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H.D and Modernity

Hélène Aji
Antoine Cazé
Agnès Derail-Imbert
et al.

“What promises form”: H.D.’s Poetic Trance-Formations

Antoine Cazé

Texte intégral

1In the opening paragraph of her short autobiographical novel, Paint It Today (written in 1921 but unpublished before 1992), H.D. starts ex abrupto by wondering about what could be the best way to paint a portrait, in both the pictorial and the literary senses of the term. The speculative phrasing and reflective tone she uses to think through the process of image-making appear to be a far cry from the “crystalline” clarity so lastingly associated with her poetic beginnings in Imagism:

A portrait, a painting? You cannot paint today as you painted yesterday. You cannot paint tomorrow as you paint today. A portrait, a painting? Do not paint it of yesterday’s rapt and rigid formula nor of yesterday’s day-after-tomorrow’s crisscross—jagged, geometric, prismatic. Do not paint yesterday’s day-after-tomorrow destructiveness nor yesterday’s fair convention. But how and as you will—paint it today. (Paint It Today, 3, author’s italics)

  • 1 G. Stein, Tender Buttons, p. 3.

2Resenting the “fair convention” of a clearly Victorian past as forcefully as the aggressive “destructiveness” of overtly modern art forms that profess to focus on the future in what looks paradoxically like an already outdated fashion (“yesterday’s day-after-tomorrow” —which sounds not a little like “news that hasn’t stayed news”), H.D. claims here to pitch her own artistic practice in the urgency of a heightened, italicized present— “paint it today.” These italics not only emphasize the eagerness of the painter/writer to embrace the present moment; they also suggest a certain angle at which, or from which, to do it, to be fully part of the present moment. Interestingly, the rather contorted sentences with which H.D. transcribes her own hesitation before the task at hand “[refract] //a certain other angle” —to quote lines from a fragment of The Flowering of the Rod (Trilogy, 1973, 166)—, as they unfold across a spatial and a temporal dimensions at one and the same time, in an odd, even awkward, combination of static and dynamic formulations which the many repetitions of H.D.’s prose emphasize. On the one hand, the mannerisms of the past, whether distant and conventional or more recent and aggressively rule-shattering, are dismissed due to the rigidity with which they tend to arrest shapes in space, while the very metonymies ( “formula,” “crisscross”) used to describe this rigor mortis themselves contribute to such an effect: indeed, the verbose sentence in the middle of this paragraph seems to grind to a halt after a dash abruptly cuts it off, the three juxtaposed adjectives— “jagged, geometric, prismatic” —congealing its movement into cubistic word-planes on the canvas of the page. On the other hand, the fluidity with which H.D. considers the question of painting/writing is made palpable by the rapidly shifting complements of the verb “paint,” which keep the process of creation, and simultaneously the discovery of this process, in the flux of multiple verbal constructions and subtly rippling inflections, or repetitions with variations: “painting,” “paint today,” “painted yesterday,” “paint tomorrow,” “Do not paint it of yesterday’s,” “Do not paint yesterday’s,” and finally, pointing back to the very book’s title, “paint it today.” Pointing at painting, as it were, almost in the style of Gertrude Stein’s famously stylized carafe (itself a painterly stereotype) at the beginning of Tender Buttons, described as “an arrangement in a system to pointing.”1 Quite obviously, in the two sentences following the initial question, the three adverbs “today,” “yesterday” and “tomorrow” may, and indeed should, also be read as the direct objects of the verb, suggesting a portrait of time as well as a portrait in time, so that the “it” appearing in the next sentence refers both to “a portrait, a painting” and to the present time of “today.” How is one to paint “today,” H.D. asks herself, not only as a condition but as an object in itself? The answer lies partly in the composition method of this paragraph, which layers its words like so many possibilities for becoming, possible appearances which are not unlike the “series of impressions” that are said to “devastate” Raymonde Ransome in “Murex,” as they flash across her consciousness in palimpsest succession: “Faces overlaid now one another like old photographic negatives and faces whirled on and on, like petals down, down, down as if all those overlaid photographic negatives had been pasted together and rolled off swifter, swifter, swifter from some well controlled cinematograph.” ( “Murex,” in Palimpsest, 157) In the opening lines of Paint It Today, by the time we reach the final italicized statement of this meditation, the act of painting, in all the provisional mobility of its active - ing suffix, has been made literally present in the text by saturating the space of its sentences, palpably present as the text. Drawing our attention to the text as text, the italics redirect our perception toward H.D.’s almost lettristic portrait, whose abstraction into language sets it quite apart from the more conventional abstraction of any “jagged, geometric, prismatic” visual counterparts she may have in mind: the “it” whose portrait is painted here—or more accurately, spelled on the page (of) today—is language itself, contained in its own letters which appear scattered across “portraIT” and “paInT,” refracted in the sequence of “paInT IT Today,” if one accepts to view “it” at “a certain other angle.” The present-ness of this word-painting is the very space of the text as we read it and spell it, pointing to the potential emergence of this figure in its form; a form that remains on the periphery of perception, however, more a spectral apparition bleeding through the words than a full-fledged presence shining in them. A plastic form-in-becoming, corresponding to the dynamic today-ness of its inscription and deciphering, painting or pointing, on the page. There is painting, H.D. emphatically affirms, it takes place today, it is today; i. e., it is here, presenting here, in a tense present even more so than in the present tense.

