Charlie Bertsch (cbertsch) wrote,
Charlie Bertsch

The Gender of Modernism

While wandering the aisles of the Barnes & Noble at Foothills Mall this evening, on a trip undertaken with a single purpose -- to check the pagination of my Scribner's edition of The Great Gatsby against the one on the shelves -- that morphed, predictably, into something less telic, I found an impressive selection of books on the $1 table, including a collection of black-and-white photos from Law & Order crime scenes that is far better than I imagined and the latest collection from Arizona author Charles Bowden. The big score, though, was a copy of Mina Loy's The Lost Lunar Baedeker that was inexplicably priced below $1. I already have my own, but how could I pass up a copy of the only available book by one of the most inventive Modernists? I'm sure I can find a worthy recipient for this discovery.

In the meantime, I was inspired by a few minutes of reading Loy to pull my H.D.: Collected Poems, 1912-1944 off the shelf. Although less blatantly experimental than Loy, H.D. interests me just as much and frequently excites me more. The fact that she hailed from the same town where my mother grew up, just west of my birthplace and just north of where I passed the first decade of my own life, increases the attraction. Some people find H.D. excessively precious, but she is the perfect match for my aesthetic sensibility. Take this poem from her 1921 book Hymen, which is a particularly strong collection:
She Rebukes Hippolyta

Was she so chaste?

Swift and a broken rock
clatters across the steep shelf
of the mountain slope,
sudden and swift
and breaks as it clatters down
into the hollow breach
of the dried water-course:
far and away
(through fire I see it,
and smoke of the dead, withered stalks
of the wild cistus-bush)
Hippolyta, frail and wild,
galloping up the slope
between great boulder and rock
and group and cluster of rock.

Was she so chaste,
(I see it, sharp, this vision,
and each fleck on the horse's flanks
of foam, and bridle and bit,
silver, and the straps,
wrought with their perfect art,
and the sun,
striking athwart the silver-work,
and the neck, strained forward, ears alert,
and the head of a girl
flung back and her throat.)

Was she so chaste--
(Ah, burn my fire, I ask
out of the smoke-ringed darkness
enclosing the flaming disk
of my vision)
I ask for a voice to answer:
was she chaste?

Who can say--
the broken ridge of the hills
was the line of a lover's shoulder,
his arm-turn, the path to the hills,
the sudden leap and swift thunder
of mountain boulders, his laugh.

She was mad--
as no priest, no lover's cult
could grant madness;
the wine that entered her throat
with the touch of the mountain rocks
was white, intoxicant:
she, the chaste,
was betrayed by the glint
of light on the hills,
the granite splinter of rocks,
the touch of the stone
where heat melts
toward the shadow-side of the rocks.
I mean, goddamn that's powerful writing. And the whole book is filled with similarly awesome compositions. H.D. manages to redream the classical world with the same intensity as Pound or Eliot, but with more economy, more focus, and way more sex than either of those two masters. Maybe her aspirations are not as lofty. But as Kim would say, "An 'asm' is preferable to an 'ism' any day."

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