Exploring writerly lives through literary pilgrimage
–By Robin McCarthy
I visit Bethlehem, Pennsylvania about twice a year to spend time with my boyfriend’s family. A few years ago, during one of these visits, I discovered a sign rising out of the sidewalk outside the public library announcing that the poet H.D. had been born in Bethlehem and was buried nearby.
My senior year of high school, my English teacher placed a copy of H.D.’s poem, “Helen”, in front every student in the class. The poem is neither long nor particularly dense. I remember reading the first stanza, “All Greece hates/ the still eyes in the white face,/ the lustre as of olives/where she stands,/ and the white hands” and being eager to dig into the poem. I was just learning to assign significance to literature and the process of decoding felt like a perfect challenge. In part, I was fascinated by the gender ambiguity of the artist’s name, those two staunch and commanding letters—H.D.— at the top of the page. I was preparing to write a humanities paper on women whose literary careers hinged on the obfuscation of their gender. I had just been introduced to George Eliot and recently learned Louisa May Alcott published as A.M. Barnard for years before Little Women was published under her own name. The initials seemed a way of entry into the male-dominated world of publishing. And so H.D. fell neatly into place for me; the more I learned about the poet, the more a story began to take shape. H.D. briefly married the poet Richard Aldington and had several relationships with both men and women. The mysterious name, the sparse poetry, and the early feminism all created an interesting lore to surround my understanding of H.D. for a very long time. I didn’t study poetry in college, and for the most part, I failed to think of H.D. entirely for nearly a decade and a half, until an act of literary tourism took me to the birthplace of Hilda Doolittle.
Bethlehem is not the kind of city one visits without a purpose, really. Once a booming steel town, now its claim to fame is a very large casino and the corporate headquarters of Just Born, Inc., the company responsible for manufacturing Marshmallow Peeps, the iconic Eastertime confection. For me, the highlight, beyond visits with family, has been the occasional trip to Wegmans and Wawa, neither which establishment exists where I live.
With a name like Bethlehem, it’s unsurprising that this steel town has a religious tie or two. Bethlehem sits in the Lehigh River Valley, part of the large metropolitan area beyond New York City suburbs covering several counties in eastern Pennsylvania and New Jersey. The town, along with nearby Nazareth, PA, was settled by Moravian missionaries in the Eighteenth Century. Moravians remain a strong presence in the town, which is also home to Moravian University. Hilda Doolittle’s mother was Moravian, her father a professor at Lehigh University. H.D. was born in Bethlehem in 1886 and the family moved away by the time she was ten. Later, in 1961, she died in Zurich. But she is buried here, in Bethlehem, in a large city cemetery that sprawls through the city’s historic downtown.
I’ve walked through Nisky Hill Cemetery in search of H.D.’s headstone in the past, but never with any success. This past summer, I set out with renewed determination and, in preparation, began some cursory research into H.D.’s career. My mythologized version of the poet began to fall away when I realized that H.D. had little to do with choosing to be known by her initials, and that the move was not a bold mark of feminism at all.
Rather, Ezra Pound made the choice for her. Pound met H.D. in 1901, when he was a student at the University of Pennsylvania and she was fifteen. The two became lifelong friends and it was Pound who signed a 1912 submission of Doolittle’s work to Poetry magazine, “H.D. Imagiste”. In so doing, Pound launched the imagist poetry movement with H.D. at its forefront.
In addition to the modernist poetry H.D. produced throughout her career, she also wrote a handful of novels and one childhood memoir, The Gift. It is The Gift that feels important to read when walking through Bethlehem in search of H.D.’s family plot oat Nisky Hill Cemetery. I was there in August, when the town was humid and busy. They had just wrapped up a week long music festival downtown that featured fair food, musical acts from around the country, and vigilant patrol by the city’s mounted police. The sidewalks showed signs of the crowds; plastic cups that three days ago earned deep discounts on beer at local bars were cracked and left on the grass, discarded tickets and wrappers, too, had not yet found their way to garbage cans. But Bethlehem’s neighborhoods were mostly reassuringly family oriented; modest houses and duplexes with fresh paint and cracked sidewalks.
H.D. wrote about family trips to Nisky Hill Cemetery in The Gift, and in the first chapter she describes the family plot: “…and in our own plot at Nisky Hill, there was a little girl who would have been our own sister and another little girl who had been the child of the Lady who had been Papa’s first wife.” The child narrator is fixated on deceased little girls in the aftermath of the tragic death of an unrelated girl after a fire in the nearby school. Doolittle seems to be establishing early in the memoir that it’s a dangerous thing to be a little girl in the world. It’s an idea echoed through much of her work.
I did not find H.D.’s grave without first stopping in to ask the caretaker, who handed me a Xeroxed map of the graveyard that outlined the path to the stone I was searching for. In the margin, someone’s photocopied scrawl suggests that visitors interested in H.D. might want to read the memoir before visiting the grave. There’s something comforting in this half-piece of white paper, evidence there is enough interest in H.D.’s burial site that the cemetery has run off a few extra copies of the map and someone along the road imagined knowing the story of Hilda Doolittle might lend some heft to memorializing H.D.
In her poem Birds in Snow, H.D. wrote:
“like plaques of ancient writ
our garden flags now name
the great and very-great;
our garden flags acclaim
in carven hieroglyph,
here king and kinglet lie,
here prince and lady rest,
mystical queens sleep here
and heroes that are slain“
“Mystical queens” is perhaps an apt description of what I expected from H.D.’s grave. My imagination half-expected a simple stone reading only “H.D.,” lacking even birth and death dates. But of course, H.D. had a name, and a family, and a following, all of which are represented on her headstone. The marker is a flat granite slab like many of the memorials at Nisky Hill marked “Hilda Doolittle Aldington,” and the following quotation from H.D.’s poem “Let Zeus Record”:
“So you may say,
Greek flower; Greek ecstasy
one who died
following intricate song’s
The old granite is covered in tokens left by visitors; pebbles, shells, feathers and folded sheets of paper tucked under a rock and recently plastered to the stone by a night of mid-summer rain.
Often, visits to grave sites are lonely affairs, a simple place to stand and be reminded of a literary life well-lived. But H.D.’s memorial does not feel that way. Rather, it suggests that it is its own destination, a place where the writer came full circle, a place others have visited recently and where more are sure to swing by soon; a writer’s end very much connected to her beginning.
Robin McCarthy is a writer, teacher and student in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula. She studies fiction in the MFA program at Northern Michigan University and is an editor for the literary magazine Passages North. Her work has been published or is forthcoming in The Rumpus, Green Mountains Review, and NPR.