  • 2 R. Duncan, The H.D. Book, p. 501.
  • 3 Ibid., p. 500. Note the uncanny recurrence of the phrase “as it will” in this sentence, an echo— al (...)
  • 4 I am referring here to the sixth chapter of Morris’s book, “Angles of Incidence/Angels of Dust: Ope (...)

3The injunction to “paint it today,” italicized so as to indicate that the text quotes its own process of writing—as it literally does, this being the book’s title—, identifies H.D.’s creative impulse as what Robert Duncan calls, in The H.D. Book, a “felt imperative”: “The imperative of the poem towards its own order”2, Duncan adds in his own open-ended prose meditation on H.D.’s poetry, an imperative for poetry to adopt an open, experimental, almost groping method thanks to which a poem may attempt to find a form that would not arrest it into a specific shape—be it jagged, geometric, or prismatic—but would rather open it to the presence of forms in flux. “My thought,” Duncan writes on the preceding page, “goes along lines of imagination here as it will, guided by the feeling of what fits, what informs or what promises form.”3 It is this promise of form to which I would like to give some consideration here, insofar as it is constitutive of H.D.’s poetic project in Trilogy, and more specifically as it is embodied by the way in which she works according to certain patterns of what may be called a geometrical imagination. Such a promise of form I propose to call a “trance-formation,” arguing that it is characterized by an open-endedness and a dynamic, vibratory quality that allows H.D. to tilt the angle—to adapt a phrase from Adalaide Morris’s book How To Live/What To Do—at which one is to consider the relation between language and world4.

  • 5 M.B. Hickman, The Geometry of Modernism: The Vorticist Idiom in Lewis, Pound, H.D. and Yeats.
  • 6 Ibid., p. 9.
  • 7 Ibid., p. 134.

4The fact that H.D.’s writing is shaped by such a geometrical imagination has already been discussed in sections of Miranda Hickman’s book, The Geometry of Modernism: Vorticist Idiom in Lewis, Pound, H.D. and Yeats.5 It is useful to summarize briefly Hickman’s argument here, if only to distinguish my own approach from hers. Hickman’s point is largely one of literary history and literary criticism. By showing that H.D., among other modernist writers in the late part of their careers, “enlisted a geometric idiom in the interpretation of [her] environment, the construction of [her] desires and convictions, and the articulation of [her] ideals for social and philosophical transformation,”6 she wishes to correct a literary historical misconception that has limited Vorticism, from which H.D. takes her geometrical cues, to being the aesthetic incarnation of an emphatically masculine ethos of Modernism. Tackling this same point from the opposite end, she then convincingly shows how H.D. conceives of the female body not only in terms of a maternal/mothering figure—a figure that feminist critics of the 1980s-1990s unanimously foregrounded as they were repositioning H.D. at the center of a less exclusive, and less heroic, version of Modernism—, but also in terms of a more masculine and “ascetic” body, a “subtle” body (also in the alchemical sense of the adjective) which she defined in sparse geometric terms inherited from the Vorticist idiom of the 1910s. Basing her study on a close reading of H.D.’s novella Nights (1935), Hickman then links this geometrical reconstruction of the body to the writer’s attempt at reaching beyond the material and into the spiritual: according to her, Natalia, the heroine of Nights, longs “to escape from her everyday corporeal identity... into an alternative state of ideal embodiment figured by geometry. Natalia’s persistent geometric fantasies,” she goes on, “mark her continual effort to transmute her ordinary bodily state into a transcendent one, and thereby to surpass several different boundaries—the boundary of her body, conventional sexual practice, conventional womanhood, even conventional humanity—en route to visionary consciousness.”7

