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Helen in Egypt -- H D

Guest poem submitted by David Wright, an excerpt
(Poem #689) Helen in Egypt
 This is the spread of wings,
 whether the Straits claimed them
 or the Cyclades,

 whether they floundered on the Pontic seas
 or ran aground before the Hellespont,
 whether they shouted Victory at the gate,

 whether the bowmen shot them from the Walls,
 whether they crowded surging through the breach,
 or died of fever on the smitten plain,

 whether they rallied and came home again,
 in the worn hulks, half-rotted from the salt
 or sun-warped on the beach,

 whether they scattered or in companies,
 or three or two sought the old ways of home,
 whether they wandered as Odysseus did,

 encountering new adventure, they are one;
 no, I was not instructed, but I "read" the script,
 I read the writing when he seized my throat,

 this was his anger,
 they were mine, not his,
 the unnumbered host;

 mine, all the ships,
 mine, all the thousand petals of the rose,
 mine, all the lily-petals,

 mine, the great spread of wings,
 the thousand sails,
 the thousand feathered darts

 that sped them home,
 mine, the one dart in the Achilles-heel,
 the thousand-and-one, mine.
-- H D
Lately I've been reading H.D.'s Helen in Egypt and very much enjoying it,
although I'm hard pressed to express why.  The book-length poem takes as its
subject a story that dates back at least as far as the sixth century Greek
lyric poet Stesichorus, and was the subject of a play by Euripides as well.
The story is an alternate version of the Troy legend in which Zeus placed a
phantom Helen upon the ramparts of Troy and kept the faithful wife safe in
Egypt until Menelaus retrieved her.  In H.D.'s version she has encounters
with the spirit of Achilles who comes limping onto the shore, (it is he that
seizes her throat in the passage above, although that is not where their
story ends), as well as with Theseus and Paris, who she does after all seem
to have run off with.

I'm sure there is much interesting matter to be found in the author's
biography, the effect of the post-war years, the relationship of the poem to
Pound's Cantos -- it is supposed to be something of a feminist response --
the layers of Woolf-y psychology or the author's symbols, and I expect it
would be easy to find all sorts of explication of the piece. H.D. has
provided her own explanation in short prose passages before each verse,
originally composed to aid in a recording of the piece, and making this a
very accessible poem to read, I think.

What has captured me is the language, which shares with much ancient Greek
lyric a spare directness combined with this enchanting, at times incantatory
power.  (I guess enchanting and incantatory are just French and Latin for
the same thing, eh?)  And her feel for rhythm, her respect for the pulse,
make this a pleasure to read aloud.  I don't read Greek myself, but I
understand ancient Greek is very plain and unadorned in comparison with
English, or English poetry, anyway.  The whole poem is suffused with mystic
longing and with Love-Death.  If you enjoy reading Homer, this is a
fascinating counterpart to it.

(I'll insert a plug for one of my other favorite modern poetic treatments of
an ancient epic, although it is an altogether different sort of thing, very
prosy and sardonic.  This is Jason & Medeia, by John Gardner, a wonderful
author who hardly anybody seems to read anymore.)

David Wright.

PS. Other poems by H. D. on the Minstrels:
"Oread" poem #310
"Helen" poem #449
The first of these has a biography, critical analysis, and links to other
Imagist poetry. The second kicks off a set of poems on the Trojan War, which
might be of interest read in conjunction which today's poem. - t.

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