Radical Freedom: Poets on the Life and Work of H.D.

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H.D. and her poignant poetry continue to have wide resonance with readers around the world as well as a unique influence on her hometown, our Bethlehem community. On September 8th, Ice House Tonight hosted a live-streamed event to celebrate her influence and legacy by pairing readings of a selection of H.D.’s poems with the poetry of local poets. The event joins a constellation of other events over the last year that comprise the “Finding H.D.” initiative, which creates acknowledgment of H.D. as an artist with a claim on Bethlehem’s identity. The “Radical Freedom” poetry event was hosted by Ice House Tonight and the video was produced by Crowded Kitchen Players. The event was made possible by the Lehigh Valley Engaged Humanities Consortium. Such collaboration is truly in the spirit of the Finding H.D. program. For past events we have seen organizations like South Side Initiative, the Bradbury-Sullivan LGBT Community Center, Mock Turtle Marionette Theater, and Bethlehem Area Public Library participate in discussions of H.D. and her writing. 

Jennie Gilrain started off the evening by providing a sketch of H.D.’s life and poetic legacy, contextualizing H.D. as the most influential literary figure from the Lehigh Valley. H.D. was a queer feminist visionary, whose innovative poetry and prose established her as a leading modernist in the early 20th century. Gilrain also highlighted H.D.’s engagement with the feminine divine, and the Moravian sense of the Holy Spirit as female. With such an astonishing and inspiring history of her life and work as context, it is no surprise that local poets have responded to H.D.’s writing to create art, poetry, and human connection to each other and the world.

Nanette Smith during her poetry performance at the “Radical Freedom” event.

After Gilrain’s introduction, local poet Nanette Smith began the night of poetry reading. Nanette Smith is a teacher and writing workshop facilitator. She read the poem “Sea Lily” by H.D. to start off her performance, a poem that lingers in the details of nature along the ocean shore. Smith had written poetry inspired by and responding to H.D. previously, and for this event, she dug back in her files to find these old poems. In order to showcase her current poetic voice, Smith ultimately braided some new poems in between her reading of some of her older work. Smith’s earlier poems were overflowing with imagery and texture, with a decadence of words and the implication of symbolic worlds beneath. But as she writes in her more recent poems, this style was born of a certain conception of poetry that she gleaned from H.D.: “H.D. poems did not yield to me easily/ which is also the beauty of shells./ I wanted to hide my pearls,/ the hagiographical and the biographical,/to be unpacked some day by an admirer,/ who would it turns out be only my older self.” This moment in Smith’s poetry expresses the desires of writers to be known and understood for their art, and the ways in which sometimes only the self can truly uncover such pearls of beauty and wisdom. Lines from another of Smith’s poems also capture what poetry can be, beyond a mechanism for artistic recognition: “I looked and looked for HD’s grave,/ the shells, native to my hand, /not inland, false, not Bethlehem, not ocean born./ When I found her I found I had grown out of her./ I had lost and found my own Briar, /and my own mirror./ Poetry can be polemic, beauty, /or a species of nostalgia. /Poetry can be protection,/ lift you up and cover you,/ like a shell, upon a worm.” These lines capture the evolving sense of self that occurs as the poet builds relationships with other people, writers, and thinkers that make up her world. Her vision of poetry as polemic, beauty, nostalgia, and protection, resonate with the many ways that the poets that read after Smith would take up the vast potential of poetry as refuge and delight. 

Sienna Mae Heath expressively delivers each line of poetry during the “Radical Freedom” livestream.

The local poet Sienna Mae Heath began by highlighting H.D.’s radical ability to engage with the network of life outside of traditional human concerns. For Heath, H.D.’s life and work manifests the wisdom that comes from contemplating nature and other beings outside of human communities. Heath sees living “in between-or in the unfamiliar spaces-” to be a gift, and she captures this same mentality as she dwells with nature in her own poems. The first of her poems which she shared takes on the voice of a mother doe speaking to her fawn.  In real life, Sienna Mae Heath had witnessed a doe being killed by a car as the doe’s fawn watched, and Heath tried to capture the feelings of that moment in her poem “When You’re Ready.”  Heath’s expressive and emotional performance especially added meaning to her touching vision of the exchange between mother doe and baby fawn:

Dear one, after my death, 
if I may leave you young by way 
of a speeding fleeting farm truck, 
wait for me. 
See the good man who carries my body. 
Whimper in the tall wheat. 
Crouch and cower from subsequent passing headlights
…Don’t lay down and die young with me. 
When you’re ready, 
let dawn crack open your sorrow, 
let a single sunbeam crack open your hope, 
and find our ancestral tree line, 
You know the one. 