  • 8 Ibid., p. 213.
  • 9 This difference is also due to the fact that for Hickman, H.D.’s geometrical idiom is much more pre (...)

5 I cannot fully account here for the sophistication of Hickman’s very nourishing study, whose last chapter in particular examines H.D.’s and W.B. Yeats’s use of geometry as a critical tool to articulate a “conflicted relationship to their visionary projects, as well as to the visionary epistemological mode more generally.”8 Suffice to say that, while I find Hickman’s revisionary feminism very engaging—given that it bears witness to a less essentialist and more historically informed approach to the feminine component of Modernism in general and of H.D.’s writing in particular—, I nonetheless wish to view H.D.’s geometrical imagination from quite a different angle, precisely.9

** *

6The appropriate place from which to start considering H.D.’s geometrical imagination in terms of its implications for language in Trilogy, the status language has and the role it plays, is once again, inevitably, the “primal scene” of the first stanza in “The Walls Do Not Fall,” whose minimal space coordinates, “here and there,” offer in fact virtually infinite possibilities for H.D.’s geometry to deploy its wings:

An incident here and there
and rails gone (for guns)
from your (and my) old town square (Trilogy, 1973, 3)

  • 10 The French would more geometrically say sur différents plans, “on different planes.”
  • 11 “Antanaclasis” properly speaking means the repetition in close succession of the same word each tim (...)
  • 12 This serpentine, hissing letter is of course crucial in H.D.’s overall understanding of signs, as a (...)
  • 13 The word “rift” could be enlisted as one of these bivalent words that fascinated Freud so much: ind (...)

7Behind the apparently simple historical reference to the London Blitz, and even beyond the more sophisticated relation H.D. establishes in the rest of this first section and first book between two spaces and times—London/ Karnak, 1942/1923—, there is yet another dimension at stake, suggested in a slant manner by this “incident,” that reinforces the notion that the “here” and the “there” of this opening line, phrased with remarkable poetic economy by H.D., point to the possibility for meaning to play on different levels10 at the same time. The word “incident” opens up another space for considering how the perception of the “incident,” this time as an event, is experienced: indeed, “incident” is a geometric term, more specifically used in optics, characterizing the line or ray of light that falls on a surface before being refracted off it. The word suggests to what extent the experience of the historical incident is diffracted/refracted in language by this wonderful antanaclasis11. Such a geometrical troping of the event, or incident, invites us from the start to read the poems of Trilogy as a peculiar, and peculiarly dynamic, space in which word and world become inextricable: just like the rails have been taken down for melting, what the rhetorical “incident” of such an antanaclasis removes is the possibility to distinguish “here” from “there,” which cancel the distance separating them in the middle space of writing. In other words, the “incident,” in the optic/geometric sense, tilts the “incident,” as event, toward the text, leading us to perceive a fundamental continuity between text and world. For the incident also happens in the text, as the text, most prominently in the shape of parenthetical corrections—incidental corrections, one might want to say—redirecting our attention to the sonic texture of the lines. The incident, therefore, is also what happens to the signifier when H.D. subtly inflects (tilts, angles) “gone” into “guns,” as the final sibilant reintroduces the hissing sound rending the London sky during the Blitz in the landscape, or rather text-scape, fissuring the apparent calm of these first lines, their cool and almost rarefied atmosphere. The movement is twofold here: deflecting the presence of the world by placing it in brackets is a way of reintroducing it, transmuted into language, not only as signified but also as signifier. What was taken away from there is re-injected here: one letter returns to supplement the partial erasure of the event, which is itself, since the rails have “gone,” an event of erasure12. This chiasmus by which “here” and “there” exchange their positions in a ceaseless vibration—and, as H.D. insists later in “The Walls Do Not Fall,” “the angle of incidence/equals angle of refraction” (Trilogy, 1973, 45)—should from the start help us place our reading and interpretation of Trilogy at the crossroads where world meets and engages text, in the rift connecting the two13, or in a coincidence of sorts. The coincidence of here and there, of text and world, from the outset engenders the dazzling and seemingly endless refractions characterizing the geometrical space of Trilogy.

