Apocryphal Fire // H.D.

On time and regeneration.


There will be no unique name, even if it were the name of Being. And we must think this without nostalgia, that is, outside of the myth of a purely maternal or paternal language, a lost native country of thought. On the contrary, we must affirm this, in the sense in which Nietzsche puts affirmation into play, in a certain laughter and a certain step of the dance. 

            Jacques Derrida, “Différance” (1968) 

Still the walls do not fall,
I do not know why…

            H.D., “The Walls Do Not Fall,” Trilogy (1944)

Centuries in and the journeymen of thought were still grasping at concepts like obelisks: smooth stone and crisp edges, neatly cut. Eschewing incense, they branded gods directly onto the sectors of the skies, taught themselves to love by rote, measure by measure. Thought became a sequential ladder of is and is-not’s, if-A’s and then-B’s – fractal frames for theorizing wind and spirit: the water suspended in the weight of the rain. Ghosts, as must happen in phenomenal speculation, were cauterized to effable form as saline crystals.

Which is all to say that, sometimes, the rain does catch on fire.

…Pompeii has nothing to teach us,
we know crack of volcanic fissure,
slow flow of terrible lava…*

It takes only a little look back on the history of thought to note moments in which the usual order of things seemed to implode. These patterns of eruption and cataclysm can be charted under any number of constellations: the various decenterings of the subject, the once and then twice death of God, and so on. In the sweep of these grand movements away from old thoughts and old forms, old ways of knowing and old comforts, some will arrive to mourn; some will arrive to pillage; and still others will arrive to affirm and replant. By the waters of Babylon, the ground, I hear, is fertile.

I have stumbled upon a book of poems by the poet H.D., written in a time of war. Three long poems, compiled as Trilogy: the first, “The Walls Do Not Fall,” imagines a gesture toward regeneration amid the World War II air-raids of London. H.D. asserts herself as prophet and priestess, but perhaps not yet a queen, as she meditates on the razing of cities, the rising of ruins, and the despair which must be felt all around. Not only despair, but the loss of all sense there at the senseless culmination of all things:

…over us, Apocryphal fire,
under us, the earth sway, dip of a floor,
slope of a pavement

where men roll, drunk
with a new bewilderment…

Another poet at another time might have responded in shrieking sackcloth and ashes, or in a melancholy resignation to the forces which shower down, the whimpering “so be it” of a lost generation. Under such a circumstance, words cast according to traditional patterns will fail to capture something so horrifically new. The choice must land among committing to the death of traditional thought or affirming this new and tempestuous ground of reality.

…the shrine lies open to the sky…

After all, that which can weather, that which might remain, will prove fruitful in the life of the age to come.

And what have you lost? And what have you kept? What have you held for a time in your hands only to watch it, twinkling, flutter off? Life and days have a way of giving and taking away, pushing us to search out the blessing. I have lived in other rooms in other cities, among other ghosts who haunt me now. Certain hands will glow when they write on your walls that all which glitters is numbered, weighed, divided. There are no kingdoms among the living: only among the undead. We watch our kingdoms slip enervated into myth

…indelible ink of the palimpsest…

while we leak new lines with passing time. Our next stories rehash the old ones, if only to ourselves. I have let a thousand untenable notions drop into a deconstructive slipstream, though I will never say goodbye to friends on other shores. In writing we find new ways to rehearse the outworn, and at times we necromance the hauntings of cities where no one lives anymore.

…it is Caduceus; among the dying
it bears healing:

or evoking the dead,
it brings life to the living.

We must learn to make the movement which nostalgia implies: an immersion into the liquid material of the past, pearlescent, in order to weave a new cocoon. We must give ourselves at the altar, bundled with a kindling gathered from worn-out self-constructions, wooden outlooks, looking to preserve that pearl-of-great-price, the self-out-of-self which will refuse to burn.

And it is the same with our ways of speaking. I have preserved meanings in my meaningless wanderings, if I have not enclosed the sky. I have mentioned you and you as one mentions autumn, a recurrence of loss in these ebbing tides to which we grow accustomed.

…O, do not look up
into the air…

And we, companions / of the flame, will yet happen upon moments for which the only imperative, were it susceptible to forms of speech, amounts to “Be here now.” In such moments, we speak no such tongue. For us, finding ourselves atop these pinpoint summits of time, there is only the felt affirmative, the “yes yes yes” of the dance, ecstatic undulations of wingless limbs. We have the wedding reception, this familial celebration, and

for now it appears obvious
Amen is our Christos.

May it be so. Usher us home – if only for this instant, here among you all, moving around this old table, exclaiming with a welcome,

the baked fish is ready,
here is the bread…

and we will take and eat, for it is good.

The end of all our wanderings have brought us around to the start, with the memory that there was a yesterday in which we concerned ourselves with obelisk ideals. No more. There is nothing which will capture the spirit of the wind, the falling of the water or the fire, but here we stand among these walls, denuded under starlight. Here, with these old spirits in our lungs, turning our eyes to the hills, “yes yes yes yes yes,” we concern ourselves with the meanings which words conceal, recalling to ourselves again that

we know no rule
of procedure, 

we are voyagers, discoverers
of the not-known, 

the unrecorded;
we have no map; 

possibly we will reach haven,


*[All quotes, unless otherwise identified, come from H.D.’s “The Walls Do Not Fall” (1944).]

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