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Wednesday, 7 September 2016

Book Review: 'Trilogy' by H D

Back when I used to skateboard (an unusual way to start a discussion of Modernist poetry, I know, but bear with me) watching promo videos of professionals doing interesting things always made we want to get out there and have a go for myself. This is how I felt when I first read Trilogy. During my final year at university, one of my assignments was to put together a collection of poetry, and I threw myself into the task. Inspired by Seamus Heaney’s North, Geoffrey Hill’s Mercian Hymns and Ted Hughes’ Crow, I tried to combine elements from myth, religion and history to say something about our own time. Then, a little over a year after I finished my degree I found a woman who had done the same thing, so much more elegantly and subtly than I managed, for hers.

The three books which make up Trilogy[1] were written in London during the height of the Second World War. The war itself seeps in and out of the poem – sometimes it seems very far from the events and ideas being described, others it bubbles to the surface. It is most evident towards the beginning of The Walls Do Not Fall, the first book, and I wonder whether the poem began life as a civilian war poem before expanding into something bigger. In the poem’s opening section, the speaker walks through once familiar parts of London, her ‘old town square’, and sees where railings have been taken ‘for guns’. Amid the ‘mist and mist-grey’ of the bombed-out city, she sees echoes of Egypt where, like the wrecked houses of London, the temples and tombs are doorless and ‘open to the sky’. In the wreckage of everyday life, ‘poor utensils show / like rare objects in a museum.’ These connections seem to predict the city’s destruction, but the ‘frame held’ and some essence of the city endures, leaving the speaker with a sort of survivor’s guild which leaves her contemplating why she has been able to survive, and what purpose art can serve against such destruction.

Actually, H D never really seems to doubt that poets can justify their existence, and parts of The Walls Do Not Fall grows out of a defence of art against the suggestion it is ‘pathetic’ for poets to try to express world issues or that there is no need for activities which are not obviously or practically useful (incidentally, Norman Pearson’s introduction to my Carcanet edition is invaluable in providing background information). After referring to books being reduced to ash, and ‘old parchment’ being used ‘for cartridge cases’, H D responds to a direct challenge (‘what good are your scribblings?’) with a reminder that ‘we take them with us beyond death’. The question of the usefulness of art is as relevant as ever today, in a world which seems at least as complicated than that of World War Two, even if the threat is not as clear or as imminent: How should the artist respond to acts of terror, to the rise of demagogues, or to such levels of global uncertainty? For H D, the answer seems to go beyond simply bearing witness, it is a core part of human existence, going right back to ‘in the beginning was the word’. We do not get a straightforward defence of poetry’s usefulness – rather, we are given a demonstration of how it can weave a web of complex ideas, connecting vastly different times and circumstances to hint at (but not necessarily reveal) some underlying truth. In this collection, poetry becomes a form of secular magic.

I am an atheist (albeit, a non-militant one) with very little patience for new-agey, mysticism-as-self-help woo, so it is worth considering why this poem, unashamedly Christian and seeped in Kabbalistic ideas, makes me want to go back and read it again almost as soon as I reach the final lines. I think in part it is because, while H D was a believer, and I am not, we both share a similar view of how religion, myth and mysticism work best – as great archetypical symbols which allow us to express and explore ideas about what it is to be human. Perhaps unsurprisingly for a time of such upheaval, Christian ideas about death and rebirth recur throughout this poem, and seem to be reflected in its three-act structure, but H D also draws from ancient Greek and Egyptian mythological traditions, seeing rhymes and connections between paganism and Christianity, which perhaps reach their zenith in the claim that ‘Amen [king of the Egyptian gods] is our Christos’. For me, this syncretic fusion of concepts is what poetry is all about.

