Doolittle, Hilda Entries

O Sea-Bride!

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For my April memorization poem, I'm giving myself a bit of a challenge: H.D.'s multi-page tapestry of words known as "Other sea-cities." Among all of the gorgeous verses penned by Hilda Doolittle, this might be my favorite. It's really too long to paste the whole thing here, but the first section, which is also a repeating motif to which the poem flows back again and again, changing its shape and context every time, is this:

Other sea-cities have faltered,
and striven with the tide,
other sea-cities have struggled
and died:

other sea-walls
were stricken
and the pride of galleys broken,
only you, remained, beautiful,
O sea-bride!

I love this poem on a level almost divorced from content. Yes, the subject is pleasing, and I'm drawn to its nostalgic-yet-troubled depiction of a long history of great and beautiful seaside cities, all but one fallen long ago. I love the layered evocation of life in these cities, as in the verses:

and laughter-
everywhere, there was laughter;

a boy with a fish-net,
a girl with a hamper
of lampreys,
the long days,
scented with tamarisk,
the long nights
sweet with the aloes,
the fruit piled in baskets,
the merchants with fresh scents
from Arabia,
from Cos,

the wind when it rose high
would open a shutter,
a girl in a blue veil
would push it,
and rain print
her garment upon her,
till she stood, blue
like lapis,
slaves drag from the harbor:

did these love sea-beauty less
than you,
O sea-blest?

Why them and not you? H.D. asks over and over of her unnamed, still-extant city by the sea. What did you know that they didn't? Were their lives not brilliantly full enough? Their art not sufficiently perfect? Although the poem is a kind of ode to the city that remains, I come away, each time I re-read it, with more of a sense of loss for the cities that have gone. The vivid scenes she paints, the marble monuments she describes, the explorers, prophets and priests, are all citizens of the other cities, the lost cities, and although there is an implication that the remaining city does all of these things even better - has even more beautiful women, even greater artistic accomplishments - there is also a note of sadness and even reproach at the loss of her sisters. Their violet was as violet, the speaker cries. Why is it now bleached-out on the ocean? A question to which anyone who has suffered loss can probably relate.

Their blue was as sea-blue,
their purple as purple,
indigo was indigo,
violet, violet
and red ran its riot
like the open red pomegranate.

they knew all the gamut
of glass
that took your name;
you reaped fame from their fame;
or ash-gold,
or fire amethyst,
gem, salt-water, clear air;

her craftsmen wrought marvels,

amber caught light
like the sea-weed
a-wash on the sea-stair,
but men
naming such ware,
speak of you
not of rich Tyre.

"They knew all the gamut / of glass / that took your name." Such a beautiful line.

But it's the rhythms of the poem that really get me - the way that central motifs recur again and again in unexpected ways, tying in each new idea without drawing explicit connections, engendering in the reader a sense of return - very suited to the theme of of the immortal city and all the others to which no one can go back. At times the ear picks up the melody of that opening verse, even when the words aren't repeated, or the words will be repeated with variations on the theme. These refrains also, of course, imitate a chant, an element of ritual in mourning and paying tribute. Saying it out loud can be a very meditative experience - you become awash in the motion of the poem, just as (appropriately enough) a person can gaze hypnotized at ocean waves, cresting and retreating.

And, just like the waves on the ocean can surprise you from the side or follow closer and further apart in sequence, the rhymes, alliteration and assonance in "Other sea-cities" are staggered in a gorgeous and unpredictable way, playing off each other to great effect:

Other sea-cities fell
though they built patiently and well,
other sea-cities wrought
intricate details
from rare rock,
stolen from inland,
set great lumps of lapis
above altars
and placed lamps
of alabaster or agate
before god's feet or goddess:
other sea-cities,
named Beauty
their mistress

All in all, it's a gorgeous opus. I have to admit that the prospect of memorizing the entire thing is a bit daunting, but I'm positive that being able to recite it to myself quietly while walking near my own western ocean will be ample recompense.

Tell city,
your secret:

for others built beautifully and well,
but fell
to lie
like a bleached hull;

other sea-cities have faltered
and striven with the tide,
other sea-cities have struggled
and died:

other sea-hulks
were stricken, riven
and the pride of galleys
not one beside you,
remained, beautiful,
O, Sea-Bride.

June 2012

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link to Wolves 2011 reading list
link to more disgust bibliography