8At the end of “The Walls Do Not Fall,” H.D. returns quite overtly to this opening scene in order to define this space as what she calls an “unregistered dimension”:

Still the walls do not fall,
I do not know why;
there is zrr-hiss,
lightning in a not-known,
unregistered dimension (Trilogy, 1973, 58)

9This dimension—the word is a clearly mathematical, geometrical term in itself—, in all its negative characterization, is the space in which H.D. is trying to place her reconstruction of the war event as text. Such a transformation—or, “trance-formation” —has radical consequences which the nexus of meanings implied by the unpronounceable non-word, or half-word, “zrr-hiss” seems to concentrate. This remarkable word should be considered here in some detail.

  • 14 A. Morris, How to Live/What to Do. H.D.’s Cultural Poetics, p. 47.

10In this last fragment of “The Walls Do Not Fall,” as she nods back to the title of this first section and wonders once again, as she did in the final stanzas of the first fragment, why she has managed to survive the raging destruction of the war— “Still the walls do not fall” clearly parallels “yet the frame held” — , H.D. plays yet another time on the name “Osiris” by introducing this unexpected onomatopoeic variant that enlarges it to pure sound: “there is zrr-hiss, lightning in a not-known, //unregistered dimension.” This improbable word—can we even call it that?—abruptly jolts us out of the mythological context H.D. had set up in her previous derivations from the Egyptian deity’s name, and puts us back in touch with the nightly bombings devastating London. As has been noted by a number of commentators, “zrr-hiss” is indeed not only a distorted version of the name “Osiris” —transformed beyond graphic recognition—but also a plausible transcription of the hissing and wailing noise bombs would make as they were rending the night sky like “lightning” during the London Blitz. The poet here releases the full cryptogrammatic force of her words, as she said she would do in fragment 39 of her sequence— “little boxes conditioned to hatch butterflies” (Trilogy, 1973, 53)—, displacing on the sonic level the semantic pun she made in fragment 9 on the word cartouche, the “little joke” (14) which had first allowed her to materialize the presence of Egypt as a crucial subtext to interpret and, above all, rewrite the war. Now in the last fragment of the sequence, this language “shell” explodes, radically shifting the war scene from street to text, from there to here. Thanks to the intense materiality of its sonic and graphic components, “zrr-hiss” is one of those geometric “trance-words” which concentrate and consecrate the transformative power of language in H.D.’s poetry, a splintered crystal and shattered vessel all at once (to paraphrase the opening lines of fragment 21 in Walls), through the potent agency of which the poet redirects the external, historical violence of the war inward, so to speak, re-charging the very words and books, which were being burnt or pulped for cartridge cases, with a regenerative purpose: “zrr-hiss” is the trace of an apocryphal fire which simultaneously tears language apart and fuses (melts and sparks) the possibility to make new sense out of events. This “final naming,” as Adalaide Morris analyzes it in How to Live/What to Do, allows H.D. “to prophesy by aligning history and mythology, and, finally, to commit these charged words to the cartridge of her poem”14. But there is even more to it, as this “final naming” also turns out to be a final alteration of the very possibility to name, or designate, the event that happened there, in the thick of reality: it can only be pointed at in an angled manner, italicized (intensified) like the present of painting in Paint It Today, in a form of oblique predication.

