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Mary Jo Bang Contemplates Helen of Troy
Be sure to check out the audio recording of Mary Jo Bang reading H.D.’s “Helen,” at Slate. Bang also provides an introduction to the poem, discussing the different implications of Helen of Troy’s beautiful “whiteness.”
Helen’s beauty is often associated with “whiteness” and light…It’s not surprising to have erotic heat described as white-hot. And light/fire is power, which is why Prometheus got into trouble with the gods. H.D. (1886-1961), in her “Helen,” reverses desire’s white heat and makes white the color of icy hatred. White appears three times in the first nine lines. The reiteration—especially when combined with “lustre” (shine/gleam/glitter, but also glory/honor/fame) and “cool feet”—effectively turns Helen into a cold-footed/cold-blooded polished-marble statue. Rather than love, the clenched-jaw sparseness of the poem also gestures to hate. The rhyme scheme, irregular but adamant, avoids seeming too studied and yet creates a taut cohesiveness, as if an explosive charge is contained, but barely.
For the audio recording and Bang’s full analysis, head on over to Slate.