Narthex and Other Stories
By H.D.
Edited with an afterword by Michael Boughn

Review by Dana Drori

“What then is reality? Diamonds?”

So wonders Madelon Thorpe in “Ear Ring”, the opening story in BookThug’s curated reissue of Hilda Doolittle’s (H.D) uncirculated prose, Narthex & Other Stories. The collection is comprised of three works: “Ear-Ring”, first published in 1932 under the name Rhoda Peters, “Pontikonisi (Mouse Island)”, published in 1936 under D. A. Hill; and the title story (which, in fact, teeters on the brink of novella), published under her own signet in 1928. None have been widely available until now.

“What then, is reality?”

Consider the diamond. Consider its impenetrability. It is fixed, hard. Outwardly it shines, reflecting and refracting light. To Madelon Thorpe, the protagonist-vessel through which the entirety of “Ear-Ring” unfolds, a diamond is reality; a multi-faceted reflection of experience with, as Michael Boughn writes in his afterword to the collection, a fixed “inner truth that shines through the things of the world”. A diamond means more than wealth and femininity. For Madelon Thorpe, “each facet of a diamond [is] a new way of thinking… A new way of looking at things… Everything seems unrelated yet diametrically related, as you slant one facet of a diamond into another set of values.” So concludes the story, setting up the most accurate image for appreciating H.D.’s prose.

The idea that everything is unrelated yet diametrically related is at the crux of H.D.’s fiction. Indeed, the words she uses most throughout the three stories are “apposite” and “inapposite”. Like her modernist contemporaries, H.D.– primarily a poet, “Imagiste” as Ezra Pound coined her– spurned traditional, materialist forms of representation in favor of the linking impressions, memories, and mental wanderings that comprise consciousness at work. But perhaps more than Woolf and Joyce, even more than Stein, H.D. does away with any linear plot or story-telling structure. One could say that “Ear Ring” is about high-society Brits and Americans (and a Russian woman with diamond earrings) dining in Athens in 1920, or that “Pontikonisi (Mouse Island)”, often referred to as the “stranger on the boat story,” is about unrequited lust in the Greek Isles. Or that “Narthex,” the most historically significant work, is about a woman (closely based on H.D.) weighing her career as poet against alternatives of marriage and motherhood, while contemplating her several complex love triangles at Caffe Florian in Venice. But in real time, nothing happens. The reader is dropped in medias res, into the internal monologue of the protagonists, and no outward plot – not even any potential prolonged period of time in which there could be a plot – occurs, because doing so would compromise H.D.’s determined cling to anti-story. It would move the work closer to the world of the novel, a world from which she sought to break.

And yet, everything happens, because for H.D. (like Woolf and Stein), “everything” is not plot but a mental reality that processes experience (sensory / emotive) through language. Individual events are strung together like images in a poem, separate (but “apposite”) moments that are replete with meaning. And also like images in a poem, these meaningful moments are coded. H.D. consistently likens events, gestures, and dialogue, to “signals”, “hieroglyph language” and even Morse code. Meaning is not symbolic but deferred. Take Madelon, who, with her own perspectival slant (her “facet of a diamond”), recounts everyone and everything metonymically. Americans become “dollars” or “petroleum”, and the Russian woman, “diamonds”. Thorpe becomes so lost in her own language games that “reality”, that ever-elusive thing, becomes nearly impossible for her to grasp. Aware of the present year, for example, “Madelon felt she had something else to hold to, beside diamonds. One, nine, two, O… write it, with dashes in between, like a Morse-code signal. It was some sort of signal.” In searching for meaning, she defers meaning, leaving her understanding of the Real, er, meaningless.

Raymonde Ransom, the H.D.-like protagonist-vessel in “Narthex”, shares a similar perspective with Thorpe. Observing her surroundings in the Piazza San Marco, she thinks: “everything means something, a candle on a candlestick, a bird pecking at a brioche… heaven is getting things (thoughts, sensation) across in some subtle way, too subtle to grasp with intellectual comprehension.” H.D., like her modernist contemporaries, conveys “thoughts, sensation” with a subtlety that is felt before understood. But when Ransom, as character and as poet, attempts this within the (non-traditional) storyline, it feels confusing and closed-off. Ransom, like Thorpe, is preoccupied with language games, or what she calls “hieroglyph language.” She consistently says one thing and means something else entirely: “‘Look at that drinking fountain’ meant ‘and how is Garry?’”.  And since the reader only has Ransom’s perspective as a gauge, it continuously feels as though her intended meaning ricochets back unto her alone. Everything means something, yes, but for her and her only. Ransom’s word play becomes so frustratingly cyclical that, rather than feeling privy to a linguistic representation of the mind, I felt like I was fighting with the frenzied unravelings of a solipsist. I understood the magnitude of H.D.’s experiment, but I also found it extremely alienating.

My sense of alienation had as much to do with H.D.’s writing style as with Ransom’s perspectival reality. H.D.’s geometric prose is like a diamond diffusing light. It is not Woolf’s luminous halo surrounding the gig lamp; it is the multifaceted image of flame through angled glass, representation reflected and repeated. H.D. moves jarringly between deep stream-of-consciousness and a visual cubism that makes Gertrude Stein seem like Hemingway. “Narthex” opens thusly:

“She looked up into parallelogram and straight geometric static upright parallels upholding myriad geometric caryatids…Saint Mark’s Square stretched side-wise, parallel to Saint Mark’s Square stretched side-wise and Saint Mark’s Square at her back was perpendicular to Saint Mark’s Square at her left, to Saint Mark’s Square at her right.”

In the same way the Piazza San Marco encompasses the characters, H.D.’s repetition and metonymic play (“she looked up into parallelogram”) build a fortress of words that are at worst impenetrable (like a diamond) and at best, Boughn understates, “almost claustrophobic.” The reader is physically blocked from approaching the text by the wall of words on the page. This seems to be the result of H.D.’s attempt at transforming Imagism into narrative. Imagism prides itself on the clear, sharp description of a singular image. Trying to maintain this tenet while depicting a series of related events will ultimately compromise the flow of consciousness. Her images stick out from stream-of-consciousness like icebergs from water. You wait patiently while H.D.-as-Ransom repeats moments, memories, judgments; invokes myth, religion, psychoanalysis, as well as all the surrounding images; you wait while she builds up these icebergs only for her to plunge into consciousness and then restart the whole process. It’s exhausting — and extremely difficult to remain attentive.

By the end of “Narthex”, Ransom realizes that she is the selfish and manipulative one, and not her lovers on whom she tried to place blame, but it takes her too damned long. Any reader patiently moving through the text has had this epiphany pages before, and spends the rest of the text – if they’re still reading— waiting for Ransom to catch up. H.D., who turned to prose as a way of breaking free from the limits of her role as “Imagiste”, depicts some beautiful crystallized images in these stories, but there’s a reason that Imagism is in short verse. Translating the clear, full visual of a singular image into a series of events diminishes the value and singularity of those visuals. Imagine what Pound’s “In a Station of the Metro” would be like as a 117-page novella. There’s a reason he spent three years scrapping it down to two lines.