Review: Sea Garden by H.D.

The first poetry collection from the poet and novelist Hilda Doolittle, known for her association with the early 20th century avant-garde Imagist group of poets such as Ezra Pound and Richard Aldington.

This will be a relatively short review, as this is a short little volume. I came across Sea Garden for free and stuck it on my Kindle for a rainy day, which actually turned out to be that same evening, as I wasn’t falling asleep as fast as I’d like and wanted to read for a bit. None of the books I was reading at the time appealed to me, so I began reading the first few poems in here. Those few then turned in to the whole collection!

Hilda Doolittle is one of my favourite authors, as anyone who follows my blog with any regularity might have noticed. I love the way she writes, with absolutely precision timing, with such beauty and care. I am so very glad that my lovely supervisor, Lorraine Sim, put me onto her, because I kind of feel like H.D. has transformed the way I read and think about modernist literature, as well as women writers in general. Bid Me to Live was a turning point in my reading life, and I didn’t even realise it at first. Asphodel was an extremely tough read, but with all H.D.’s work, your dedication is rewarded tenfold.

Sea Garden took me a little while to sink my teeth into properly. As with a lot of poetry, I just take a little while to get into the groove, especially when it’s a form I’m not overly familiar with. After a few poems, however, I felt like I was sinking into a very comfortable, familiar place with H.D.’s beautiful writing. Her prose is so poetic that it’s only a short step away from her poetry, so I felt right at home.

Imagist poets, such as H.D., Ezra Pound and Richard Aldington (Oh, how I’d love to hit those two on the head with a brick…) follow three distinct rules in their poetry:

1. Direct treatment of the “thing”, whether subjective or objective.
2. To use absolutely no word that does not contribute to the presentation.
3. As regarding rhythm: to compose in sequence of the musical phrase, not in sequence of the metronome.

H.D. is the master of this style, with all her poetry having a succinct but gorgeous flow, full of musicality, flowers, mythology and violence. I really wish she’d be more recognised outside of academia, because I truly think she deserves it. Her prose style is stunning, and her poetry is expertly rendered. It’s likely true that Ezra Pound stole many of his ideas on Imagism from her, as she was writing in this manner long before he was… but it isn’t the first time he’d screwed her over.

I implore you, if you love poetry and beauty, please have a read of this collection. It’s free! You have nothing to lose! …Except all your money because you’ll want to buy all of the Hilda Doolittle ever, because that is exactly what happened to me.

Cities

Can we believe—by an effort
comfort our hearts:
it is not waste all this,
not placed here in disgust,
street after street,
each patterned alike,
no grace to lighten
a single house of the hundred
crowded into one garden-space.
Crowded—can we believe,
not in utter disgust,
in ironical play—
but the maker of cities grew faint
with the beauty of temple
and space before temple,
arch upon perfect arch,
of pillars and corridors that led out
to strange court-yards and porches
where sun-light stamped
hyacinth-shadows
black on the pavement.
That the maker of cities grew faint
with the splendour of palaces,
paused while the incense-flowers
from the incense-trees
dropped on the marble-walk,
thought anew, fashioned this—
street after street alike.
For alas,
he had crowded the city so full
that men could not grasp beauty,
beauty was over them,
through them, about them,
no crevice unpacked with the honey,
rare, measureless.
So he built a new city,
ah can we believe, not ironically
but for new splendour
constructed new people
to lift through slow growth
to a beauty unrivalled yet—
and created new cells,
hideous first, hideous now—
spread larve across them,
not honey but seething life.
And in these dark cells,
packed street after street,
souls live, hideous yet—
O disfigured, defaced,
with no trace of the beauty
men once held so light.
Can we think a few old cells
were left—we are left—
grains of honey,
old dust of stray pollen
dull on our torn wings,
we are left to recall the old streets?
Is our task the less sweet
that the larvae still sleep in their cells?
Or crawl out to attack our frail strength:
You are useless. We live.
We await great events.
We are spread through this earth.
We protect our strong race.
You are useless.
Your cell takes the place
of our young future strength.
Though they sleep or wake to torment
and wish to displace our old cells—
thin rare gold—
that their larve grow fat—
is our task the less sweet?
Though we wander about,
find no honey of flowers in this waste,
is our task the less sweet—
who recall the old splendour,
await the new beauty of cities?
The city is peopled
with spirits, not ghosts, O my love:
Though they crowded between
and usurped the kiss of my mouth
their breath was your gift,
their beauty, your life
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3 thoughts on “Review: Sea Garden by H.D.

  1. Thank you – I have just visited the link… I have plenty of HD’s prose but only poetry in anthologies so this will be a good place to start!

    • I think we should have an H.D. library-off =P You have such wonderful taste, if I do say so myself. I was super pumped to find this for free, I’ve only found her anthologies second hand for $30AUD each… yeah, love her, but starving uni student etc.

  2. Pingback: Top Ten Tuesday (on a Wednesday!)- Ten Authors I Discovered in 2015 | bookarahma

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