Poet and author Hilda Doolittle (pen name H.D.) was born in Pennsylvania in 1886, and moved to London in 1911. She was a master of Imagism, a style that uses concise language, frozen snapshots and precise, striking imagery. Her first-person narration is immediate and immersive, plunging into the minds of her speakers with little or no exposition. She was an innovative and original poet, and went far beyond the Imagist style, writing long, narrative poems, with psychologically complex speakers and an intensely passionate and distinctive poetic voice. She was interested in Freudian psychoanalysis, feminism and Greek mythology.
I have chosen to resurrect her for Dead [Women] Poets Society because so many of her poems are like séances with the women of Greek myth and the classical world. Her personae include Calypso, Helen of Troy, Eurydice, Sappho, an anonymous oread and a dead priestess. Her poetry rescues women’s voices from history, subverting the male gaze and retelling familiar male-centric stories from a woman’s perspective.
Following H. D. I have tried to channel the voices of the women of the past, in my case trans women. My first poem is an ancient trans woman’s perspective on the story of Hermaphroditus and Salmacis. My second poem is in the voice of a nymph who does not look or act like the nymphs imagined by men. I have tried to imitate H. D.’s direct, immersive style of narration. My third poem is a séance with an imaginary dead trans woman poet who refuses to respond.
by Thea Ayres
There’s a pool in the wilderness
that will turn a man into a hermaphrodite.
People warned me about it,
saying, ‘The water will weaken you,’
‘the pool is cursed,’
‘people are falling in by accident
and then they can’t have children.’
I decided I would settle
for being any imitation of a woman:
ugly, barren, artificial, sick,
poor, unmarriable, incapable of pleasure.
My mother said,
‘You want to go in Salmacis’s pool?
I don’t understand how that will make you happy.’
But it wasn’t about happiness.
I would have been an unhappy woman,
rather than a happy man.
I prepared for the worst,
but lying there afterwards,
I felt as tough
as a seal making winter blubber.
Hermaphroditus, were you really weakened
against your will, as people say?
by Thea Ayres
When the humans moved out, I moved in
and set to work nurturing my forest
of brambles, knotweed and willowherb.
I am malleable
but cannot shapeshift on a whim;
each change takes years.
I grew wings and fur so I could be a pollinator.
I strengthened my stomach
by eating dirt, dead wood and raw meat.
I never slept. My eyes bulged.
We nymphs are not beautiful.
Few humans would find my form attractive
or our body-sizes compatible.
They would not like my sharp insect voice,
my angular joints.
They would not think of me as a deity.
With sexual maturity, the timbre of my voice
grows ever brighter and colder.
I learn to move more gracefully
with my numerous limbs.
I am coming into myself.
I am looking for a spouse equally terrifying,
a monster, a living portent.
To the Transgender Ghost in the Poetry Section
by Thea Ayres
In your society,
were we hypersexualised,
or were we eunuchs?
Did you write about men?
I like men, but I haven’t kissed one yet,
is that normal, would you say, at my age?
I’m sure you wrote about yourself.
Did snails feature prominently in your work?
Do you think there is a feminine and a masculine way of writing?
Is the masculine way sparser, the feminine way lusher?
Or is the masculine way brasher and the feminine way simpler?
Were you religious?
Did you write hymns in praise of Hermaphroditus?
Mohini? The Virgin Mary?
Were you a nun, a shaman, a priestess?
You must have written about sisterhood.
Were they bubbling, sparkling poems
about the parties you might have been to,
the drinks and meals
you might have shared?
Or were they songs of communal suffering and strength?
Did you ever write about the places you lived?
Were you scared of your home, or were you safe there?
Did you write country songs about going back?
I imagine you wrote about motherhood.
Did your own mother accept you?
Were you a mother?
Did you write poems about the earth?
Mother Earth specifically?
Did you write about death?
Did you die of AIDS?
Did you kill yourself or were you murdered?
Lesbians have Sappho.
Gay men have Whitman, Wilde, Ginsberg.
Bisexuals have Shakespeare and H. D.
We have you, ghost.
This creative response was commissioned as part of Thea Ayres's resurrection of H.D., for a séance [Not] in Oxford on 2 June 2021, on the Dead [Women] Poets Society national tour 2019-21. At the same séance, Julia Copus resurrected Charlotte Mew - find her cento in response to Mew here, and watch an edited recording of the event below.
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This project is supported by Arts Council England. Illustrations by Lily Arnold.