American poetry burst forth in this century with the nonlinear narrative epic where the poet's persona vibrates as hero, juxtaposing elements without regard for chronology or decorum. Ezra Pound's Cantos took on all the history of the world; William Carlos Williams personified the city of Paterson, New Jersey; Hart Crane transformed the soaring construct of the Brooklyn Bridge. H.D. chose to transform the myth of Helen of Troy, to free the image of the beautiful Helen from burdens of time and history. Film art is especially capable of freeing an image from its past associations. Cinema offers us a clue to the evolution of H.D.'s style.
In the late 1920s, H.D.'s life was daily involved with filmmaking and film criticism. She was then living in Territet, Switzerland, where her close friends Kenneth Macpherson and his wife Bryher edited the avant-garde film magazine Close Up, attracting a circle of enthusiastic cineastes. H.D. published a series of film reviews in Close Up and, in 1930, she played a leading role opposite Paul Robeson in Borderline, a full-length experimental film made by Macpherson.(1) H.D.'s essays on cinema prove her knowledge of film editing to be technically sophisticated, accurate and visionary--designations which apply to her poetic art. A note of clarification: it is not the purpose here to assert that H.D. deliberately incorporated cinematic techniques into her language. This analysis discovers word tension and action that is controlled by analogous techniques.
It is likely that H.D. was drawn to the efficiency with which cinema can visually portray the influence of conscious and unconscious memory upon present experience. The sense of past-present-future as continuum informs her perceptions throughout her work. It may seem paradoxical that the poet praised for hard crystal imagery used these images to create poems that might dissolve the boundaries of time, that might evoke mystical or mythic realities. Cinematic illusion depends entirely on paradox--offering artistic advantage by manipulating successions of fixed frames. It is worthwhile to read Helen in Egypt at one sitting, to experience its dynamics in the space of a few hours, approaching the work passively, as though in a cinema, allowing the changings of images, voices and sounds to move us as they will. Cinematic parallels exist in the book's structure, scenario set-up of language, and in poetic techniques which correspond to film editing practice.
The structure of the book is organized into sequences of three-line stanzas, each verse sequence preceded by a statement in prose, differentiated by italics. At first, the prose appears to be an argument or introduction, but close attention shows the alternations of prose and verse to be integral to the poem's structure. The prose acts as another voice, one which continually intercedes as counterpoint to the highly subjective, emotional, inner points of view in the poetic lines. In a recording of H.D. herself reading aloud a passage from Helen in Egypt, the change in voice can be heard, clearly differentiated by the poet's tones.(2)
This structure suggests a cinematic parallel. While watching a film, we experience dual levels of consciousness--the view dictated by the camera lens interacts with our conscious awareness of the self as onlooker. No matter how powerfully, even hypnotically, the film may play upon our imaginations, a certain conscious intellect stays active. At every moment, we know we are sitting in a theatre and not riding an Arab stallion across the desert or reading a hieroglyph on the stone wall of an Egyptian tomb. That conscious, intellectual point of view continually reacts, insists on interpreting, analyzing, drawing conclusions or demanding answers to the succession of images that may not show a logical progression.
H.D. verbalizes that part of the mind in her own film essays. Her review of The Student of Prague (with Conrad Veidt) begins:
A small room, a stuffy atmosphere; a provincial Swiss lakeside cinema....There's something wrong and I have seen those horses making that idiotic turn on the short grass at least eight times. What is it? I won't stay any longer....O that's what the little man is after.(3)H.D. as film-reviewer does not tell us about the film; instead, she places us within her own perception, so that we re-enact her experiences as she perceives them and simultaneously perceive her thoughts as she watches those images.
