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  • A Curious Peril: H.D.'s Late Modernist Prose by Lara Vetter
  • Donna Hollenberg
A Curious Peril: H.D.'s Late Modernist Prose. Lara Vetter. Gainesville: University of Florida Press, 2017. Pp. 278. $79.95 (cloth).

Despite having written a number of novels and works of life writing in prose, H.D. is still primarily known as a poet, with her long poems, Trilogy and Helen in Egypt, written in the 1940s and 1950s, now taking precedence over her early imagist works. This may be due to the critical neglect of her late prose, much of which has been published only recently, partly because it was considered overly autobiographical or too formally difficult to comprehend. In her ground-breaking book A Curious Peril, Lara Vetter goes a long way toward changing this assessment. Taking her title from the poem "Loss," which H.D. wrote during World War I, Vetter claims that World War II also provided a "curious peril" and that the latter word's etymology—which indicates not only danger but also "creativity" and "surprise"—is a good descriptor of H.D.'s state of mind during these later years (4). For the peril of World War II felt both "apocalyptic" and "tremendously inspirational" for H.D., Vetter claims (4). Further, Vetter's focus on H.D.'s late prose prioritizes H.D.'s interest in politics, shifting from earlier critics' emphasis on spiritual themes or concerns with gender. Unlike H.D.'s past historical fiction, where the historical had served as a backdrop, with the thinly veiled autobiographical as foreground, the opposite is true in her work of the late 1940s: "The personal story matters less than the greater realities of the public sphere: war, imperialism, and political corruption" (8). Prose works such as The Sword Went Out to Sea, The White Rose and the Red, and By Avon River confront imperial history, particularly that of the British Empire. Sword proceeds quickly from the ancient world to the Battle of Hastings and Elizabethan England; the Sepoy Rebellion lies behind the action of White Rose; and By Avon River considers Elizabethan expeditions in the New World as well as medieval France's presence in England. H.D.'s goal here, Vetter writes, "is not to rebuild and redeem a broken nation or to reconstruct a pre-imperial nation of yore, but to recover its history of imperialism and colonialism in order to indict it" (21–22).

Vetter's book consists of three parts, as well as an interlude, and a coda. In the three chapters of Part I, she focuses intensively on The Sword Went Out to Sea. This section of the book is truly innovative, as Vetter clarifies H.D.'s methodology in a novel earlier critics have found inexplicable with respect to genre, and shows us how H.D. deliberately uses different genres to interrogate each other, an apt method in a world at war. Unlike other late modernists who turned to social realism, H.D. was at her most experimental here, developing her aesthetic into new forms that accommodated the trauma she was living through. "To tell the story of the destruction of a nation, [H.D.] alleges implicitly, one must take apart the forms of narrative that construct that nation," Vetter writes (25). In these first three chapters, she explores six genres or modes that Sword employs, all of which coexist and destabilize one another: autobiography and the ghost story, mysticism and science fiction, and historical fiction and the fairy tale. Throughout her book, Vetter draws on H.D.'s reading to support her argument. We see a good example of this in the first chapter, where she claims that H.D. employs the incompatibility of autobiography and [End Page 851] ghost story to create a sense of dissonance in the reader, and to make us question the veracity of autobiography. Vetter writes that a large number of books in H.D.'s personal library were devoted to autobiography and biography, lists a large number of these, and notes her obsession with how the lives of authors and artists were captured in narrative form. Vetter also points out that H.D. liked stories...


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