Poet's Pick April 9
H.D.: "Sea Lily"
Selected by Judith Vollmer
National Poetry Month 2012

Letter from the Editors

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Judith Vollmer's Poetry Month Pick, April 9, 2012

"Sea Lily"
by H. D. (1886 – 1961)

slashed and torn
but doubly rich—
such great heads as yours
drift upon temple-steps,
but you are shattered
in the wind.

is flecked from you,
scales are dashed
from your stem,
sand cuts your petal, furrows it with hard edge,
like flint
on a bright stone.

Yet though the whole wind
slash at your bark,
you are lifted up,
aye—though it hiss
to cover you with froth.

* Judith Vollmer Comments:
Invocations to Greek landscape familiar to readers of H.D. haunt but do not inhabit her early poem of a ravaged flower.  Alternately called “sea lily” and “sea daffodil,” depending on locus, H.D.’s lily weathers the Atlantic storms of her childhood and early adolescence where she experienced her first survivals and may have first encountered the mysterious gift she later described as her “double globe.”  The visual precision that ricochets back and forth between Aegean and Atlantic waters in her major work begins with encounters with beauty that guide us through H.D.’s layers of multiple perceptions, and maybe those layers are birthed in “Sea Lily.”  H.D.’s eyes seem to follow ours down the page while we read her work and she transports us to Crete, to Karnak, to shell-shocked London in visual takes-on-takes.  Her gaze steadies the poems while the slips, twists, sliding, and shape-shifting set us free between her taut stanzas and white spaces moving beyond the margins, so we too travel in the broad space and time of her vision. 

Lily addressed not as fragrant cup of waxy sweetness but reed and stick, also possesses both mineral and animal properties, even as it resides in the realm of flora. The flower’s stone-strong petal sustains sand abrasions and blunt “flint”-point cuts—weathered as a Paleolithic tool— and its columnar stick-body withstands hurricanes that would flatten it.  The flower stands distinct from its sisters rose, violet, poppy, and iris in Sea Garden’s pentangle of flowers.  H.D. controls scale with monosyllables of stone and knife.

Then something else happens.  Reed—essential material and tool for flute—sings to the far.  H.D. drops us into the unknown territories of ocean bottoms where another type of “sea lily”—the marine animal echinoderms, complex organisms with flower-like bodies—exist through the millennia.  H.D. can see under water, another layered “seeing,” linking plants to sea to animal to human forms, to the ancients.  We glimpse a lost world’s “temple-steps” by way of a rapid diving disorientation.  The poem moves on the nerves of its trochaic/spondaic thrashing and ricochets back and forth between the elements and our guide’s sturdy monosyllabic compass.  Stress, measure, and tempo work as one, indivisible thing.  I’ve often thought the “great heads” recall temple statue-fragments, or they praise the life of the mind H.D. practiced and revered.  If part of the poet’s job is to leave the desk and re/search the world, she followed such a path.  Thus the Atlantic coasts of H.D.’s mid-and-north-Atlantic memory palace collide with the ancient world excavations and temples she would later visit.

When I first came to H.D.’s first book I was a new graduate student trying to understand whether my Pennsylvania-born forebear was a modest poet inside the greatest literary movement at the top of the 20th century—Imagism—or if she was the major poet inside a micro-movement.  I later understood she was both and much more: epic; clairvoyant; dream-wise; and informed by history, physical science, journalism, and research.  But the gift that the Collected and the novels, memoirs, letters, all document, is H.D.’s visual genius.  When I opened William Pratt’s small book, The Imagist Poem: Modern Poetry in Miniature, purchased in a bookstore off Market Square in Pittsburgh in 1978, I loved the ensemble of poets Pratt had selected, but H.D.’s first efforts taught me to look at every material object in my path differently, and to follow the set of rules she and Pound crafted: avoid ornament, syllable by syllable, write what you see, practice using long and wide angle and close lenses all at the same time.

Thus H.D.’s “double globe” was already before my eyes.  I did not read her early poems as small still lives any more than I viewed O’Keeffe’s flowers as coded vulvae, as they often were viewed then.  Nor did I concur, after reading a stack of biographies, that H.D. was “merely” coding the traumas of her young life, immense as they were during and after the First War.  More than anything I have celebrated and returned to the artist embracing life in poetry, yes, always within the biosphere ingested at close range, then opened out into something enormously far.

I’m also thinking about the French linguist Lucien Tesniere’s idea of double-valency in language, his idea that a verb equals “an atom with hooks.”  H.D.’s passive verb constructions: “are shattered,” “is flecked,” “are dashed” counterpoint and are hooked by “drift,” “cuts,” “furrows,” “slash,” and “hiss.”  The natural world destroys itself and changes and we’re witnesses, victims, perpetrators to all of it.  H.D. used her double globe as a strategic aesthetic tool to construct layers of visual perception with dead-on accuracy, even through multiple layers of matter.

We can experience something like trance or hallucination or spatial travel while reading H.D.  All the while, the reed, the flower-skeleton, the bones of the poem sing past destruction.  What remains: the promise of “you are lifted up,” as when all unlike aspects of beauty, juxtaposed against one another, engender something new.

About Judith Vollmer:
Judith Vollmer’s previous collections have received the Brittingham, the Center for Book Arts, and the Cleveland State publication prizes. She is the recipient of fellowships from the National Endowment for the Arts and the Pennsylvania Council on the Arts. Her essays and reviews are included in The Cambridge Companion to Baudelaire and elsewhere. She teaches at the University of Pittsburgh at Greensburg and in the Drew University MFA Program in Poetry and Poetry in Translation, and is a founding editor of the literary journal 5 AM. Find out more about Judith Vollmer at her website.

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