greenlet reminds H.D. that her “‘fans’ wanted more of the ‘Greek H.D,’” the poet they first encountered in the early poems of 1915. [5] But more than just a return to her public Greek persona, this re-ignition of the Ion project coincides with the completion of H.D.’s psychoanalytical sessions (1933-34) with Sigmund Freud, which H.D. describes as the “most luscious sort of vers-libre relationship.” [6] Her work with Freud allows the artist to the go back to the imagined or remembered scene not to make things crystal clear, but to “get the pattern.” [7] Getting the pattern becomes important to H.D. Writing from Switzerland in August 1935, she explains, “My work is creative and reconstructive…..This was work I was doing after the first confinement and during my preg. with old Pups. Probably I have it linked up with my physical creative force. As that is going, I translate it into this out-put of plays….The Greek will hold me to my centre, now whether here on in London. It was all ‘meant’ to work out this way, and already I feel stabilized and balanced.” [8]

By opening up these generative note-fields of possibility, H.D. articulates a statement of poetics, translation theories, as well as individual lines of poetry. With these prose passages, she highlights various presences operating within the entire text—that of translator, who works as reader of the lyricist-dramatist of the original work, as well as poet-visionary. In this early translation work, we see H.D. formulating a theory of her poetics, similar to Martin Heidegger, in which her writing corresponds to the construction of an imaginary building or dwelling. In Ion, for example, H.D.-the-translator builds onto the pre-existing structure of Euripides’ play with the addition of her prose passages. Most of the time, these additions to the text are not seamlessly added. The new tile does not match the old. The inconsistency in color and style proves purposeful. H.D. shows the incongruity between the new and the old because it reveals a literary history in its sedimentary collection of parts. As such, her work opens up a fracturing in time, a palimpsestic condition where the ancient past emerges into present view. H.D. replaces various stylistic choices of Euripides with her own sense of ornamentation. We find out about her remodeling decisions and executions in these prose passages. “What time is it? Greek unity give us freedom, it expands and contracts at will, it is time-in-time and time-out-of-time together, it predicts modern-time estimates.” [9] Ancient Greek theater relied on a synthesis of various codes and practices, giving it a fixed structure. Playwrights freely worked within this structure, giving shape to wildly unbounded content. Because of the freedom found in Euripides’ sense of Greek unity, H.D. adds onto his playhouse with a translation inspired by this flexibility. H.D. extends Euripides’ playhouse since she knows its structure, its materiality (as language) will not suffer the ravages of time.

If we think of the chorus as ornamentation, H.D. costumes them in blue robes when Euripides never specified. If we wonder why the Prologue drags on, we are made to consider our fellow theater-goers’ sense of boredom. If we are taken by the epic descriptions of a Delphic temple, or craggy Parnassus itself, we uncannily sense “a Presence still haunted those weathered stones and spiritually impermeated rocks.” [10] These prose passages ruminate on everything from how to produce a play to the physical stage of an imagined Delphi. We see this specialized attention paid to architectural spaces in early lyric poems like “Eurydice,” where a speaker’s voice, particularly housed in a dramatic poem, reverberates with a querying cry that bounds as well as surrounds. Eurydice’s defiant questions seal her off from Orpheus, she guards herself in the flames of hell, in her own tapestry of flowers.

H.D.’s sense of the visionary is tied to spatial metaphors. Helen Sword highlights this characteristic of H.D’s writing as well, noting that “[s]patial disclosures are enabled by temporal layerings; ‘breaks in time’ open new spaces for writing.” [11] One of H.D. early visionary experiences is titled “The Writing on the Wall,” while in her wartime book Trilogy, she titles one of the sections, “The Walls Do Not Fall.” Fascinated with walls, H.D. uses walls in her work not as a way to keep others out but as a way to provide shelter and comfort for herself and her readers. Wall as receptive screen to projected image. Wall as necessary surface for the transmission of sound. Wall as warm hearth and home. Wall as aqueduct, supporting huge reservoirs of water. Wall as sacred altar temple to singing voices.  More importantly, the walls are then fitted with windows and doors. The walls, rooms, chambers, doors, windows, portals of H.D.’s writing process all speak to “the word being the architectural structure of that door or window.”

H.D. falls into mythic time. Indeed, the intended Dionysian experience of the festival focuses on a total experience of paradoxical proportions. All citizens participate with one another and with the stage as altar-temple. The theater as a physical space harmonizes with H.D.’s ongoing poetic practices and preoccupations. The character of Greek theater relies on the weather, open-sky revisions and decisions; the unbounded blue of sky, of ocean, and of emotion figures predominately in H.D.’s translation of Ion.