In Helen in Egypt, the counterpoint is consistent--the prose intellectual consciousness interacting throughout with verse stanzas that place us within the perceptions of the characters. H.D. makes this clear in a prose statement early in the book (p. 13): "She [Helen] knows the script, she says, but we judge that this is inuitive or emotional knowledge rather than intellectual." The words "we judge" are significant--it is the intellect which judges. "We" are the audience-persona watching Helen. The intuitive part of the mind acts on another level. Immediately following the above prose heading, we enter Helen's memory in verse which presents a visual scene:
We huddled over the fire,The prose-verse alternation device parallels experience in the cinema; the watchful, thinking mind of an "audience" operates along with unconscious dreams, memories and fantasies of the characters.
was there ever such a brazier?
a night bird hooted past,
At times, also, the prose assumes a directorial voice, as "So at last we see, with the eyes of Achilles, Helen upon the Walls" (p. 49). The verse stanzas frequently set up an active scenario. H.D. uses catalogues of short noun phrases which function like lists of camera shots. The following excerpt begins with the words "everlasting memory" or pictures in the mind as taken by a movie camera:
the glory and the beauty of the ships
the wave that bore them onward
and the shock of hidden shoal,
the peril of the rocks,
the weary fall of sail,
the rope drawn taught
the breathing and breath-taking
climb and fall, mountain and valley
challenging, the coast
drawn near, drawn far
the helmsman's bitter oath
to see the goal receding
in the night?
In Helen in Egypt, H.D. uses at least seven poetic techniques which correspond to film editing practice. As in a good film, successful elements overlap and reinforce one another. The techniques analyzed here include the use of prosody (line length, punctuation and stanza form) that controls the speed and quantity of action; close intense view of visual detail (close up); emblem signification through dissociation of context; montage (juxtaposition and controlled rhythm of changes), a special poetic practice of H.D.'s which I have termed "word-dissolve"; treatment of time and space as segments to be altered at will; the moving camera eye.
The following entire sequence, given "with the eyes of Achilles," demonstrates the first four listed above:
I only remember the turnThe book's entire verse structure consists of sequences in the same pattern as this example, and may be compared to a series of cinematic sequences. Length of sequence varies from two to nineteen stanzas, thus altering the rhythm of "scenes" in keeping with balance and emphasis desired. The stanza pattern of three short lines operates as the fixed frame. The illusion of continuum between frames is achieved by the pattern of punctuation. The first word of each sequence is capitalized, as the opening of a sentence. No matter how varied the number of stanzas, stops are temporary, accomplished by commas, semi-colons, question marks, a few dashes, until a period rests the final word. Always the rhythm seems to follow in logical motion to a concluding stop. No capitalization interrupts the one-sentence feeling during the six to fifty-six lines in any section (or sequence, or scene). The prosodic pattern controls the speed and action of the work as film editing controls the rhythms of a film when connecting sequences into a complete work.
of a Greek wrist,
knotting a scarf;
I only remember
the sway of a ship's mast
that measured the stars;
I only remember
a struggle to free
my feet from a tangle of cords
and a leap in the dark;
I only remember
the shells, whiter than bone
on the ledge of a desolate beach;
I only remember
a broken strap
that had lost Achilles
the rule of the world and Greece;
I only remember
how I had questioned Command;
for this weakness, this wavering,
I was shot like an underling,
like the least servant,
following the last luggage carts
and the burdened beasts. (pp. 59-60)
H.D. focuses on visual detail throughout. In this passage, there are close-ups of "the turn of a Greek wrist knotting a scarf," the feet in "a tangle of cords," "the shells whiter than bone," "a broken strap." The close-ups are parts of a montage--images of persons, places, objects juxtaposed without chronological explanation. A visual image dissociated from context may work as significant emblem or interact with images juxtaposed. In the passage above, the details elicit symbolic associations. The opening lines present images of Helen's hand knotting a scarf, sway of a mast, and stars--images that connect as symbols of Achilles' destined fate. His fate entangles him further (his feet tangled in cords); he must leap in the dark (blindly) in a futile attempt at escape; the shells are funereal (whiter than bone, the beach "desolate"); the sandal strap is broken (implement of his vulnerability); the inevitable downfall is symbolized by a beast tied (with cords or straps) to a burden. No matter what reasons Achilles may state for his downfall, the succession of images clicks off his true destiny, a fate controlled by greater powers. The control seems to move by the hand of a woman, or perhaps, a goddess figure. This Greek wrist is not simply part of a woman's body, nor the scarf a casual item of clothing. As in a film the mind of the reader/viewer collaborates with the poet to invest dissociated images with meanings beyond the individual shots.