These verses explore a sense of loss, of the generational exchange of wisdom and love, and how these all might be embodied by animals just as much as human beings. Heath’s lines construct a relationship between humans and nature that is not inherently destructive, and insists on the persistence and hope of life not only for humans but for everything in our ecosystem, like the fawn. By humanizing the doe’s voice, Heath’s poem invites us to live in between our own insular human world and the vast network of other living things, just as H.D.’s work so often does. 

Lynn Alexander delivers her poetry with evident feeling in her voice during the “Radical Freedom” event.

Local poet Lynn Alexander was first drawn to H.D. because, like H.D., she is interested in confronting the “shoulds” and shames that are so often forced upon us, and especially those shames that our society uses to control the behavior of women. Alexander read H.D.’s poem “Euryicide,” noting how salient the concerns of this poem continue to be in the current moment. H.D. wrote in Eurydice’s voice speaking to Orpheus of the Greek legend: “So for your arrogance/and your ruthlessness/ I have lost the earth/ and the flowers of the earth,/ and the live souls above the earth,/ and you who passed across the light/ and reached/ ruthless.” In her own poem, Alexander writes of this moment in H.D.’s work: “I can’t help but make the leap/ from the personal to the global,/ to the dynamics of misogyny/ to the planet itself as female.” 

Like Nanette Smith, Alexander uses her reflections on H.D. to explore the role of the poet and poetry in the world. Alexander’s own verses grapple with a critique of the academy and the demands on the poet or artist to be product-focused instead of process-focused, saying: “H.D. wrote to a friend… ‘I have in some way to justify my existence’…[but] there were poets before the word poet, before the tasking of craft under academic constructions, before poets were poets at all, poets lived without evidence, poets still live without evidence, without legacy.” These lines, and many others in Alexander’s flowing piece, questioned the expectations placed on art today, and how such expectations disallow the radical freedom that both she and H.D. seek.

Katherine Falk intimately connects with her viewers as she gives background on the allusions in her poetry.

Poet Katherine Falk began her reflections on H.D. by reading some lines from the beginning of H.D.’s Trilogy, noting the particular relevance of these lines, in Falk’s view, to the present moment of upheaval: “Evil is active in the land/…but god always faces two ways,/ so let us search the old highways for the true ruin, the right spell/ recover old values.” The lines seem hopeful in a mystical way, acknowledging difficulty but assured that there is some spell to turn things aright. The lines also lean on more traditional images of hope through faith, in the image of whatever god is listening, returning her gaze to those who need her goodwill. 

The first personal poem that Falk shared during the event was called “Dear H.D.,” and was a poem in the form of an epistle, asking advice directly of H.D., as muse and oracle. Falk writes: “The sea sends wave after wave after restless wave/ as a plague spews its spit on people worldwide now./ A song of pain rises during our divided time,/ two sides, two views./ Separate or attached? /Are clouds over sea marshes /separate or attached?” Falk’s verses clearly meditate on the present moment, in which Covid-19, racial and economic oppression, and politics divide our communities. Falk’s ruminations on connection, and her use of nature imagery to grasp at such meditations, resonate strongly with H.D.’s style, and mirror a common discourse today that seeks to remedy the rifts around us.

Poet Cleveland Wall delivers her own poetry reading and closing remarks.

Finally, poet Cleveland Wall closed the evening with several more of H.D.’s poems and her own response to H.D., a poem she named “Unseemly Woman.” But in order to give H.D. the last word, she read H.D.’s “Psalm 23” as a parting gift and seal on this celebration of artful words. In many ways, H.D. speaks of Bethlehem when she speaks of home: “Take me home where canals flow between iris banks,/where the heron makes her nest,/ where the mantis prays on the river weed, /where the grasshopper says, /amen, amen, amen.”

Watch the full livestream of the event on Youtube here! And keep an eye out for more digital events hosted by Ice House Tonight and especially other events that continue the Finding H.D. series!

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