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  • A Public History of the Dividing Line: H. D., the Bomb, and the Roots of the Postmodern
  • Elizabeth Willis (bio)

I want to begin by acknowledging the problem of revisiting the bomb and its literary after-effects. In returning us to one of the past century's many ground-zeros, the subject requires us again to look at an act of atrocity whose complicated history has been actively obscured. Perhaps this return might seem an all too easy escape from the atrocities of the present, just as the conventions of literary criticism seem to take us away from the scene of so many crimes. But, as Freud writes, "Everything new must have its roots in what was before" (Moses and Monotheism 35). And as H.D.'s work often suggests, our peripheral vision is capable of revealing more about our situation than we might initially expect, as we turn our attention to the sleight of hand that is not quite occluded by the "cover" story.

My interest in the topic stems in part from an ongoing fascination with literary-historical turning points, what we might think of as watershed moments. But to think in terms of the ecology of the watershed is to miss the ways such moments are, literally, turning points, with all the complicity that term might imply, when a culture incrementally turns its attention, its hands, and its means of production away from one set of concerns and toward another. My underlying question is: what is being turned from, and what is being turned toward; what scene can we no longer bear and what have we constructed to replace or occlude it? What narratives (or even "poetics") do we create in order to "go on," as H.D. repeatedly puts it in Tribute to Freud? [End Page 81]

Bridging the movement from Victorianism to modernism to postmodernism, with its fitful shifts in production between the handmade, the mass-produced, and the electronic, H.D.'s poetry often engages the most crucial issues these shifts bring up; namely, the relation between technology and poetic form, the role of memory in cultural survival and progress; the pressure of political reality on individual voice; and the problematics of pursuing a unified system by which science, religion, politics, and aesthetics might all cohere—a pursuit that promises utopian equilibrium on one hand but threatens a coercive, even fascistic, social order on the other. Because H.D.'s work spans these two important transitions, and because so much of it is focused on memory and war, her work reveals a great deal about these issues as they took shape during the inter-war and post-World War II periods. While much has been written about the pressure of World War II on H.D.'s Trilogy, an essentially optimistic and redemptive work composed during the London blitz, I want to focus on the ways these unwieldy issues are played out more extensively in the major works that immediately followed: her Tribute to Freud and her recasting of Homeric epic, Helen in Egypt.

According to Barbara Guest's biography, Herself Defined, H. D. thought of World War I as having silenced her, cutting short what she thought of as her literary youth (253). World War II was, on the other hand, marked by a poetic renaissance for her personally and for London generally, with sales of poetry books increasing tenfold. H.D. even participated in a war-time poetry reading organized by the Sitwells and attended by the royal family (Hollenberg 61 n.21). This war coincided with her most prolific—and in many ways her finest—period of literary production, a private dividing line between her early and mature work. After having all but disappeared from public life between the wars, H.D. suddenly swept through the production of several ambitious interventions into the canon, taking on, almost simultaneously, Shakespeare, Freud, Homer, and the Bible.1 She would emerge from London's post-war ruins having shed one identity—that of a Pound-sculpted and Amy Lowell-authorized American imagiste—and forged quite another as a prolific, almost maximalist, international poet of intense intellectual ambition and historical scope. As the Trojan War...


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pp. 81-108
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