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?

Celebrating Sagetrieb


Cover for the first issue of Sagetrieb, Spring 1982

Our next publication, about which more news will soon follow, is a Festschrift for the late Burton Hatlen, guest edited by Demetres Tryphonopoulos, combining Paideuma 40 and Sagetrieb 20. The latter journal has been dormant for several years, its planned last issue left languishing when Burt fell ill; but Sagetrieb deserved a better conclusion than this mere petering out, and we are pleased that our celebration of Burt’s life and work will include a version of his last editorial project: a collection of essays on George Oppen. The Festschrift also includes an essay on Sagetrieb by Kaplan Harris, acknowledging the good work performed by the journal and the end of the era in which that work was performed.

In the coming weeks, as we await the arrival of the Festschrift, we will celebrate Sagetrieb by noting some highlights from the issues. Their tables of contents and covers can be seen at our Sagetrieb blog (link).

This celebration of Sagetrieb will be informal and improvisational, ranging freely across the run of the journal in no particular order — we’ll be pulling issues off the shelf at random, so to speak. But to get things started, here are a few choice sentences from the inaugural issue, from the section titled “The Biographer.”

Cid Corman remembering Louis Zukofsky:

Like Olson he wanted to play teacher and critic to me. And as with Olson — I balked. It has simply been a thing with me to do my own dirty work.

Fielding Dawson with respect to Charles Olson:

He wanted to be used the way he liked — with advance warning. He wanted what he wanted in the way he wanted. I bet his mom spoiled him.

Grattan Freyer, from “Montale and His Friends”:

On one occasion it was announced at the Giubbe Rosse that everyone would take the day off and go for a walk in the country. I pictured a twelve-mile hike at the very least. We walked, six or eight of us, about three-and-a-half miles out of Florence to a little country inn, where we all ate an enormous meal in the open air. The conversation en route to the inn was about what we would find to eat there, and on the way back about what we had eaten.

Freyer’s essay ends with two translations, one of Montale made with the poet’s help, a lovely version of “Eastbourne”:

“God save the King” intone the trumpets
from a pavilion erected on piles
which line the passage of the sea as it rises
obliterating footprints
of horses in the wet sand
of the shore.

Coldly a wind assails me,
but a shimmering lights up the windows
and the whiteness of mica in the rocks

BANK HOLIDAY . . . The long wave of my life
slides back
escaping, too sweetly, declining.
It grows late. Noises fall apart,
closed in softness.

They go in bath-chairs the mutilated,
accompanied by long-eared dogs,
children unspeaking, or dotards. (Perhaps
tomorrow all will seem a dream.)
And you too
will come, prisoner voice, liberated
spirit wandering,
bleeding voice, lost and given again
to my evening.

As a hotel-door revolves on its sections
— another responds with returning beam —
a merry-go-round enthralls me, which overturns
everything within its circle. My homeland!
I listening recognize your breathing,
I too stir myself and the day is thick with living.

Everything will seem in vain: even the power
which in its blinding flux brings together
the living and the dead, the trees and the breakers
and unwinds itself from you, for you. the holiday
has no pity. The band
blares out again while in the early darkness
a grace unfolds itself unarmed.

Conquering evil . . . The wheel does not rest . . .
You also knew about it, light-in-darkness.

On the burning land, whence you are
vanished at the first stroke of the bells, remains
only an enormous burning brand for what once was

Robert Kroetsch 1927–2011

From Robert Archambeau and others we learned a few weeks ago that Robert Kroetsch, the great Canadian author, was killed in a car wreck in his native Alberta, just a few days short of his 84th birthday. This sent us back to our Special Canadian Issue of Sagetrieb, guest edited by George Bowering and Ken Norris, which included Kroetsch’s “For Play and Entrance: The Contemporary Canadian Long Poem.” The essay is fluid and notational, divided like a day into 24 brief sections (an homage perhaps to Zukofsky, whose example, though uncited, is well-summed in Kroetsch’s third possibility: not the short long poem or book-long poem, but the life-long poem). Reprinted from Open Letter, originally presented at the MLA in 1980, the essay is focused on the 1970s, ranging widely across that decade to consider work by some twenty poets. Less an argument than a series of inferences and suggestions, it is in some ways a sketch for a workshop, informed, it seems, by Kroetsch’s poetic practice and pedagogy as well as by his critical intuitions.

Photo by Pearl Pirie (Pesbo) by way of Flickr

Archambeau’s Samizdat Blog has a lovely tribute to Kroetsch that pays particular attention to the poetry,  (link). Sandra Martin  has a broader overview of Kroetsch’s career in the Globe and Mail (link). There she writes, “Although Kroetsch walked on two legs, he had four literary pillars: fiction, criticism, teaching and poetry.” The last three, at any rate, are well represented in his essay on the long poem.

Some sample sentences:

The long poem, by its very length, allows the exploration of the failure of system and grid. The poem of that failure is a long poem.

Homer wrote poems without stanzas. We threaten to write stanzas (fragments, pieces, journals, ‘takes,’ cantos even) that cannot become the poem.

The paradox becomes this now: that art does not quite narrate, while life, possibly, does.

My own continuing poem is called, somewhat to my dismay, Field Notes.

When the poem finally appeared under the revised title Completed Field Notes (1989), Kroetsch’s dismay was apparently matched by that of his readers. As Archambeau reports (he was a student at the time at the university where Kroetsch was a presence), “I remember the arguments in the student pub about whether that word, ‘completed,’ represented a transcendence or a betrayal of Kroetsch’s project.” Reading Fred Wah‘s introduction to the 2000 reprint (link), one can see why the arguments were had. “Kroetsch’s poem,” writes Wah, “attempts to avoid design, to occupy a position of unresolved tension.” And then, noting “our desire … to make meaning from the fragments, to see pattern and connection,” he adds:

If our reading is not [to be] directed by the need for completion, we must syncretize dissonance, seemingly unconnected particles ‘going nowhere,’ in order, by chance, to intersect with a present moment that leads, perhaps, somewhere. And that present moment, given the phenomenological status of Kroetsch’s poetics, seems to be the action of writing itself.