The effect on montage depends on rhythm--the length of time a shot is allowed to remain on screen. Lengthening the time increases its importance as an event, while shortening the time may speed up the sense of excitement. In the same sequence, the refrain "I only remember" works as a device that regulates the length of time a picture is held. The visual placement of the refrain may be diagrammed:
I only remember...... ..................... ..................... I only remember ..................... ..................... I only remember ............... ..................... ............... I only remember ..................... ..................... I only remember ............... ............... ..................... I only remember ..................... ....................... ...................... ............... ...................... .....................
During the first three stanzas, the pace is fairly even, the refrain placed on the first line. In the fourth stanza, the refrain is held back and does not appear until the second line. The additional line has functioned to lengthen the time of Achilles' struggle to unbind his feet. The fifth stanza continues the original pace, keeping the refrain steady, but slows again in the sixth stanza, reflecting Achilles' growing awareness of defeat as it drops to the third line. The final two stanzas lose the refrain entirely as the picture stays with the realized images of defeat.
Another corresponding cinematic technique is H.D.'s use of superimposition, or dissolve. There are only four similes in Helen in Egypt, and in this respect, the passage under discussion is atypical, containing two. H.D. is admired for the dynamic compression of her poems. Blendings of organic-inorganic elements and fusion of boundaries are basic to her poetic practice. H.D. logically incorporates the cinematic dissolve into her poetry. A most beautiful example appears in Helen in Egypt (p. 271):
the circle of god-like beasts,The circle of beasts is transformed into a carved frieze. H.D. believed in the transforming power of words. In a sequence from her long-poem Trilogy, the process is made visual and concrete (p. 71):
familiars of Egypt;
would they turn and rend each other,
or form a frieze,
the Zodiac hieroglyph,
on a temple wall?
Now polish the crucibleThis technique of word-dissolve occurs with less frequency in Helen in Egypt but carries the same urgent insistence:
and in the bowl distill
a word most bitter, marah,
a word bitterer still, mar,
sea, brine, breaker, seducer,
giver of life, giver of tears;
Now polish the crucible
and set the jet of flame
under, till marah-mar
are melted, fuse and join
and change and alter,
mer, mere, mere, mater, Maia, Mary,
Star of the Sea,
War, Ares, Achilles, Amor; (p. 179)Word-images of love and death have been superimposed.
Isis, yes Cypris, the cypress, (p. 191)
Dis, Hades, Achilles. (p. 199)
As in film editing, Helen in Egypt alters time sense by rearranging images so that they operate as flashback or flash-forward. In the following excerpt, Helen tells herself:
I only remember the shells, whiter than bone,These two lines on page 224 flash an image we've "seen" as part of Achilles' memory on page 59. Helen sees the image again on page 235, in a longer "held shot," a complete stanza. The psychologist Munsterberg defined the flashback as "an objectification" of memory.(4) The "shot" of white shells is repeated to objectify a memory within Helen's awareness. Time in cinema is always present. In the following excerpt, H.D. presents a visual image of time as an object changing shape, size, even apparent weight (p. 200):
on the ledge of a desolate beach...
Time in its moon-shape here,Memories are used as re-workable objects (pp. 288-89):
time with its widening star-circles,
time small as a pebble,
but what followed before, what after?The memory process described here parallels the editing process of a filmmaker who cuts and re-asembles camera shots as visual objectifications of time.
the million personal things,
things remembered, forgotten,
remembered again, assembled
and re-assembled in different order
The seventh technique parallel corresponds to the use of a moving camera, a device associated with the work of G.W. Pabst, a director H.D. admired for his film Joyless Street.(5) The camera moves into the scene in the following excerpt from Helen in Egypt (pp. 57-58): (Stanza separations have been disregarded.)
only the sound of the rowlocksThe experience for the reader is a camera view moving in or along the boat at the same speed as Achilles, travelling the path of his vision.
as the old man ferried me out;
he made for a strange ship
that he called a caravel
this had a mast;
swaying across the night,
I counted...the familiar stars,
the Bear and Orion's belt,
the Dragon, the glittering Chair;
the mast measured them out,
picture by picture,
the outline of hero and beast
grew clearer and clearer;
H.D. transforms the Troy myth into a creation in which the players may be ourselves, still "moving as one in a dream" as does Helen. Like cinema, the images are seen or heard in juxtapositions which elicit our own powers to dynamize meaning. As in cinema, the poem displays moments of memory or fantasy as objective present images.
