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  • H.D. & Bryher: An Untold Love Story of Modernism by Susan McCabe
  • Sashi Nair
H.D. & Bryher: An Untold Love Story of Modernism. By Susan McCabe. New York: Oxford University Press, 2021. xviii + 400 pp. $39.95 hardback/$13.50 e-book.

Susan McCabe’s H.D. & Bryher: An Untold Love Story of Modernism (2021) explores one of the longest literary and romantic partnerships of the twentieth century. H.D. is perhaps best known for her association with Ezra Pound, first as his fiancée and acolyte, then as one of the original imagist poets, claimed by Pound as his own creation. She has long been perceived as an enigmatic figure who existed on the margins of modernism, partly by her own design (H.D., unlike Hilda Doolittle, might have been anyone), and partly because modernist poetry was, for the most part, the preserve of men. H.D.’s work does not occupy the same position of prominence as many of her modernist counterparts, perhaps because much of it was tightly bound up with her own experience of psychoanalysis. Perhaps this also explains why H.D.’s forty-year relationship with Annie Winifred Ellerman (Bryher) has not received the attention it deserves. Both H.D. and Bryher wrote extensively about their experience of their relationships, in works such as H.D.’s Paint It Today (1921) and Bryher’s Two Selves (1923). [End Page 148] McCabe’s ambitious work reaches beyond these primary texts, using masses of correspondence to piece together a rich story of a shared life.

H.D. & Bryher opens with a syntactically confused sentence that foreshadows what is to come. McCabe writes, “Cryptic enough to be a man’s initials, H.D., born Hilda Doolittle (1886–1961) in Bethlehem, Pennsylvania, while Bryher, born Winifred Ellerman (1894–1983), in London, felt like a young man, enduring a yet unnamed condition” (3). Although much of McCabe’s prose is easier to follow than this opening sentence, H.D. & Bryher is so tightly packed with detail that it often outpaces the reader, who is left to draw their own conclusions about the significance of an event, or go away and research the identity of a peripheral character. McCabe’s attempt to fill in all of the gaps in H.D. and Bryher’s shared history in a single volume is at times one of the book’s greatest strengths—it is fast-paced, awash with fascinating detail about the two main protagonists, and introduces a stellar supporting cast of writers, actors, psychoanalysts and millionaires. However, there are times when the biography reads like a list of moments, all significant, but none explored in detail (sentences such as “Now a welcome visitor to Stein’s salons, thanks to Beach, Bryher introduced H.D. to Stein when she came to Paris in 1923 to sit for Man Ray” [119] are both intriguing and frustrating!). The absence of analysis can be jarring at times, as the reader is launched from personal event, to emotional episode, to significant sociohistorical moment.

H.D. & Bryher is at its strongest in those moments where it interrogates the relationship between biography, artistic production, and politics. The analysis of the film Borderline (1930), created by H.D., Bryher, and Bryher’s husband, Kenneth MacPherson, provides one such moment. In fact, a chapter is dedicated to this film, and the analysis of its production resonates in our current historical moment:

This group, all queers, was aware of the discriminating cultural devaluation of bodies. White women fared better inevitably in this scheme than their Black counterparts. Gender rebels such as H.D. and Bryher, though socioeconomically buttressed, knew their relationship and identities were belittled in the cultural imagination and, if revealed, was proximate to abject Blackness. In 1930, anti-Semitism was fueled by and through anti-Blackness.

(148)

Proximity to “abject Blackness” cannot be anything other than theoretical, of course. The queer bodies that occupy the screen are only queer from an insider’s point of view, while Black bodies are more readily available to interpretation. McCabe acknowledges that H.D., Bryher, and MacPherson were “naïve about race,” but also points out that Borderline contains a “self-conscious...

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