H.D. equates acts of cognition (thinking/writing/translation) with its potential to crystalize, but sometimes not before the “subtle rhythms…silence us.” [12] H.D.’s crystal-gems are not a refinement of one’s sense-thoughts, but a secondary substance. On the lady-in-waiting Chorus-as-Visitors, H.D. writes: “Personally, I visualize them in blue, one colour of various shades.” [13] When H.D.’s physic imagination equates their Refrain with blue, she prepares us for Kreousa’s robes falling “in folds that are cut of pure stone, lapis.” Then a crash. What to do with a woman who “has the inhumanity of a meteor, sunk in sea.” [14] Kreousa’s lyric entrance into the play is mediated by Ion’s understanding of her as “rock, air, wings, and loneliness.” Perhaps it’s H.D. unwavering belief in the power of language that assures her she will only dig up a living statue instead of a dead body.

When mother and son finally meet in front of the temple (look! are her eyes finally open?) H.D. chooses to condense the language into staccato free-verse. In a daring game of acquaintance, mother and son throw familiar rocks at one another, remembering the earthquakes and sea-waves that once threw them. Sizing each other up in the phenomenology of stone, both characters chisel lineage and facts from each other’s faces. [15]

This essayistic hybrid work captures its twinned moments of closure in its doubled beginnings. “For B. Athens 1920” is printed on the title page. H.D. dedicates her translation to Bryher, but she also erects a dedication to her daughter, Perdita, which reads, “For P. Delphi 1932.” These two pillars, spanning a temporal distance of twelvåe years, signal a dislocated, extended, or fractured area of composition. Indeed, the distance and strangeness felt in a play like Ion is palpable. The characters, mother and son, don’t recognize each other. The sun is hot. The reading is frequently interrupted with commentary, and the language heavy to lift to our reading mouths.

The two marble pillars—perhaps chipped, stained and weathered from acid rain—standing sentry on the play’s dedication page (one lover, one daughter, two icon-figures) foreshadow the major innovations of the play itself. In fact, one can read them as Kreousa and Ion talking to one another in the clipped dialogue H.D. uses instead of the “sustained narrative” of long lines. The short lines, often two to three words condensed from the original ten, bounce back and forth between mother and son in their newly built temple of weaving words:

Ion                                —whose wife are you?

Kreousa                         —of a stranger—

Ion                                —but a great prince?

Kreousa                         —grand-son of Zeus—

Ion                                —strange to your rocks?

Kreousa                         —near Euboia—

Ion                               —sea-waves wash it—

Here is a childless woman seeking motherhood, and a motherless boy trying to place where such a woman comes from. They speak of Kreousa’s origin based on what rock, and what “sea-waves wash it—” Elemental like the sea, Ion tends to his adopted Delphic temple, washing its stones and keeping it cool as best he can. As his fingers tense around the handle of his broom, he wonders why this woman speaks so cryptically, like a stone moved from the mouth of tomb. As the play continues, the pillars move closer to one another until childless woman and motherless boy recognize each other. The pillar—in solo silhouette of twinned recognition—represents the origin point, the first rock upon which to shore the strange sorrows of humankind; in the laments of a young boy, in the wishes of an old queen, or in the founding of a future iconic culture.

At the same time, the chorus figures as the classic outline of the play. As a group of 12 to 15 members, it stands like a row of stone-cold pillars, like a row of soldiers guarding the actors of the play. They are a moving wall of curtain. The chorus sings the collective mood of the play.  It comments on the action of the play by asking questioning of what will happen next. Its mode is strictly interrogative. Like any good rhetorician, they chorus already knows the answer to its questions. And as protocol would have it, they wait diligently at the gate for their king. They stand outside. The mark the boundary from outside going in. They mark the time of the play, the distances traveled, the limbs numbed. The mediate the direct expression of lyric song. These gorgeous women trimmed in blue and gold grieve for Kreousa in a classic way. Locked in tightly, “so singularly a unit yet breaking occasionally apart like dancers, to show individual, human Athenian women of the period, to merge once more into a closed circle of abstract joy or sorrow….” [16] As such, the chorus in Ion ceases to be mere decoration or ornamentation. They cross the orchestra in patterns and formations never seen before, the normal parados (entrance song) not taken as traditional threshold and passageway. Strangely, they embody a patience of plan needed of all believers. The one Ionic column stands firm, stained in a overflowing of red wine, having witnessed the Voice who spoke to the Pythia, the Oracle of Delphi, enduring a monumental time; it marks a territory between life and death.


Translation as Processional

Announcing an exit with the sound
of a wind or a river rushing in
timpani thyme drying out
in the high gusts of wind
where two women sit
in between two languages of song

Like an actor who speaks her lines
like a translator who interprets
a voicing she hears in “a song note
that brought her back to a body that was vibrating,
that was static yet vibrating
here and there.”

