I read Ekbert Fass’s biography of Robert Duncan when it came out in 1983, and was floored to learn that Duncan had a visceral first reaction to H.D. similar to my own. I believe he described his experience as one of “sensual intensity.” On a hot Bakersfield afternoon in the 1930s, his apparently avant-garde high-school English teacher read H.D.’s “Heat” aloud. This simple event led to a lifelong relationship with her that culminated—or almost culminated—in his mythical (un?) published H.D. Book. Though they never met, he was lucky enough to have a correspondence with her. She even once sent him some money when he was hard up.
It’s strange, but in high school my own first response to Duncan’s poetry was similar to both our first readings of H.D. While reading his “The Torso, Passages 18” I had a bodily experience, as it were: “His hands unlocking chambers of my male body….” When the word “…homosexual?” appeared a few lines later—on a line all by itself, preceded by ellipses and followed by a question-mark—I replaced the book (Bending the Bow) on the shelf and practically slunk out of the bookstore, in part because I was a closeted teenager, but more so because my physical reaction was so strong. This was better than the Playgirls my best friend stole from the drugstore.
It may seem in these first three blog-postings that I am valorizing the visceral response to poetry over the intellectual. Don’t get me wrong. I get off as much as the next poet (maybe every other? Every third?) on Julia Kristeva’s The Revolution in Poetic Language, or anything by Marjorie Perloff. And I find moments of reverie when, for example, writing an article for Contemporary Literature on Duncan and another for Xcp on H.D. I worry that my musings here might be taken as the nostalgia of a dopamine junkie for those sustained states of innocence and ecstasy that we all have had—especially as younger poets and readers of poetry—rather than a tracing of those states in order to understand how they work.
Part of what made my experiences with H.D. and Duncan so raw and charged is that I misread their mythic poetry as confessional. And not just as their confessions, but mine too! By way of allusion and imagery, “The Torso” told the story of my loves—back to Edward II, and even farther, to Jonathan and David! In his “‘My Mother Would Be Falconress,’” I saw my own mother’s eyes in those “fierce eyes,” and I, too, felt certain “dread that she will cast me away.” And who, when in despair, has not wanted to scream something like H.D.’s Eurydice:
before I am
hell must open like a red rose
for the dead to pass.
Interestingly, though, confessional poetry has not often given me such “sensual intensity.” Of course, there really is no confession in either H.D. or Duncan. What happens—or at least what happened to me—is that in their words, and in the very breath of their lines, the mythic becomes the psychic. Like alchemy. It is this quality that is so hard to find in poetry of any age, and is even harder still to write.