Essentials: H.D.’s “Trilogy”

Trilogy by H.D.

Oxford University Press 1944-46

“…little boxes, conditioned / to hatch butterflies.”

H.D.’s mytho-poetic epic Trilogy is an enactment of one woman’s quest for mystical verification of her own role as prophet and poet.  It is, as well, a radical revision of traditional spiritual imagery, which has been largely written, interpreted, and painted by men.  It is a poem that weaves worlds together, worlds as disparate as World War II London and pagan Egypt, the prophets of early Christianity and the Medieval troubadours of Languedoc, her own Moravian Church of Love and the Church of Love of Manichaeism, literal worlds and supersensory ones. H.D.’s process has been described by others as palimpsestic, a process of erasure, rejection and redefinition of images and sounds until words begin to yield not their initial accepted meaning but a new resonance: “they are anagrams, cryptograms, / little boxes, conditioned / to hatch butterflies.” It is a strategy based on a growing awareness of the authority of oneself as seer, in a world that will not grant that authority.  It is a battle with the forces which would undermine that quest, forces whose most formidable weapons are its forms of representation: “Our Lady of the Goldfinch,  / Our Lady of the Candelabra. // We see her hand in her lap / smoothing the apple-green // or the apple-russet silk; // we see her hand at her throat / fingering a talisman.”  Trilogy was written, literally, under siege; H.D. was living in one of the most heavily bombed areas of London during the Blitz. Although not published together until 1973, the three poems that comprise TrilogyThe Walls Do Not Fall (1944), Tribute to Angels (1945), and The Flowering of the Rod (1946)—were conceived as a sequence. (In fact, the entire poem is written in intensely crafted couplets—as she calls them,  “broken hexameters”). The poem unfolds from the tiniest intuitions and prefigurations, through language, to deeper and deeper questioning: “so we must be drawn or we must fly / like the snow-geese of the Arctic Circle, / to the Carolina’s or to Florida / or like those migratory flocks / who still (they say) hover / over the lost island, Atlantis, / seeking what we once knew.”

–Melissa Kwasny

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Melissa Kwasny is the author of the acclaimed poetry collections The Nine Senses (Milkweed Editions 2011), Reading Novalis in Montana (Milkweed Editions, 2009), The Archival Birds (Bear Star Press, 2000), and Thistle (Lost Horse Press, 2006), which won the Idaho Prize in 2006. She is also the editor of Toward the Open Field: Poets on the Art of Poetry 1800–1950 (Wesleyan University Press, 2004). Widely published in journals, including Willow Springs, Threepenny Review, Ploughshares, Poetry Northwest, Bellingham Review, Crab Orchard Review, and River Styx, she was recently the Richard Hugo Visiting Poet at the University of Montana and a Visiting Writer at the University of Wyoming. Kwasny received the Poetry Society of America’s 2009 Cecil Hemley Award for a series of poems that appears in The Nine Senses. She lives in Jefferson City, Montana.