11In this remarkable line of fragment 43, indeed, expanding and compounding the sonic effect of “zrr-hiss,” H.D. chooses the apparently simple phrasal statement “there is” to introduce this sudden burst of syllables and sound. As a result, the sequence “there is zrr-hiss” lets us see and hear another sonic/graphic distortion, arguably an even more fundamental one because it raises the whole question of where all this “actually” takes place, or is. Heard as an alteration of “there is,” “zrr-hiss” sounds exactly like “the echo/of an echo in a shell” —and also, significantly, the echo of a shell— which radically alters the very nature of place and event, of “there” as much as of “is.” To quote the exact phrases by which H.D. makes us perceive the vision Kaspar has in fragment 33 of The Flowering of the Rod, “the echoed syllables of this spell” do “[conform] to the sound/of no word” (Trilogy, 1973, 156). As the case of “zrr-hiss” perfectly illustrates, the “transmutation” (or trance-formation) regulating this poetry “conform [s] to the sound,” but these sounds correspond to no known language. In fragment 33 of The Flowering of the Rod, H.D. describes the conditions in which Kaspar perceives his vision: the echoing sensation suggests a rift between sound and sense, as a stanza break is inserted between “sound” and its complement “of no word”; in so doing, H.D. locates the echo—upon which poetry is based—precisely at the meeting point between abiding by rules and transgressing them, in the interval separating “sound” from “word,” in the implicit paradox of a language made up of an unsounded language, and in the rhythmical caesura in which such a language might appear, which is also the crack in reality that lets Kaspar’s city rise in front of his eyes.

12We should note here that, by the end of “The Walls Do Not Fall,” the underlying presence of the verb “is” in the name “Osiris” —and even more so in the name of his sister/wife Isis, whose duty it is to gather the limbs of her dead brother/husband—has been carefully highlighted by H.D., who first started by decomposing it into “O-sir-is” and “O-sire-is” in fragment 40, all the while priming us to recognize “zrr-hiss” as the ultimate avatar of the god’s name thanks to the use of hyphens; the syllable “is” and its variants ( “os,” “as,” “us”) proliferate in fragments 40 to 43, preparing our ears for the blast of “zrr-hiss”: Sirius, chasm, schism, Isis, which is, papyrus; the refrain “what mystery is this?” in 41 (what mystery, Isis?); mist, waste, glistens, ice; “is this union at last?” (42). When we reach 43, the entire soundscape of the poem rings with sibilants like the London night sky with hissing shells and whirring plane engines: still, walls, unregistered dimension, powerless, dust, lungs, bodies, twisted on hinges, lintels slant//cross-wise, thin air/thickens, step swiftly aside, tenuous, wings separate, ether, sags, ship, procedure, discoverers, possibly. Clearly, therefore, the “there” where this ultimate re-inscription and remembering/remembrance of Osiris take place is as much language as anywhere else: what was “out there” has been abruptly projected here. As Morris concludes in her analysis of the peculiar “phonogram” she identifies as the sequence of letters “s-r-s,”

  • 15 A. Morris, How to Live/What to Do. H.D.’s Cultural Poetics, p. 48.

H.D.’s ambition in Trilogy is to think the world forward by using word-shapes, sounds, and determinatives to understand events anew. To hear the aerial “incident” give its name in its oral trace— “zrr-hiss” —positions it as a world-destroying, world-generating event that takes place under the aegis of Osiris, Amen, Ra. The rocket is the poem’s final embodiment of the wingéd word.15

13Rather than saying that the “there” of “there is” has been trance-formed into “language” by the magic spell of “zrr-hiss,” however, it might be more accurate to say that, by distorting the predication of existence, H.D. is trying to place us at a crossroads, as has been suggested above, a point of contact or bifurcation between language and world. By virtue of its intermediary status between word and thing in the sign system of language, the onomatopoeia undeniably returns us to the material reality of the war, plunging us in the devastated city where bodies can hardly even breathe, so thick has the air become; but it also lifts us out of this world into the “unregistered dimension” of pure signs, ushering us into another order of being. “Zrr-hiss” tears apart the fabric of “there,” challenges the possibility of pointing at, and identifying, a place or space that could contain (i. e. enclose and restrain) anything under the circumstances of the war; “zrr-hiss” ruins the possibility that there be something, or anything, that may not be torn apart. In other words, H.D.’s “zrr-hiss,” placed as it is next to the more standard (but no less problematic) “there is,” suggests a form of split ontology, by which the conditions for being to exist are radically altered and reconfigured into a bifurcated space, poised halfway between the world out there (there is) and the world-as-language ( “zrr-hiss”). This might indeed be an “unregistered dimension,” a form of “not-known” —if we fleetingly understand this as a noun rather than as the adjective it eventually turns out to be. And indeed, this grammatical possibility—or bifurcation, alteration—is confirmed at the end of the fragment when H.D. asserts that “we are voyagers, discoverers/of the not-known.”