Despite the potential complexity of H D’s ideas, her language is clear, and the pictures she paints are as crisp and vivid as we might expect from one of the founders of the Imagist movement. This is most prominent in each book’s main set piece. In The Walls Do Not Fall, the speaker is visited by a figure described as ‘Ra, Osiris, Amen’, hinting heavily that this figure is also the Christian God, while presenting us with an image which contrasts sharply with the pop-culture image of what God looks like. He is ‘beardless, not at all like Jehovah’, and choses to appear in the ‘eighteenth-century / simplicity and grace’ of a ‘spacious, bare meeting house’. This setting may be a reference to H D’s non-conformist Protestant upbringing, but its controlled neatness also provides a contrast with the chaotic destruction outside. This figure’s appearance seems to answer the question set up in the poem’s opening section: ‘we wonder / what saved us?’ In A Tribute to the Angels, the speaker is visited by a female figure who seems to be connected with the Virgin Mary, but also with several pagan goddesses. This figure carries a book which we are told ‘is not / the tome of ancient wisdom, // the pages… are the blank pages / of the unwritten volume of the new’, perhaps vindicating the role of the artist in a world which has been altered by global war.

In the poem’s final volume, The Flowering of the Rod, the set-piece comes not in the form of a visitation, but as an imagined meeting between Mary Magdalene and Kasper (of three-wise-men fame), in which she acquires the alabaster jar of myrrh with which she will anoint Jesus’ body. This extended meeting, which takes up the majority of the third volume, allows H D to create her own myth, perhaps as a further attempt to demonstrate the role of art, while also forging a link between Jesus’ birth and his death (the jar of myrrh is said to be one of ‘two jars’ which were ‘always together’, the other being the jar which was given to Jesus at the nativity), which resonates with the Christian idea of Christ’s sacrificial purpose and further explores the theme of rebirth and transformation. While this section is the most overtly Christian part of the poem, it is not as simple as it might first appear. H D includes rumours about Kasper’s identity, where ‘some say he was Abraham / some say he was god’, while Mary Magdalene is linked in one character’s mind to ‘a heathen picture // or a carved stone-portal entrance / to a forbidden sea-temple’. Even in the parts of the book which seem most intimately connected with a Christian message, H D seems determined to make connections between Christian and non-Christian mythologies, with Kasper, who ‘technically… was a heathen’ naming the seven devils which had been cast out of Mary Magdalene as ‘Isis, Astarte, Cyprus… Ge-meter, De-meter, earth-mother / or Venus’, goddesses who had been praised earlier in the poem, and even linked with the same archetype as the Virgin Mary.

There is more to Trilogy than mysticism and close description though. Throughout the work, H D’s narrative voice shifts in its relationship with the reader, and in its level of certainty. At times, the poems’ ‘you’ seems intimate, perhaps even directly addressing the friends to whom the different volumes are dedicated, at others, ‘you’ is positioned as an antagonist – a foil against whom the speaker can expound and demonstrate her arguments. The poem seems to admit the difficulties in achieving accurate expression: the visitation of the female figure in Tribute is riveted with tentative interjections of ‘what I mean is –‘ and parenthetical asides, culminating in a dialogue between the speaker and the imagined reader, in which H D attempts to address any inaccuracies in the impression she has created. In doing this, she explores the imprecision of literary art – with a few words we try to create an approximation of what we are trying to describe, but it is really up to the reader to complete the picture, and the image they receive is not necessarily the same as that which the writer broadcasts. If this is true of something as relatively straightforward as visual description, it must be doubly true of more complex ideas, and this complexity is referred to throughout the poems, with images of poetry as ‘an indecipherable palimpsest scribbled over // with too many contradictory emotions’, or ‘a jar… a little too porous to contain the out-flowing / of water-about-to-be-changed-to-wine’. It is this richness, this ability potential to carry multiple interpretations and to create meanings beyond the sum of its parts which gives poetry its value in an uncertain world.

However, despite its celebration of poetry’s complexity, despite the breadth and sometimes the obscurity of its references, Trilogy is not a hard-slog of a book. Using clear language and a simple form (the poem is made up almost entirely of blank verse divided into two-line stanzas) H D creates a multi-faceted work, which argues strongly for the power of art against a backdrop of war and myth. There are few poets who create such a perfect balance between clarity of language and ambition of scope.

[1] I think it is probably most accurate to think of Trilogy as one epic-length poem in three parts, rather than as three related collections of poetry, so throughout this discussion I will refer to the whole piece as ‘the poem’.

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