And here is a poem from that book, showing Kroetsch-the-novelist to advantage. It comes from the middle section, “Advice to My Friends,” and speaks directly to the desire cited by Wah:

Sounding the Name

In this poem my mother is not dead.
The phone does not ring that October
morning of my fourteenth year.
The anonymous voice on the phone

does not say, Call Arthur to the phone.
Our hired man, a neighbour’s son, quiet,
unpretentious, a man from the river hills
near our farm, does not turn from the phone,

he does not say, seeming to stress the time,
Your mother died at ten o’clock. My sister and I
do not look at each other, do not smile,
assuring each other (forever) that words are

In this poem my mother is not dead,
she is in the kitchen, finishing the October
canning. I am helping in the kitchen

I wash the cucumbers. My mother asks me
to go pick some dill. The ducks are migrating.
I forget to close the garden gate.

News from Acton

If there’s a poetry prize that makes me feel warm and fuzzy, it’s the Robert Creeley Award, given each year since 2002 in Acton, Massachusetts. This is the town — it was West Acton, actually — where Creeley spent much of his youth. Some background on the prize is given at the website for the Robert Creeley Foundation:

Acton rediscovered Creeley’s connection to the town through his chance meeting with Acton resident and poet Robert Clawson in late 2000. On April 11, 2001, Creeley returned to Acton to read to and interact with students in the Acton Boxborough Regional High School. Acton officially proclaimed this day to be “Robert Creeley Day,” and thus began the annual awarding of the “Robert Creeley Award.” Each year, the award winning poet reads to a community audience and a student audience.

Photo by Matthew Modoono

This year’s winner, announced in September, is Gary Snyder, and last week he gave his reading. There’s a newspaper story on the event at, with a YouTube video attached and five photos by Matthew Modoono — including the one to the right, which shows Penelope Creeley and Snyder embracing. From the story:

Underneath a large photo of her husband in a moment of mirth, Penelope Creeley — Robert Creeley’s wife of more than 30 years, and a member of the Robert Creeley Foundation — introduced poet Gary Snyder, Pulitzer prize winner and the 10th annual recipient of the Robert Creeley Award.

In an emotional greeting punctuated by applause, she invited audience members to pay their respects at Creeley’s grave at Mt. Auburn Cemetery in Cambridge. “He’d be delighted by the company,” she said.

Snyder’s association with the NPF has been much more attenuated than I would have expected given his Poundian imprint, but several fine essays on his work have appeared in Sagetrieb. Here’s an excerpt from Tom Lavazzi’s “Pattern of Flux: Sex, Buddhism, and Ecology in Gary Snyder’s Poetry,” from 1989:

Ontologically, Snyder’s poetry presents patterns and figures of flux. … In “Night,” the sleeping lovers lying with “Twined legs” and “hair all tangled together” unconsciously mimic what Wilhelm Reich called “orgonomic functional thinking …  frozen motion”: form as movement, which was often expressed, for Reich, in the “basic form” of the “sexual embrace.” In the poem, this interlocked state is only temporary; the sun is soon “hitting the shades”; a record has been left “soundlessly spinning,” suggesting that beneath any formalized musical expression, is the essential mandala rhythm of movement and change, combinations and recombinations, like legs crossed and recrossed as lovers turn in sleep. The music stops, but the movement, the rhythm, continues. The voice of the poem, which slips out of the individual consciousness of the sleeping poet-lover, holds both images in mind — the intertwined bodies and the spinning record — and threads through the whole scene and series of events (the night of lovemaking, the house left in disarray, the first strands of morning light), pushing toward a larger synthesis: the knowledge that we are only temporary gatherings of energy (the sex/love continuum is only one of its manifestations) and that at every moment we are part of a larger entity that flows through us and that we ultimately flow back into.

Clearly a Winner

Last week came the wonderful news that Rae Armantrout won the National Book Critics Circle Award for poetry, for Versed, her fourth volume with Wesleyan and her tenth overall. You can read the announcement on Critical Mass, blog of the National Book Critics Circle Board of Directors (link), and see a video of Armantrout reading from the book on the website of the National Book Foundation, which administers the similar-sounding National Book Award (link). Armantrout was a finalist for the latter prize, along with Ann Lauterbach, who — like Armantrout — was a featured reader at our recent seventies conference (the winner, Keith Waldrop, was a featured reader at our earlier sixties conference).

Armantrout’s award sent me back to her 1992 essay “Feminist Poetics and the Meaning of Clarity,” now part of her Collected Prose, first published in Sagetrieb. The essay was a sequel to her earlier “Why Don’t Women Do Language-Oriented Writing?” (published in L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E in 1978). The earlier essay was posed as an answer to the title question. The later one flipped the script by using the title to proliferate questions. That proliferation — and the questing intelligence behind it — is very much a part of Armantrout’s appeal. Even when the questions are leading, the invitation to think is welcome.

Here are some of the last sentences of the Sagetrieb essay — a statement of poetics in Socratic form:

What is the meaning of clarity? Is something clear when you understand it or when it looms up, startling you? Is readability equivalent to clarity? What is the relation of readability to convention? How might conventions of legibility enforce social codes? Does so-called experimental writing seek a new view of the self? Would such a view be liberating? Might experimental writing and feminism be natural allies? I think questions are most useful when left open. I will merely assert that there is more than one model of clarity.

It’s nice to see another model of clarity get official recognition!

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.