from Helen in Egypt – H.D.

Audio clip: Adobe Flash Player (version 9 or above) is required to play this audio clip. Download the latest version here. You also need to have JavaScript enabled in your browser.

excerpt read by H.D. audio from Poetry Speaks: Expanded.


few were the words we said,
nor knew each other,
nor asked, are you Spirit?

are you sister? are you brother?
are you alive?
are you dead?

the harpers will sing forever
of how Achilles met Helen
among the shades,

but we were not, we are not shadows;
as we walk, heel and sole
leave our sandal-prints in the sand,

though the wounded heel treads lightly
and more lightly follow,
the purple sandals.

How could I hide my eyes?
how could I veil my face?
with ash or charcoal from the embers?

I drew out a blackened stick,
but he snatched it,
he flung it back,

“what sort of enchantment is this?
what art will you wield with a fagot?
are you Hecate? are you a witch?

a vulture, a hieroglyph,
the sign or the name of a goddess?
what sort of goddess is this?

where are we? who are you?
where is this desolate coast?
who am I? am I a ghost?”

“you are living, O child of Thetis,
as you never lived before,”
then he caught at my wrist,

“Helena, cursed of Greece,
I have seen you upon the ramparts,
no art is beneath your power,

you stole the chosen, the flower
of all-time, of all-history,
my children, my legions;

for you were the ships burnt,
O cursed, O envious Isis,
you–you–a vulture, a hieroglyph”;

“Zeus be by witness,” I said,
“it was he, Amen dreamed of all this
phantasmagoria of Troy,

it was dream and a phantasy”;
O Thetis, O sea-mother,
I prayed, as he clutched my throat

with his fingers’ remorseless steel,
let me go out, let me forget,
let me be lost

O Thetis, O sea-mother, I prayer under his cloak,
let me remember, let me remember,
forever, this Star in the night

3 thoughts on “from Helen in Egypt – H.D.

  1. admin Post author

    an excerpt from a much longer work. According to “Poetry Speaks” this could be the only existing recording of H.D.’s voice.

  2. admin Post author

    I like this poem partly because of its classical allusions. I fondly remember reading the Illiad, and I’ve always loved Greek mythology.

    But this poem interests me on a number of levels. One – I like that it’s plainly written (despite some of the vocabulary). So often we associate classical poetry with the highly structured and artificial language of the 18th century. H.D. turns that notion on its ear (and she’s certainly not the first to do so).

    But H.D. also subverts the idea and character of Helen. In most accounts of the Trojan War she’s a cypher – a trophy, a wife, a prize, but hardly an actor in the events. This poem reimagines Helen and recontextualizes her.

    Some of that is hard to get across in this snippet – but I still enjoy it for the beauty of its language.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *