Dead or Alive: With H.D. in Bethlehem, PA

Exploring writerly lives through literary pilgrimage    

–By Robin McCarthy  

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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. Continue reading