Tuesday, January 22, 2008

Helen in Portland, 1/12/08

David Abel held a marathon reading of Helen in Egypt for Spare Room two weeks back, and Sam Lohmann lived to blog about it. I survived too, though made just the 2.5-hour down slope. You wouldn’t think H.D.’s complex tissue of allusions, etymological arabesques, and didactic speechifying to set up each of the poem’s sections would lend itself to the rush and roll of oral performance, but here I am hungry to do it again. Sam nicely captures some of the qualities of H.D.’s verse that came to the fore live:
HD was clearly a poet who thought with sound: I imagine the difficulty for her was not in thinking up rhymes, assonances, consonances, mesmerizing strings of modulated syllables, but rather in toning them down, avoiding jangle, and emphasizing only the meaningful echoes.
I was also surprised at how well the oft-cited Imagist “clarity” and economy of diction translated into real-time delivery. Because you couldn’t hold all the larger structures of meaning in mind while listening, the information tended to change shape a little with each iteration—a prior bit recalled, something new added, a conjunction revealed—in a way that mirrored the ambiguous shimmer in Helen’s identity, and in those of the fluid, aggressively syncretic gods and heroes attending the action.

Sam mentions the “comic moments” inherent in a reading like this, and the unmistakable D&D, Rocky Horror vibe, especially as we sidled up to midnight, was a huge part of the appeal. The toilet inevitably flushed at the most hieratic moments, and the sense that we were all in on some geeky secret in a bookish loft while Portland slept below lent a wizardly frisson to the event. Big thanks to David A., and a big Modern American recommendation to come to the next if you can.

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