Joseph Anderson

H.D., Sea Garden

As I poke around here and there in the poetic corpus for resonances of the shamanic spirit, some finds are easier than others. An easy one was the recent discovery I made at Seattle’s Globe Bookstore, Crazy Horse in Stillness by William Heyen: a very exciting book-length set of poems about Little Big Horn with ample and explicit shamanic resonances and I hope to share more about that soon.


But part of my adventure is to poke around in less obvious places (to me, anyway) within the poetic canon. I am watching a set of lectures from Yale on modern poetry by Langdon Hammer, starting with Frost and proceeding through Pound, Eliot, Wallace Stevens, and Marianne Moore. The lectures are highly enjoyable and decidedly non-spiritual in character (who would expect otherwise?) but it is really feeding my poetic soul and opening up new horizons in places I wouldn’t expect.


I recently watched the lecture on Imagism and was introduced to the poetry of H.D., and particularly her early work from 1916, Sea Garden. As I’ve explored her life a bit more I’m excited to see more and more resonances with the sort of interior, visionary, nature-connected poetry I’m looking for. But for now I’m so happy to find this little work and the many gems it contains.


H.D.’s poetry is characterized by apostrophe, the rhetorical trope where the writer addresses another being (like Whitman’s “O Captain My Captain”). Typical of H.D. is the open section of “Garden”


You are clear

O rose, cut in rock,

hard as the descent of hail.

I only have to look through the many chants that have come to me as part of my shamanic practice to see how deeply apostrophe is associated with the spiritual path I’m on. So many of them start with “O” – it’s almost embarrassing: O Cedar, O Buffalo, O Raven. Shamanism is very much about relationship with the elements, the plants, the waterfalls, rivers, and animals physical and non-physical that we encounter. It’s only natural to open one’s heart and give attention, offer appreciation, name their attributes and characteristics. And H.D.’s detailed attention to the qualities she encounters, particularly in flowers that grow among seaside dunes, inspires in me a desire to notice more closely the characteristics of the beings I work with.


The poem from this collection that has really caught my attention on a first reading is “Sea Gods”. It’s a longish poem so I will only quote a few excerpts.


I read the first stanza as an acknowledgement that in the desacralized age it seems that the spirits of nature (in this case the “sea gods” of the shoreline) have lost their power:


They say there is no hope

to conjure you—


They say you are twisted by the sea,

you are cut apart

by wave-break upon wave-break,

that you are misshapen by the sharp rocks,

broken by the rasp and after-rasp. 

H.D. works with images of breaking open – interiors, hidden layers not visible to the casual glance. Here the conventional sense is that being “cut apart” and “broken” removes potency. But as we will see that is not the case. Stanza II begins:

But we bring violets,

great masses—single, sweet,

wood-violets, stream-violets,

violets from a wet marsh.

“We” know better than the conventional wisdom. We hold you in worship, elemental spirits, we bring our creativity, our diversity, all the facets of life and experience we know of; we bring them to you for we know you are real and alive, and most important we know we need you.


From Stanza III:


For you will come,

you will yet haunt men in ships,

you will trail across the fringe of strait

and circle the jagged rocks…


For you will come,

you will come,

you will answer our taut hearts,

you will break the lie of men’s thoughts,

and cherish and shelter us.

My heart lifts up in song with H.D., awake to the vitality, the wisdom and the healing cleansing power of the rushing waves. They break through the limitations of our human understanding and speak to us in a deep place beyond all knowing.