Monday, January 14, 2008

Helen in Egypt in Portland

Photo collage from HD's scrapbook. I pilfered it from the Room 26 Cabinet of Curiosities.

On Saturday night I listened to and participated in a marathon reading of HD's Helen in Egypt, organized by David Abel for the Spare Room reading series. It was my first exposure to that text, other than a preliminary examination of the section I read aloud. The reading lasted about five hours. It was an extraordinary way to experience a text of that kind–a long meditative narrative which alternates terse verse chapters with almost equally hermetic prose explanations. I imagine reading it (to myself, mostly silently, over a period of days or weeks) will be a completely different experience.

For starters, the "plot" almost totally escaped me. I understood vaguely that it subverts the story of the Iliad, and unfolds that of Stesichorus's Palinode fragment, by inventing the adventures of Helen before, during and after the Trojan war in various locales, with not only Paris and Menelaus but Theseus and Achilles figuring as lovers or suitors, and with digressions about Thetis, Iphegenia and many others. Beyond that I couldn't possibly summarize its events or outline. What stood out instead: structure, music, images, recurrences. The book consists of three parts, each divided into 7 books, each subdivided into 8 chapters, each of which consists of a prose explanation and a poem in 3-line stanzas. At every level of scale the books is held together by varied repetitions: from the way the three sections fold over one another, each examining the same characters from a different viewpoint, focused on different themes, to the rhymes and other sound repetitions that link ideas in individual stanzas or chapters.

HD was clearly a poet who thought with sound: I imagine the difficulty for her was not in thinking up rhymes, assonances, consonances, mesmerizing strings of modulated syllables, but rather in toning them down, avoiding jangle, and emphasizing only the meaningful echoes. Classical names, which probably sound more alike to modern ears than to their original users, and tend to survive in more than one form, are a perfect ground for this kind of play: Helen/Helena, Eros/Eris/Paris, Amen/Ammon. This aspect of the writing shares an approach with 19th century philology, in its hunt for archaic word-roots that would literally rhyme across disparate languages and cultures; but here it is the sensuous ear that restructures the old matter, by improvisation and intuition rather than meticulous study. The poem makes connections very fast, and once made they become an abiding and essential part of the structure. There is a kind of pedantry in its tone, especially in the prose parts, but it is a visionary pedantry, a strict joy. 

I didn't take notes during the reading, and haven't looked at the text yet. But certain images, phrases, recurring objects stand out: "Wolfslayer!" "The indecipherable Amen script." Seven slats of shadow on the wall. "The turn of a Greek wrist." Someone looking at Helen over an expanse of charred wood. Veils. Sandals and sandalwood. Some absolutely amazing passages about ships, ropes, the smell of tar. The wooden or iron (?) horse. Bruised apples. A bowl of sand.

It was a very cozy event in an extraordinary apartment full of books and records. Many voices, and some variance in pronunciation. A few comic moments, as are bound to show up in a work of such high rhetorical style and such abstruse matter. It testifies to the work's richness and complexity on multiple levels that while in some sense it almost completely escaped me upon first listening, it was at the same time an utterly enchanting experience. A bit like coming out of a movie with no notion of the plot, but marveling over the special effects.

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