Selection from HELEN IN EGYPT
Did her eyes slant in the old way?
was she Greek or Egyptian?
had some Phoenician sailor wrought her?
was she oak-wood or cedar?
had she been cut from an awkward block
of ship-wood at the ship-builders,
and afterwards riveted there,
or had the prow itself been shaped
to her mermaid body,
curved to her mermaid hair?
was there a dash of paint
in the beginning, in the garment-fold,
did the blue afterwards wear away?
did they re-touch her arms, her shoulders?
did anyone touch her ever?
Had she other zealot and lover,
or did he alone worship her?
did she wear a girdle of sea-weed
or a painted crown? how often
did her high breasts meet the spray,
how often dive down?
© 1961 by Norman Homes Pearson.
H.D. (Hilda Doolittle) (1886 – 1961) was born in Bethlehem Pennsylvania and was a friend and contemporary of Marianne Moore, Ezra Pound, and William Carlos Williams. She was a leader of the Imagist movement in poetry, though her work was neglected during her lifetime due to its feminist principles that were ahead of their time. H.D. had a deep interest in classical Greek literature, and her poetry often borrowed from Greek mythology and classical poets, as this particular excerpt exemplifies. In her personal life H.D. had a fluid sexuality, being married twice and engaging in a number of lesbian relationships. She was unapologetic about her sexuality, and thus became an icon for both the gay rights and feminist movements during the 1970s and 1980s.
Editor’s Note: H.D. has always been a fascinating figure to me. She held her own in a boys club comprised of heavyweights like Pound and William Carlos Williams. I have been told that her abbreviated name was used in order to keep readers from knowing that she was a female, in order to expand her potential readership in a time when her ideas might have been more easily accepted coming from a man. Or perhaps it was an homage to her sexual ambiguity? H.D.’s poems were certainly ahead of their time and have managed to remain timeless so that while she may have been underrated during her lifetime, she thrives as a celebrated poet today.