NaPoWriMo Week Two: The City by the Sea

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For week 2, I carried around a book of the collected poems of H.D., one of the first poets to be identified with the Imagist movement and a fascinating lady in her own right. Her love life alone would make an amazing book.

Monday

Just a short poem, “Sea Violet.” Like many of the poems in her early collection “Sea Garden,” the narrator both describes and addresses its subject (“Violet / your grasp is frail.”) and conjures images of a bleached, windswept beach, all “torn shells” and white flowers. In my mind, it is always an overcast day on this beach, the kind that glares white from the low cloud ceiling and causes you to squint against the blanching light and the salty wind.
Many other poems in this collection describe the tough grasses, the hardened fruits, and other plant life that has been seasoned and strengthened by rough elements into something less beautiful and fragrant but also less fragile. I like to imagine the poet writing herself into many of these hardened sea roses, her femininity roughened by the harsh winds of the world. But “Sea Violet” is one of few occasions when the poem’s subject is at once soft and pretty and strong or vibrant: the violets are “fragile as agate” and have a frail grasp, but they “catch the light–/ frost, a star edges with its fire.”

Tuesday

From the same book. “Sheltered Garden” really probes at what is so unwanted about femininity, why it’s necessary to weather into something tougher. The narrator describes herself lost in a maze of “border on border of scented pinks,” and she feels that she has had enough of them. She misses natural matter with rougher sensations: bark, resin, a sharp branch. She objects to the swaddling and cosseting of fruit, suggesting that they will grow sweeter and tarter on the branch–“For this beauty,/ beauty without strength,/ chokes out life.”

Wednesday and Thursday

H.D. goes in for long poems, which is not what I had in mind when I conceived of reading one poem a day. She also goes in heavily for Greek imagery: she conjures the names of ancient gods and a sense of old founts and marble temples, as bleached as the previous poem’s flowers by the sea. It’s a challenge to read aloud, but I’ve found myself absorbed in the cool white world, interrupted by the heat of the sun’s glare and the eruption of primal emotion–love, sex, hate, envy, despair, immortality.
In particular, I am obsessed with a set of poems written around the time H.D. discovered her then-husband’s infidelities: “Amaranth,” “Eros,” and “Envy.” I definitely recognize that cycle of self-righteous anger, of yearning for repair, and then seething, brittle hatred.

In these longer poems, the lines are fairly short, as are the words–usually 4-8 syllables a line–with a lot of repetition, so they take on a quality both songlike and keening. (“Amaranth” begins: “Am I blind alas,/ am I blind,/ i too have followed/ her path./ I too have bent at her feet.”) Even in this triad of poems which radiate angst, there are classical allusions throughout (to altars, to white houses, to Greek gods) that transpose the rawness into a spare choral tragedy.

Friday and Saturday

Flipping through the collection, I came across a poem called “Other Sea-Cities” in the section for unpublished poetry, so I don’t know when it was written. I wish I did know. Was it written during H.D.’s greekmania, of a piece with her Sappho-inspired love songs and reimagined mythical figures? Or was it written after the war, when H.D. and her family survived bombings and looked out at a ruin less bloodless and stoic than the marble tombs of her imagining?

It’s a long poem–that’s why it takes up two days–of several stanzas that describe cities lost to ruin. “Other sea-cities have faltered,/ and striven with the tide/ other sea-cities have struggled/and died:” the poem begins, addressing a single remaining beautiful sea-city. Throughout, she invokes in vivid detail of the material goods that were crafted and traded in the sea-cities, the faiths and rituals of the people that lived in them, occasionally interrupted with apostrophes (“were their women/as beautiful?”) to question the justice of only one city spared by the sea. There is a more frequent rhyming in this poem than others I’ve read, so it’s more noticeable when the verse breaks out of the tidy sing-song pattern.
You’ll notice that throughout this project I avoid posting the entirety of poems that don’t already exist elsewhere on the web; in this case, I’ll post the entirety of the last stanza, as it repeats several of the refrains and concludes the poem’s lament. Try reading it aloud; “sea-cities” feels really different off the tongue than it looks on the page.

Tell city,
your secret:
for others built beautifully and well,
but fell
to lie
like a bleached hulk
other sea-cities have faltered
and striven with the tide,
other sea-cities have struggled
and died:
other sea-hulks
were stricken, riven
and the pride of galleys
broken,
not one beside you,
remained, beautiful,
o, sea-bride.

I thought of this poem and H.D.’s other bleached shores when I visited my hometown of Memphis last week. I haven’t visited frequently since moving to Philadelphia eight years ago, and the neighborhood I remember no longer exists. The recession wiped out many of the businesses I grew up next to; some of them  have been replaced with smaller, less showy businesses wearing the too-large buildings like a hermit crab would carry a shell too big and spiked. Some of the buildings lie empty, faded by the sun and neglect. It’s a lot like a fallen sea-city, actually. Were its women not as beautiful? Did it love sea-beauty less than other cities that struggle less?

When I get around to writing my NaPoWriMo poem inspired by this week’s reads, it’s the sea-cities that will stay with me most.

Anyway, on the seventh day I rested and visited with my family.

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