Bruce Boone and H.D.

H.D. (Hilda Doolittle) by way the Beinecke Rare Books Library

When thinking back to Sagetrieb’s long legacy of special issues devoted to single authors, one would be remiss not to remember the journal’s devotion to the modernist poet H.D. (1886-1961), of which four issues were devoted solely to scholarship on her work (more than any other single author).

In the first of these special issues, Sagetrieb 6.2 (Fall 1987), edited by Rachel Blau DuPlessis, Bruce Boone wrote a spiritual exegesis on H.D.’s work entitled: “H.D.’s Writing: Herself a Ghost.” While the piece is brief in page count, its probings into the mind and work of H.D. run deep. It begins with Boone acting as host to the spirit of H.D. The piece then slides into a kind of interpretive channeling  of both text and of life, making what seems to this reader an argument for a reading of the life-text (or body of texts) that could only be done by a true devotee:

Do you believe you’re dead when you’re dead? Far from it! she’d answer — returning from Egyptian Karnak to London, presenting in exclamatory haste her great discovery to her friend Pearson — London is Karnak — you know? Meaning partly the Blitz is  going on outside her window. When a roof falls down on you in London, this reveals something (think of Virginia Woolf resolving on, successfully attempting suicide because of an intuition that comes to her: this is WWI all over again!) And when ruins come to light in the sand — that’s when you know something.[…] Negating vampires emerge from the tomb in the form of H.D.’s mystical wish that meaning exist where none is or can be. […] Experience means the present for the French author. For her, a glistening goal

In closing, and in true homage to H.D., Boone reaches out, and through, to the historical and epistemological limits of thought, the slips and hollow of interpretation. He then asks:

Will those who read these words of mine when I’m dead one day empty them of the meaning I intend for them — in fairness proportional to me — as I’ve done with her?

Radical Poetics and Secular Jewish Culture

Just published by the University of Alabama Press: Radical Poetics and Secular Jewish Culture, edited by Stephen Paul Miller and Daniel Morris.

Both Miller and Morris edited earlier volumes for the NPF. Miller — with Terence Diggory — prepared The Scene of My Selves: New Work on New York School Poets (2001). Morris assembled a special issue of Sagetrieb dedicated to the work of Allen Grossman (link here), which is also available as a freestanding book: Poetry’s Poet: Essays on the Poetry, Pedgagogy, and Poetics of Allen Grossman (2004).

Here’s what the back cover says about the new book:

“What have I in common with Jews? I hardly have anything in common with myself!”
— Franz Kafka

Kafka’s quip — paradoxical, self-questioning, ironic — highlights vividly some of the key issues of identity and self-representation for Jewish writers in the 20th century. No group of writers better represents the problems of Jewish identity than Jewish poets writing in the American modernist tradition — specifically secular Jews: those disdainful or suspicious of organized religion, yet forever shaped by those traditions.

This collection of essays is the first to address this often obscured dimension of modern and contemporary poetry: the secular Jewish dimension. Editors Daniel Morris and Stephen Paul Miller asked their contributors to address what constitutes radical poetry written by Jews defined as “secular,” and whether or not there is a Jewish component or dimension to radical and modernist poetic practice in general. These poets and critics address these questions by exploring the legacy of those poets who preceded and influenced them — Stein, Zukofsky, Reznikoff, Oppen, and Ginsberg, among others.

While there is no easy answer for these writers about what it means to be a Jew, in their responses there is a rich sense of how being Jewish reflects on their aesthetics and practices as poets, and how the tradition of the avant-garde informs their identities as Jews. Fragmented identities, irony, skepticism, a sense of self as “other” or “outsider,” distrust of the literal, and belief in a tradition that questions rather than answers — these are some of the qualities these poets see as common to themselves, the poetry they make, and the tradition they work within.