  • 16 Here it should be noted that, etymologically, “haven” is generally thought to be derived from the v (...)

14Not knowing is the very condition required for knowledge in a world designated by “zrr-hiss,” just as to “have no map” is the only way to reach “haven,” provided one accepts that to reconfigure the letters of words will allow one to actually reach another world: stopping the gap between “have” and “no” is H.D.’s stairway to haven! The predicative power of “zrr-hiss” introduces us therefore to the ruined presence of a potentially, or possibly, negative world not quite beyond this one—a “haven” which is the trance-formation (or troping) of a “have-not,” not fully negative but verging on the negative16. What the paradoxical predication of “zrr-hiss” suggests, therefore, is the possibility of an intermediary state of being, halfway between “there is” and “there is not”; a bifurcated state of being, which the very material shape of “zrr-hiss” embodies, since in it the two words “there” and “is” are simultaneously deformed and joined together, a hybrid whose parts do not quite fit into a whole.

  • 17 As Adalaide Morris notes, “rise” is an anagram of “sire” but also of “Eris,” the Greek goddess of s (...)
  • 18 One might be reminded here of the wonderful phrase, “meet apart,” which Emily Dickinson uses in the (...)

15“Zrr-hiss” thus points back to the place where everything started, in the first stanza of the first poem of Trilogy, where H.D. had set the stage for a dual world pregnant with the possibilities of dual words, punctuated by the dual sign of a deux points. H.D.’s Trilogy tropes the motif of the incident into a wide-ranging geometrical meditation on the possibility to rise17 up again after the downfall of the war: because “the angle of incidence/equals the angle of reflection”, the prism of poetic language reconnects what was split up, but it can do so only by virtue of its disjunctions. Indeed, the promise of a final reunion is contained in the inaugural poetic gesture by which separation (embodied by the “rails,” a word in which the “r-s” phonogram may already be heard) is simultaneously established and removed. The hyphen at the core of “zrr-hiss” is the trace of this simultaneous splitting apart and stitching back up18.

  • 19 D.K. Kloepfer, “Fishing the Murex Up: Sense and Resonance in H.D.’s Palimpsest,” p. 195.

16As Deborah Kelly Kloepfer has observed in her contribution to Signets, “Fishing the Murex Up: Sense and Resonance in H.D.’s Palimpsest,” H.D. does not simply use language as a substitute for reality, for doing so would only confirm the insuperable gap between word and thing; quite the opposite, she seeks “to close the gap,” in Kloepfer’s words, which means to heal the wounds reality inflicts upon humankind, by the magical-mystical cure of what she so often calls the spell of her poems. As Kloepfer writes: “to H.D.—and this is crucial to an understanding of every word she wrote—the sign is the mark not of absence but of presence. This is why she grapples to textualize “the story,” this is why she works her experiences and relationships through verse and prose, obsessively, because in the word she finds not the sign of the gap but the way to close the gap.”19 This closure—a radical form of healing— is arguably the most violent act H.D. performs in her poetry, showing that the violence of her language is primarily restorative, not destructive. The affirmative power of “there is” must indeed be re-formed (re-shaped) and trance-formed as “zrr-hiss”: the actuality of the event (of the war) cannot be presented in any purely affirmative turn of phrase, it has to include its own metamorphosis into a destructive affirmation, the possibility for rebirth has to go through a re-fusing of language, its syllables visibly and audibly splintered, then melted, which also amounts to a refusal of the old language: the alchemical transmutation of language H.D. seeks to accomplish implies the destruction of all false language; it has to revisit the “old highways/for the true rune, the right-spell” (Trilogy, 1973, 5). Hence also the transformation and regeneration of Osiris into “zrr-hiss,” the linguistic necessity to cut up his name and stitch it back together in order to form this hybrid.

