The Poetry Project

On HERmione by H.D.

Holly Raymond

H.D., as both a mystic and a modernist, felt keenly the value of circling back on things, of tracing spirals of reiteration and reconfiguration where she’d been before. “Things brought back became a sort of hecatomb,” she writes towards the end of her 1927 roman à clef HERmione, reissued by New Directions (2022), “a heap of things, things, all having set symbolism, having some sort of office.” Like many of H.D.’s other occluded memoirs, HERmione is a kind of dissident Eurydice-work, looking stubbornly backwards where the gaze should have foreclosed a sense of return. In fact, H.D. does more than look: she sifts carefully but furiously through the rubble, and experimentally pieces together the same fragments into different configurations with each successive transit.

The book’s first sentence runs “Her Gart went round in circles,” which aptly sets the tone—both of H.D.’s intense strafing around the site of memory, and the way in which the book diffuses its point of identification. H.D. has some coy fun with protagonist/proxy Hermione Gart’s nickname, “Her,” which is persistently flagged as a nudging of the “I” out of the spotlight—“Her” and “she” rendered interchangeable referents in a blurry, flickering way as Her proceeds towards something like H.D.’s sense of what aesthetic self-determination might mean for a woman modernist.

HERmione covers Her’s floundering early 20s in rural Pennsylvania, on the outer margins of her father’s academic milieu and tentatively bound in artistic and psychosexual entanglements with Ezra Pound and Frances Gregg stand-ins George Lowndes and Fayne Rabb. Lowndes (waifishly hot, bad at dancing, and compulsively dismissive of Her’s faculties) is a suitably overbearing, obnoxious, and suffocating character. Rabb (ethereal, vague, and equally judgemental of Her’s aesthetic projects) signals a kind of unmooring from the obligations of marriage and domesticity, linked as she is with the occult trappings H.D. persistently aligns with liberation and communion throughout her career. Fayne is all tea leaves, rappings on the pane and ouija boards, while Lowndes is just mean comments and unfulfilling forest-sex. As Francesca Wade observes in her afterword to the novel, HERmione is one of the most stridently sapphic of H.D.’s prose works, depicting Her’s nimble evasion of Lowndes’ lassos, sidestepping the looming promise of a bourgeois wedding plot as well as Lowndes’ claustrophobic attempts to curate Her as a pet social project. Her’s practice of writing can only begin to stir within the orbit of other women, the women dismissed as declassé and provincial by the Euro-tripping Lowndes. The book pivots around the proxy war between Lowndes and Rabb—the cosmopolitan, witty, and egregiously bitchy Lowndes imagining himself as the author of a version of Her (“you are a poem though your poem’s naught,” he chides towards the end of the book) while Rabb offers the dreamy possibility of a mutual immersion or dissolution into the “we” which proves capable of actually making writing possible.

In other words, Lowndes collapses the categories of muse and patron into one role isometric, too, with editor, critic, and censor. He may open doors for Her, but only the doors of his choosing, at his own whim—Her remains his. Her’s creative and sexual relationship with Fayne Rabb, on the other hand is inchoate and aimless, but untethered from the onus of being cultivated and curated by a male mediary. Their rapport may lack a recognizable name (HERmione is a book deeply concerned with its own post-facto dumbness, the vocabularies which H.D. possesses in the late 20s that Her lacked—psychoanalytical, philosophical, sexual…) or might inhabit a name which neither Her nor Rabb can at that point articulate, a queer pocket on the fringes of modernist self-fashioning, but it does, materially, lead to the creation of art. Through an eminently H.D.-ian twist of linguistic alchemy, Her comes to self-knowledge through knowledge of a her ulterior to Her self:

“Things are not agacant now I know her. I know her. Her. I am Her. She is Her. Knowing her, I know Her. She is some amplification of myself like amoeba giving birth, by breaking off, to amoeba. I am sort of mother, a sort of sister to Her.” Names, for H.D., are lively and agential things, and the act of choosing her own name, or engaging in various contentions with the names given to her by others, is a recurrent site of struggle. In HERmione, the final dehiscing of that conclusive “HER” from its “mione” is a desperate and reflexive victory which Her herself spends much of the book trying to understand.

In a brief preface provided by H.D.’s daughter Perdita Schaffner, we see the work of someone who survived the conditions of this book wrestling with the allure and the repugnance of its project. “But the past will not leave me alone,” Schaffner writes. “It pulls me back and under. It surrounds me. The more remote it may be, the closer the encirclement.” It’s difficult to not feel a little sympathy for Schaffner, caught up in the riptide of her mother’s obsessive, ritualistic relitigation of the past. But it’s just as hard to deny the magnetism of H.D.’s restless treatment of autobiography as the site of perpetually inconclusive recontextualization. In a book so feverishly committed to seeing its heroine escape the procrustean orbit of a domineering aesthetic, H.D. often feels seduced by the familiarity and cozily circumscribed perimeters of her childhood milieu—the leafy, humid Pennsylvania pastoral that both she and Lowndes persistently link with Shakespeare’s dreamy Arden. One of the great utilities of H.D.’s autobiographical prose—or one of its great weaknesses, if you’re impatient with this kind of thing—is how bare it lays its own sentimentality. In her poetry, too, there’s a persistent desire to gaze lovingly at ancient things, to fantasize about touching what is absent and obsolete, but it is often obfuscated behind the classical or the mystical. H.D. likes missing things—likes being able to mythologize the assorted gaps and lacunae that memory refuses to render up directly.

In her poetry, this backwards gaze towards history is an increasingly spiritualized and oblique strategy of metempsychosis, of cultural or genetic memory refracted through a linguistic field. In her prose, however, it often presents itself unabashedly as nostalgia for earlier, less sophisticated, more acutely feeling versions of H.D., who experienced things with less precision but more intensity. This is extremely useful for readers interested in the germinal stages of H.D.’s career-long indecision between the calls to self-definition and autonomy on the one hand and the dream of a collective, if selective, intelligence or consciousness on the other. H.D. undertook the writing of HERmione eight years after 1919’s Notes on Thought and Vision, in which she vividly describes an epiphanic moment of “jellyfish consciousness” akin to ego death, and the book’s fixation on tiny, private omens, premonitions, symmetries and minor necromancies sneakily betrays the presence of H.D. the mystic behind Her Gart the gifted burn-out. The jellyfish consciousness, the book suggests, is there, whether Her knows it or not, glimpsed in the margins of a long sick-bed rhapsody at its climax.

H.D. wrote a frankly exhausting number of autobiographical novels, with more or less thin facades of fictionality, and it’s maybe the rare reader who seriously needs to read all of them. But HERmione’s retrospective scavenging and rummaging is a masterpiece of tenderness and half-embarrassed hindsight, a strikingly vulnerable and revealing text by an author sometimes prone to gnomic prickliness. Together with her later text The Gift (which deals largely with her younger childhood years in Pennsylvania), we see an unusually unguarded and even lushly romantic side of H.D., as well as a sense of immediacy and presence in space characteristic of her early poetry. This reprint is a gem for H.D. enthusiasts, but it’s also just a pleasure to read, one of the most inviting and, in the author’s mercy for her younger proxy, most generous of her prose works.

#270 – Fall 2022