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Poem of the week: Sea Rose by HD

Poem of the week: Sea Rose by HD

Sea Rose

Rose, harsh rose,
marred and with stint of petals,
meagre flower, thin,
sparse of leaf,

more precious
than a wet rose
single on a stem —
you are caught in the drift.

Stunted, with small leaf,
you are flung on the sand,
you are lifted
in the crisp sand
that drives in the wind.

Can the spice-rose
drip such acrid fragrance
hardened in a leaf?

Sea Rose is from Sea Garden (1916), the first collection published by the American modernist poet HD (the nom de plume of Hilda Doolittle). Her technique in many of the poems exemplifies imagist practice and reveals a particularly intense and original response to the epigrams of the Greek Anthology, an influential collection generally for the imagists, including Ezra Pound.

HD’s lasting engagement with classical Greece began in childhood encounters with its myths, long before she embarked on her adult studies in Greek literature and language. In Sea Garden the Greek landscape, architecture and artefacts are fused with further childhood memories of visits to the coasts of Rhode Island and Maine. HD interweaves five sea-flowers into her garland of poems, the Sea Rose, Sea Lily, Sea Poppies, Sea Violet and Sea Iris. All are real wildflower species.

But the sea-flower poems aim at something other than botanical description. HD is claiming for them a special aesthetic. The Sea Rose’s superiority over “her” glossy relatives lies in austerity and lack of decoration. Perhaps the plant to some degree represents the plain-speaking Greek epigram, or indeed the ideal imagist poem, embodying Pound’s advice to “use either no ornament or good ornament”.

Monosyllables are particularly frequent in Sea Rose: some lines are entirely composed of them, including the first: “Rose, harsh rose”. Harsh is an unexpected adjective of praise. As there’s no mention of thorns, we know the harshness belongs to the “meagre flower” itself, “stint of petals” and “sparse of leaf”. It’s connected to simplicity, hardiness, resistance, and perhaps to shamelessness. The Sea Rose is addressed as a conscious being, perhaps a minor deity, accepting the praise of an acolyte.

Despite the lapidary quality of the writing, the rose is aligned with wilderness, thoroughly acclimatised to wind and waves. The third verse breaks out of the quatrain structure, and is rougher in sound than the first two. In the repetition of “sand” we can imagine the beat of the wind, and the hardness of the beach. The sand, too, is able to change its form and, when dried and “crisp”, it “drives in the wind”.

It’s possible that the Sea Rose is, or is based on, the Rosa Rugosa. I’m not sure. But one of the meanings of “drift” – “a grouping of similar flowers planted in an elongated mass” – might point that way. It doesn’t rule out the primary meaning, of course, and the image of the Sea Rose drifting with the tide.

The second verse, continuing the praise of the flower’s virtues, finds the Sea Rose “more precious / than a wet rose / single on a stem”. This other, or different, “wet rose” may symbolise female sexuality, or represent enclosed luxury, like a newly picked, dew-spangled, cultivated rose displayed singly in a drawing-room vase. The wetness of the Sea Rose shows its vigour and adaptability: it moves with the flow of the coastal ecosystem.

No colour is attributed to the Sea Rose, but the “acrid” scent of its leaf is singled out. Again, there’s the implication of harshness, as well as a conflict of wet and dry: the fragrance may “drip” but it has also been “hardened in a leaf”. The “spice rose” mentioned may be this one – and, if so, its elegance would suggest a happy residence in the kind of enclosure HD disparages in another Sea Garden poem, Sheltered Garden. Perhaps the critics who view the sea-flower poems as a female artist’s protest against the male poets’ coterie have an interpretation worth considering.

A number of works by HD, including her Collected Poems and Selected Poems, are published by Carcanet. Sea Garden is available online here. Lisa Simon’s essay on the specifically “Greek” poems, The Anthropologic Eye: HD’s call for a New Poetics is an invaluable accompaniment.

Source: theguardian.com