** *

17One might say that the last book of Trilogy fully accomplishes H.D.’s poetic trance-formations by making Kaspar’s vision of the regenerated city appear precisely in the geometrical space bounded by the hyphen that affects the predication of existence—an internal boundary of sorts, delineating a fold of space, or a complication of space, or a troping of space into negativity. For, it is because of a ray of light, refracted at a certain angle in one of the gemstones glittering in Mary’s hair, that Kaspar’s perception is suddenly tilted, reoriented, allowing him to have, “as in a mirror,” his revelation, as fragment 30 of the sequence tells us:

As he stooped for the scarf, he saw this,
and as he straightened, in that half-second,
he saw the fleck of light
like a flaw in the third jewel
to his right, in the second circlet,
a grain, a flaw, or a speck of light,
and in that point or shadow,
was the whole secret of the mystery;
literally, as his hand just did-not touch her hand, and as she drew the scarf toward her,
the speck, fleck, grain or seed
opened like a flower. (Trilogy, 1973, 152)

18This is actually the “point” where H.D. ultimately projects the full force of her textual geometry turned wild. This point is not the vision itself, but rather designates the conditions for the vision to arise: in order to be perceived at all, this vision has to be placed under the erasure of “that point or shadow” which both exceeds it by its blinding light (like the lightning of “zrr-hiss”) and cancels it in its utter darkness. This point of “not-pointing” —a “not-gesture” of Kaspar’s hand that “just did-not touch her hand” (and note how the hyphen recurs here, apparently for no reason but, in all good logic, as a residual trace of “zrr-hiss”)—is the thwarted predication from within which H.D. has been working all along. As I suggested after Duncan, this flawed designation promises that a vision will take shape; but this promise of a form holds only insofar as it cannot be fulfilled, or seen, except negatively, or at least obliquely, just as the blue color of the precious gems in fragment 28 is “shot with violet,” literally killed. Thus the “point in time” italicized by H.D. as she repeats and expands the same scene by placing it under the sign of “not-knowing” in section 40 of The Flowering of the Rod, is “a sort of vacuum” resulting from “an angle of light… refracted at a certain other angle,” or perhaps, she surmises, merely “a vibration” —and I cannot help hearing in these italics the possibility for the French word point (meaning “not”) to vibrate subliminally at this point. A not-in-time, the present of a perpetual today, pointed:

no one would ever know
if it could be proved mathematically
by demonstrated lines,
as an angle of light
reflected from a strand of a woman’s hair,
reflected again or refracted
a certain other angle—
or perhaps it was a matter of vibration
that matched or caught an allied
or exactly opposite vibration
and created a sort of vacuum,
or rather a point in time— (Trilogy, 1973, 165-166)

19Angle, line, point; incidents in “a system to pointing.” H.D.’s geometry in Trilogy de-signs a space of not-knowing that remains suspended in the promise of a fully accomplished form. The ghost of a form, perhaps, that “passed through a frame—doorless—”, and which leaves us forever “not knowing whether (like the wall) we were there or not-there.” (Trilogy, 1973, 83)


1 G. Stein, Tender Buttons, p. 3.

2 R. Duncan, The H.D. Book, p. 501.

3 Ibid., p. 500. Note the uncanny recurrence of the phrase “as it will” in this sentence, an echo— albeit obviously involuntary, since it is unlikely Duncan had read H.D.’s early novel when he wrote The H.D. Book—of H.D.’s own phrase in Paint It Today, “how and as you will.”

4 I am referring here to the sixth chapter of Morris’s book, “Angles of Incidence/Angels of Dust: Operatic Tilt in the Poetics of H.D. and Nathaniel Mackey” (see A. Morris, How to Live/What to Do. H.D.’s Cultural Poetics, p. 183-203). Although Morris’s focus is on a comparison between Trilogy and Mackey’s prose trilogy, From a Broken Bottle traces of Perfume Still Emanate), much of the inspiration for this paper derives from her subtle meditation on the geometric motifs that inform the poetic idiom of H.D.