The book’s contributors include many “NPF Alumni” — and one contributor who is also a member of the NPF Editorial Collective. Here’s the complete table of contents, with NPF-related folk in boldface:

Stephen Paul Miller, “Meet the Preface”

Daniel Morris, “Introduction”

Charles Bernstein, “Radical Jewish Culture / Secular Jewish Practice”

Hank Lazer, “Who or What Is a Jewish American Poet, with Specifi c Reference to David Antin, Charles Bernstein, Rachel Blau DuPlessis, and Jerome Rothenberg”

Jerome Rothenberg, “The House of Jews: Experimental Modernism and Traditional Jewish Practice”

Bob Perelman, “Zukofsky at 100: Zukofsky as a Body of Work”

Bob Perelman, “Addendum: On “The Jewish Question”: Three Perspectives”

Norman Fischer, “Light(silence)word”

Kathryn Hellerstein, “On Yiddish Poetry and Translation of Yiddish Poetry”

Merle Bachman, “An “Exotic” on East Broadway: Mikhl Likht and the Paradoxes of Yiddish Modernist Poetry”

Ranen Omer-Sherman, “Revisiting Charles Reznikoff ’s Urban Poetics of Diaspora and Contingency”

Joshua Schuster, “Looking at Louis Zukofsky’s Poetics through Spinozist Glasses”

Amy Feinstein, ““Can a Jew be wild”: The Radical Jewish Grammar of Gertrude Stein’s Voices Poems”

Michael Heller, “Remains of the Diaspora: A Personal Meditation”

Alicia Ostriker, “Secular and Sacred: Returning (to) the Repressed”

Rachel Blau DuPlessis, “Midrashic Sensibilities: Secular Judaism and Radical Poetics (A personal essay in several chapters)”

Norman Finkelstein, “Secular Jewish Culture and Its Radical Poetic Discontents”

Meg Schoerke, “Radical Relation: Jewish Identity and the Power of Contradictions in the Poetics of Muriel Rukeyser and George Oppen”

Daniel Morris, ““Yes and No, Not Either/Or”: Aesthetics, Identity, and Marjorie Perloff ’s Vienna Paradox

Marjorie Perloff, ““Sound Scraps, Vision Scraps”: Paul Celan’s Poetic Practice”

Charlie Bertsch, “Language in the Dark: The Legacy of Walter Benjamin in the Opera Shadowtime

Thomas Fink, “Danger, Skepticism, and Democratic Longing: Five Contemporary Secular Jewish American Poets”

Stephen Paul Miller, “Relentlessly Going On and On: How Jews Remade Modern Poetry without Even Trying”

Eric Murphy Selinger, “Azoy Toot a Yid: Secular Poetics and “The Jewish Way””

Bob Holman, “A Jew in New York”

Maria Damon, “Imp/penetrable Archive: Adeena Karasick’s Wall of Sound”

Adeena Karasick, “In the Shadow of Desire: Charles Bernstein’s Shadowtime and Its Kabbalistic Trajectories”

Adeena Karasick, “Hijacking Language: Kabbalistic Trajectories”

Benjamin Friedlander, “Letter to the Romans”

Paul Auster, “White”

The Borderline Pamphlet

Recently, the Beinecke Library at Yale purchased a copy of the short film Monkeys’ Moon (1929), making it available for viewing on their website (link here). Richard Deming — who read in the UMaine New Writing Series Fall 2008 — has written a brief article about the film for Artforum (.pdf here).

Monkeys’ Moon was produced by the circle around H.D., a group associated with the cinema journal Close Up and film company POOL Productions. The key personnel were H.D., Bryher (Winifred Ellerman), and Kenneth Macpherson, but other creative participants included Oswell Blakeston, René Crevel, Dorothy Richardson, Paul Robeson, Hanns Sachs, and Gertrude Stein.

In 1930, POOL released the silent feature Borderline (65 minutes), directed by Macpherson and starring Robeson. The other actors included Robeson’s wife, Eslanda; H.D. (credited as Helga Doorn); and Gavin Arthur, a gay rights pioneer and grandson of U.S. President Chester A. Arthur. In conjunction with the film’s release H.D. wrote an essay on the production, published by Mercury Press in London. The pamphlet was reprinted by the NPF in 1987 as part of the first of several issues of Sagetrieb dedicated to H.D.  The issue — guest-edited by Rachel Blau DuPlessis — is still available for sale ($8.95 plus shipping; ordering info here).The issue includes contributions by Anne Waldman, Beverly Dahlen, Robert Creeley, Bruce Boone, Fielding Dawson, Susan Stanford Friedman, Cassandra Laity, Eileen Gregory, Michael Boughn, S. Travis, and Burton Hatlen.

