Hermetic Definition (August 17, 1960-February 19, 1961) is the final poetic work of Hilda Doolittle. The direct correspondence between the work’s title and its author’s initials, H(ermetic) D(efinition), indicates the quest for a point of closure—of final identification. (H.D. was to die, following a stroke, only a few months later).This correspondence is the clearest in the poetic sequence: Hermetic Definition is an oblique hermetic biography. And it is truly, bi-ography, for it records a picture of heterosexual love within a homosexual frame. Within the poem, H.D.’s hermetical male beloved becomes the son of H.D.’s matrisexuality: woman-man is embraced by a woman-woman universe, the matrix of creation.
Hermetic Definition is a difficult work, a marginal work, as Duncan would later write, hearing the “god-step at the margins of thought”. It is borderline in so many ways, but in one crucial way that is too frequently mentioned and glossed over. The desire for the Eternal Lover is viewed through an inter-racial attraction. The centre of which is “Red Rose and a Beggar”, Poems (12) and (13).
The title “Red Rose and a Beggar” sets the hermetical framework. The “Beggar” is, of course, a symbol for H.D., the lover who “begs” for the presence of the beloved. The “Red Rose” is the alchemical redness/rubedo, the astrological glowing sun and the magical blood-rose of the Rosy-Cross. As H.D. writes in Hermetic Definition, there are three portals, alchemy, astrology, magic, and these parallel the three bronze portals of Notre Dame, Paris. (NB. Notre-Dame/Our Lady=matrisexuality and Paris/Par-(Is)is/=son-mother). It is the echoing “bronze” that carries H.D.’s thought forward into her inter-racial attraction.
“Red Rose” recalls “Red Roses for Bronze” (1931), the opening poem in the volume of the same name. Poem 12 opens, indeed, with a return to this poem:
…but I must finish what I have begun
the tall god standing
where the race is run.
These lines refer to Olympia, athleticism and deification as they appeared (to H.D.) through the body and mind of Paul Robeson. (In her short story, “Two Americans”, H.D. celebrates Robeson’s “gracious” movement and a mind that “glowed like a whole red sunset”). A whole tradition of White classicism is re-cast in the image of this Black male figure with whom H.D. acted in the film Borderline (1930). And a whole tradition of White alchemy is about to be re-cast in what follows in HermeticDefinition.
A passion ignited some 30 years before returns in the image of the Haitian writer, Lionel Durand. Ecstasy travels for H.D., like the Olympic torch carried from its place of origin to wherever it must be received, and it travels beyond her physical meetings with Durand, in April and May,1960, into an image of Rafer Johnson, August 1960.
In Poem 13, H.D. quotes directly from the front-cover of Time: “U.S. Decathlon star”. Vibrations pass into H.D.’s thoughts. Time can be transfigured and in the “living bronze” of Johnson’s body the sun trembles, within the moulded cup of the arm-pit and along the sculpted thighs. Of the 10 photographs that might have been taken to demonstrate Johnson’s eminence, Time selected the javelin. Clearly, this golden, eroticised picture of Johnson was taken to herald his expected triumph in the decathlon. For H.D., Johnson’s “spear” relates to the speed and sharpness of erotic transmission. As the Roman Helios (not the Greek Apollo) he is the spirit of the 1960 Rome Olympics, a living symbol that frees H.D. from “the Python” and into ecstatic poetic self-definition. The sibyl “U”nbends and hisses and comes to life in the sibilant “S”. As a “star”, Rafer Johnson is a giver of hermetic vibrations: an image that will rise in Part Three of Hermetic Definition, “Star of Day”.
H.D. was no Jungian alchemist. Jung’s tradition honours an Anima inside man, a heterosexual creation. Within his White, patriarchal view of alchemy, the Black male is always the nigredo, chaos, negative, uncleanliness and the heart of darkness. In H.D.’s matriarchal alchemy, which operates through a very different view of the Anima, one that stands against heterosexual tradition, the Black male is enlightenment. In her Hermetic Definition, H.D. opens the Black male to a gaze that looks from the sacred and erotic, not profane and pornographic. It is a gaze that stands against rapacious, modern, heterosexual culture. It is a borderland view, neither inside nor outside, at the crossroads of perception, one that perceives a rapid montage of associations.