5 M.B. Hickman, The Geometry of Modernism: The Vorticist Idiom in Lewis, Pound, H.D. and Yeats.

6 Ibid., p. 9.

7 Ibid., p. 134.

8 Ibid., p. 213.

9 This difference is also due to the fact that for Hickman, H.D.’s geometrical idiom is much more pregnant with meaning in her prose of the 1930s onward than in her poetry—an argument which is coherent with the overall revaluation of this prose by feminist critics, particularly after Susan Stanford Friedman’s Penelope’s Web. It would certainly be interesting to see to what extent the geometrics of H.D.’s prose narratives can dovetail with the imaginative, visionary geometry one can see at work in her poetry; my introductory analysis of the opening lines of Paint It Today was an attempt at suggesting some of the connections there might be between the two.

10 The French would more geometrically say sur différents plans, “on different planes.”

11 “Antanaclasis” properly speaking means the repetition in close succession of the same word each time with a different meaning. Here, the word “incident” is not technically repeated, but rather points to the possibility for its repetition “here and there.”

12 This serpentine, hissing letter is of course crucial in H.D.’s overall understanding of signs, as amply demonstrated by its powerful presence in Tribute to Freud, from the serpent and thistle sign-manual to the “series of the S pattern” that “opens out in the direction of the angel” in the Corfu vision of the writing on the wall (Tribute to Freud, p. 55).

13 The word “rift” could be enlisted as one of these bivalent words that fascinated Freud so much: indeed, it can mean both “fissure” and “veil” (admittedly an old, obsolete meaning). I am indebted to Marie Olivier’s PhD dissertation on Louise Glück for this insight—Le Désir de neutre dans la poésie de Louise Glück (université Paris Est, 2013), particularly her analysis of the rift motif in Glück’s very “H.D.-ian” poem, “Persephone the Wanderer,” p. 241-245.

14 A. Morris, How to Live/What to Do. H.D.’s Cultural Poetics, p. 47.

15 A. Morris, How to Live/What to Do. H.D.’s Cultural Poetics, p. 48.

16 Here it should be noted that, etymologically, “haven” is generally thought to be derived from the verb “to have,” whereas it has clearly nothing to do with “heaven.” The resemblance between the last two words deflects the reader’s attention from the truer connection between affirmative and negative—haven and have no—that H.D. is more subtly pointing to.

17 As Adalaide Morris notes, “rise” is an anagram of “sire” but also of “Eris,” the Greek goddess of strife (see How to Live/What to Do. H.D.’s Cultural Poetics, p. 47); it clearly echoes “zrr-hiss,” too.

18 One might be reminded here of the wonderful phrase, “meet apart,” which Emily Dickinson uses in the last stanza of one of her poems, “I cannot live with You” (E. Dickinson, The Complete Poems of Emily Dickinson, p. 675):
So We must meet apart—
You there—I—here—
With just the Door ajar
That Oceans are—and Prayer—
And that White Sustenance—

19 D.K. Kloepfer, “Fishing the Murex Up: Sense and Resonance in H.D.’s Palimpsest,” p. 195.



Antoine Cazé is Professor of American Literature in the English and American Studies Department (Université Paris-Diderot), where he runs the “Observatoire de la littérature américaine,” a research unit devoted to the analysis of cutting-edge experimental American literature. His research mostly bears on American poetry, in particular Emily Dickinson, Gertrude Stein, Hilda Doolittle, John Ashbery, and the Language Poets. He is the author of a monograph on John Ashbery (John Ashbery, à contre-voix de l’Amérique, Belin, 2000) and of Écrire entre les murs. Trilogy de H.D. (PUF, 2013). Antoine Cazé is also a literary translator with thirteen published translations of, among others, William Faulkner, F. Scott Fitzgerald, and most recently Ken Kesey; his translation of Nicholson Baker’s A Box of Matches was awarded the 2005 Maurice-Edgar Coindreau Prize for best literary translation.

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