Monkeys’ Moon sent us back to the Borderline pamphlet, prompting the following thoughts from NPF editorial assistant Alison Fraser.

◊  ◊  ◊

The Borderline Pamphlet is an exploration of the artistic and intellectual possibilities of experimental cinema. The film’s title signifies the tension in polarity and the space that develops between polarized energies: the literal borderline location of the film’s town; visual polarity of black and white film; the borderline social status of its main characters, who are “not out of life, not in life.” But, most significantly to the Pamphlet, the director “Mr. Kenneth Macpherson is ‘borderline.’” It is only in this in-between position that he can create this art:

There is beauty, there has always been beauty. The problem in every art period is to present that beauty in a form allied to its environment and its time. …

Light flows over a face. That means nothing or little to you. There is a bronze forehead and the eye sockets are gouged out just this way; there is a concentration of shadow here, a plane of light there. You see a face, perhaps at most you see a pleasing portrait. You may even murmur “Gauguin.” You think, no doubt, that this is clever posing or perhaps delightful portraiture. You do not realize that that face has been moulded, modelled by an artist, that those lights have been arranged, re-arranged deliberately focussed. … Macpherson sculpts literally with light. He gouges, he reveals, he conceals.

In her 1931 poem “Red Roses for Bronze,” H.D. casts her speaker as a sculptor fashioning an image of her lover from “dark bronze.” Fantasizing on the completed project, the lover captured in bronze, H.D. writes that she might then

stroke at — something (stone, marble, intent, stable, materialized)
even magic sleep
might come again.

The same desire to approach the tangible is manifest in The Borderline Pamphlet even as the film itself defies capture by way of summary. The Borderline Pamphlet, written contemporaneously with “Red Roses for Bronze,” demonstrates H.D.’s struggle to establish a working context for film criticism, something she does primarily through the re-appropriation of visual art and musical terminology. She is self-aware of her approach, and its inherent difficulties:

It is unusual to weld the idea of bronze with movement, but a head is sculptured, gouged out in planes and focus of light and shadow and inset with eyes like those Mena period Egyptian heads with amber glass, yet that head moves.

Despite connecting Borderline to music and various facets of visual art, H.D. makes no outright attempt to connect it with poetry or her own poetics, although the latter is implied. The contrast between her poem and her pamphlet — even while both operate with the same material of bronze — is clear: in the poem, bronze is static, and all the better for the speaker who wishes encase her lover within it. In her analysis of the film, H.D. invokes bronze not simply as a remolding of its possibilities but as a complete revisualization of the abilities and laws of the medium.

Borderline is a dream and perhaps when we say that we have said everything.

In “Red Roses for Bronze,” the speaker hopes that with the completion of her art object, “magic sleep / might come again.” The ability of both art forms to initiate mental transmutation between life and art is one understood through the experience of sleep and dreams. This is illuminating for H.D.:

The film is the art of dream portrayal and perhaps when we say that we have achieved the definition, the synthesis toward which we have been striving. Film is art of another dimension, including not only all art but including all life. Art and life walk hand in hand, drama and music, epic song and lyric rhythm, dance and the matter of science here again, as in some elaborate “allegory” of the Florentines, take hands, twine in sisterly embrace before their one God, here electrically incarnated, LIGHT.

A conclusion, found near the beginning of The Borderline Pamphlet, argues for the subjectivity of beauty and the possibilities inherent in any art form. Though the specific example of H.D.’s pamphlet — that film should be considered a valuable art — is no longer necessary, the general thrust of her sentiments is:

There is no such thing as any fixed art standard. This is beautiful, this was beautiful, this may be beautiful. There is one beauty, it is the beauty of belief, of faith, of hope. And if that beauty is allied to sheer grit and technical efficiency, you get a new sort of art creation.