Her body a tuning fork
Her body centered by Greek entrances
centered through the night thicket
where the jasmine wind blows
near a barbed wire fence
near a river

“And was it Goethe who said, ‘another language is another soul?’
Anyhow, another river is—
but we must find our own river first—
rivers of paradise or what you will.”

Under the intimate joyful swerve
the two women paint in
the lapis blue
of the statue’s eyes
dipping their paintbrushes into the river
passing the color between them


Meditation on Yopie Prins’ Ladies Greek

If amateurs are often the best transmitters of knowledge
who then is the ideal receiver? 

“Unlettered in Greek”
but rich in thought
H.D. hums the indecipherable
hieroglyph into her forearm

“Poem Called New Haven” transcribed
on typewriter, posted
to fridge come morning:

A blade of Connecticut grass
placed lengthwise across joined thumbs
               **inhale**      now blow out
a horn signaling the end of days

The library’s doors cooling themselves
as if a winged thing had no better place

Because ancient prosody is unknown (see Marjorie Dale)
consider the choral odes as leftovers

Because teachers do not devote lessons to the unknown
metric prosody becomes a site of invention

Because in going beyond the boundaries of self
you become part of a collective experience

Because in trying to make Greek letters dance
through an experience of kinesthesia

you invite strange lovely unknown bodies
you bring rhythmic bodies
performing knowledge in linguistic strangeness
a blue cloud of smoke you can rough up in your hands

[The act of translation is always already performance

In the reading room
In the archive of doubled bloom
In the performance tomb
where you and your lover comingle
and paint false eyelashes on one another]

“Translation, the ultimate fragment”
A t-shirt slogan you discuss over dinner
Hummus and pita chips, the re-telling
of a story you know quite well

H.D. translates corrupt texts
making lines smaller and
smaller the joint
the blade of vibrating grass
into vibrating joy

Euripides subordinates the whole to the melody of its parts (Symonds)
Euripides corrupts the unified whole
writing for the ear
unlike his predecessors

We decide to walk to the liquor store
and forego drinking the cheap beer
in our host’s fridge
a local brand with an old ship sailing
across the curve of horizon
an orange-golden can with red letters
and black we can’t remember its name or why
we didn’t order the pizza with fresh clams and bacon
when we had the chance, Oh Sally!

only that the apartment was hot always hot and sweaty
when we returned from a different pizza parlor
each night after the Beinecke
opening windows like taking buttons off
an old button-down wrinkled shirt
collapsing into the muggy
cricket east coast summer night
the record player cooing
sounds of our long-lost west coast lullaby

We brought a bottle of wine
to bed and watched a detective show
our parents might have recognized
as Columbo-like the fire
escape casting shadows
on the sheets

the moon an actor
impersonating the task
the mask of every pothole unearthed
broken-down asphalt
churned and sifted
into memory and event
to remember to repeat
to pattern inside sea
-shells, eternal rhythms
drawing “sustenance from the dead”



The corruption in a play
like the Bacchae (H.D. first translates this in 1920)
blooms out
a darkness over mount Cythaeron (Robinson Jeffers seen lurking
in the distance)
Pentheus put together
pulled apart
          a play of words
ending in dismemberment
I remember it all so well
It begins again
falls apart

The great opening in the
earth receives him
entrances and exits
The audience as processional as persuasion itself

If the chorus represents formulated thought in action
how does H.D. push back on this claim
for you know she does
push back
every day, pushing back
a wave
Riding the crest of wave

Poetry’s form creates a space
and vacates that space
making room
to leave a room

Stand your ground
as in stanza

A sense of injustice leads scholars
to insert the personal
in their forewords

Here you find me
Unscholarly yet personal
Public private clamshell
I make my own disastrous feeling


Scenes Four through Eighteen include language and phrasing from H.D.’s unpublished papers at the Beinecke Rare Book & Manuscript Library, specifically, boxes 31, 35, 43, 44, and 63. The Ezra Pound quotation is from his collection, box 65.

In “Scene Twenty” the phrase, “a song note that brought her back to a body that was vibrating, that was static yet vibrating here and there.” is from H.D.’s HERmione.

In “Scene Twenty” the following is from an undated letter H.D. wrote to Norman Holmes Pearson: “And was it Goethe who said, ‘another language is another soul?’ Anyhow, another river is—but we must find our own river first—rivers of paradise or what you will.”  

Scene Twenty-Two is missing.

Catherine Theis is the author of MEDEA (Plays Inverse, 2017) and The Fraud of Good Sleep (Salt Modern Poets, 2011). She recently spent a month translating Italian poems at the Ugo Da Como Foundation in Lonato del Garda, Italy. Her forthcoming book, H.D.’s Dramatic Poetics, will be published by Dalkey Archive Press.