Theseus, the god-father of Helen in Helen in Egypt, tracing the knots of labyrinthine thread "another and another and another" recalls H.D.'s psychoanalytic experience with Sigmund Freud. In her memoir of her time with him, Tribute to Freud, she writes, "The years went forward, then backward. The shuttle of the years ran a thread that wove my pattern into the Professor's....It was a present that was in the past or a past that was in the future.(6) The impact of film upon modern perception has been compared to the processes of Freudian theory by Walter Benjamin who points out that Freud's work "isolated and made analyzable things which had heretofore floated along unnoticed in the broad stream of perception."(7) H.D. perceived thought as a flow of successive images: "Thought is never static. It creeps, it seeps, it crawls in just where you don't expect it."(8)
Helen in Egypt is the work by H.D. which most fully realizes the poetic representation of a mind viewing, absorbing, reacting and causing, in turn, further action, questioning or concluding by reliving parts of remembered experience or projected fantasy experience. Film art was peculiarly adapted to H.D.'s mode of perception. She thought pictorially. She looked for meaning in images--an object, person, landscape or mythical figure might be seen as hieroglyph, a form of picture-writing to be deciphered. Beyond the surface view understood by the intellectual mind, there existed "another side" to everything that mattered, "something beyond something." H.D. wrote to find changing manifestations of a central core. The penultimate sequence in Helen in Egypt tell us:
the seasons revolve aroundBut the long-poem does not end there--an epilogue follows, the small "Eidolon" that vibrates in the reader's consciousness, an image of ceaseless sound and movement:
a pause in the infinite rhythm
of the heart and of heaven.
...the sea,H.D. offers a poem that may, like cinema, be remembered, re-pictured, re-played.
its beat and long reverberation,
its booming and delicate echo...
2. H.D. (Hilda Doolittle), "Opening Verses of Helen in Egypt," The Spoken Arts Treasury of 100 Modern American Poets, ed. Paul Kresh, Vol. III, SA 1042, n.d.
3. H.D., "Conrad Veidt," Close Up, 1 (Sept. 1927), 34-35.
4. Hugo Munsterberg, The Film: A Psychological Study, with a new foreword by Richard Griffith (1916; rpt. Berkeley, Cal.: Univ. of California Press, 1971), p. 81.
5. H.D., "An Appreciation," Close Up, 4 (March 1929), 56-68.
6. H.D., Tribute to Freud (McGraw-Hill Book Co., 1974), p. 9.
7. Walter Benjamin, "The Work of Art in an Age of Mechanical Reproduction (1936)," in Illuminations (New York: Harcourt Brace and World, Inc., 1968), p. 237.
8. H.D., "Turksib," Close Up, 5 (Dec. 1929), 490.
"An Appreciation." Close Up, 4 (March 1929), 56-68.
"Boo (Sirocco and the Screen)." Close Up, 2 (Jan. 1928), 38-50.
Borderline: A Pool Film with Paul Robeson, London: Mercury Press, 1930.
"Conrad Veidt." Close Up, 1 (Sept. 1927), 34-44.
"Expiation." Close Up, 2 (May 1928), 38-49.
"Joan of Arc." Close Up, 3 (July 1928), 15-16, 17-23.
"Russian Films." Close Up, 3 (Sept. 1928), 18-29.
"The Cinema and the Classics: Beauty." Close Up, 1 (July 1927), 22-23.
"The Cinema and the Classics: Restraint." Close Up, 1 (Aug. 1927), 30-39.
"The Cinema and the Classics: The Mask and the Movietone." Close Up, 1 (Nov. 1927), 18-31.
"The King of Kings Again." Close Up, 2 (Feb. 1928), 21-32.
"Turksib." Close Up, 5 (Dec. 1929), 488-92.
Tribute to Freud: Writing on the Wall; Advent. Foreword by Norman Holmes Pearson. New York: McGraw Hill Book Co., Incl, 1975.
Helen in Egypt. New York: New Directions, 1961.
Trilogy: The Walls Do Not Fall; Tribute to the Angels; The Flowering of the Rod. 1944, 1945, 1946; rpt. New York: New Directions, 1973.
"Opening verses of Helen in Egypt." The Spoken Arts Treasury of 100 Modern American Poets. Ed. by Paul Kresh. Vol. III, No. SA 1042, n.d.