November 2, 2023

War & Love: What is Unsaid

instead, it is dark
Cynthia Hogue
Red Hen Press, 2023
95 pages

H.D. (with an afterword by Francesca Wade)
New Directions, 2022
241 pages

Couplets: A Love Story
Maggie Millner
Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2023
108 pages

War & Love: What is Unsaid by Susan McCabe

Cynthia Hogue’s latest book looks to the layered understory of “memories that survive us,” an apt phrase from Ilya Kaminsky’s blurb. These memories can actively traumatize. Hogue transports us back to “burned villages,” the seemingly irreversible effects of past violence, in this case, mostly World War II, that yet reverberate with “murmurings and rustlings and burgeoning of lives at levels animal, plant, and mineral—interrupted and changed,” as her author’s note clarifies. Finding herself shocked to discover in her husband’s “rebuilt” village through attentive listening to trauma’s sublayers, not understood through photographs, but here through the poet’s excavation of a past that still haunts “on levels animal, plant, and mineral—interrupted and changed.” She confronts what others turn away from: articulating the feeling of a once semi-pastoral place, disrupted ecologically, psychologically, spiritually, and as the poems convince us, of even more ways than can be enumerated. History installs and inscribes itself in the land, absorbed by space and air, in water, in stones; such violations can never simply be understood through historical chronicle but rather as bodily phenomenology and re-memory. Hogue’s porous poems gives credence to the otherwise invisible, to the neglected, to the unconscious. She also shows how a poetic stance of openness allows being surprised, as for instance, finding herself “feeling for strangers who lost their lives before [she] was born,” and the strangers don’t have to be famous or other than human, in their suffering and vulnerability, for empathic identification. A difficult task. She also, after the first two haunting sections (“war’s chorus,” and “after the war”), addresses in the other half of this book, other reverberating violence, including the gun massacre at Columbine in 1999 (“memory holds a trace that at times rises into words”). There is also the thread of ecological worry, a consequence of the natural world changed and damaged by war and other violations.

          It is no wonder Hogue starts with words from H.D., the famous poet mostly known as Imagist.  Hogue intimately knows H.D.’s Blitz experience including the latter’s war trilogy that included The Walls Do Not Fall of 1942, from which her epigraph emerged: “there, as here, ruin opens / the tomb, the temple; enter, / there as here, there are no doors.” This is the free-fall Hogue, through H.D., re-experiences ultimate precarity. In 2007, Hogue published and annotated a previously unpublished H.D. post-war novel, The Sword Went Out to Sea, written in 1946. This work allowed H.D. to tap into the experience of dead soldiers, even to the point of resuscitating their voices through séances. The dead were with her through a visionary practice of channeling, so much so that she flagged herself as such by giving herself her “medium’s” moniker, Delia Alton. Subtitling this book “as told to H.D. by Delia Alton” was a real deterrent to publishers. H.D. couldn’t take credit for the kind of empathy that goes beyond “normal” empathy; hers was a fierce identification and an attempt to connect with the still active dead soldiers, particularly those who perished in the Battle of Britain. All to say, H.D. has left indelible marking on Hogue’s poems—in particular, their ability to let go of a limited ego perspective to feel what Hogue calls “world-sorrow” as well as to absorb the still material traces of those who suffered in France before, during and after the Occupation.

          The first section of “war’s chorus” takes the perspective of very young children, those the poet interviews when they are adults. The first “Witness Triptych (Paris, 1940,” possesses a unique raw, broken, and lyric tone that Hogue maintains throughout. It slips from “I” to “we” and sounds out blurring between “mortal” and “mortar,” also linked to the “Mother” who panics about her baby upstairs:

                      The bombs starting were mostly mortal

                       I mean mortar but no one knew that

                       then. Everyone ran from the house

                       and somehow we found a deep cave

                       or grotto and were safe.

Finding dark places in which to survive is a recurring theme in this book. The shift in pronouns also foreground how the voices Hogue discovers, trapped for decades after the war in unspeakable silence, have unstable footing, their speech as children pitched with unprocessed emotions. The “I” as “the Child” appears throughout, the child who here sees “a huge shadow/ with head and hulking back” the day his “Father was arrested.” (The parents are in upper-case to signify the child’s smallness). A child’s traumatized perspective is both keenly lucid and unknowing, thus the turn from the arresting Nazi towards “the shadow shadow shadow.” “To Hide A Child (1941/2012)” depicts another child, one who is lost, “sauvage” and “foreign,” who has come by the village’s “wild apples,” its seasonal “business.” Children, we forget, were “harried, rounded up,” and this one that the village would have liked to ignore, to have shut “the blinds/ to the soaring poplars, their glossy / leaves and populated shadows”. Italics deftly allow Hogue to act inner witness. The paradoxical culmination here is “that the child’s // danger cracking ajar the door / we thought protected us / had let the light in.” In other words, opening reveals the child’s metaphoric light (perhaps not recognized until 2012); “protection” is not always ethically proper, or as real as another being’s, this child’s safety. “The Daughter” too is loaded with uncertain knowledge of her father’s war work (“Father was high up—I never got / his echelon straight before the war / was over,”) the narrator aware of his knowing “things / done to whom by whom,” as she listens at the door to what is obliquely registered as interrogation. The poet allows us to see through the eyes of unguarded children, witnesses, to whom any violence is extreme violence. Words, Hogue explores throughout, can produce whiplash; the poet’s ear carefully distills language, listening for embodied pulses, and here the daughter hears “the sound words / made” as “lightning flashed / right into [her] skull.” In a later prose poem, “Flight,” “[t]he angel found language fled,” no words to describe for another “once-child,” who “told the story many times of her father’s return, how he’d been arrested a soldier but returned an angel,” but then tortured so that “the angel always gone for good.”

           Obligatory self-censoring, where words themselves are potential ammunition, adds the element of communal guilt to Hogue’s tapestry. A church in a nearby village provided protection before it was razed, a fact suppressed, yet “[t]he unheard screams entered the neighbors’ dreams,” traveling “into the vast maze of limestone caves beneath the fields muffling the lowing of the cows corralled below.” Meanwhile the villagers are forced to bake, albeit “ashen bread,” for arriving “murderers.” (“The Underground Village”) The title-poem of the book, “instead, it is dark,” blurs the difference of living and dying, as this speaker “woke to the dead / and was among them.” Hogue cannot tell all, overhearing the survivor experience, with the delicacy of someone trying not to disturb human remains, this section incanting the villagers’ “quandary”: “We took care / of ourselves, worried about later, / later.”

          The concussive second section, “after the war,” further tunnels into psychic and physical damage so that, while Hogue chooses perspectives carefully, point towards myriad painful post-traumatic experience through numb cataloguing, with several titles beginning with “after the war.” The first speaker echoes H.D.’s disembodied post-traumatic Blitz dissociation: “I did not expect to feel dead / when I died, the cherry around the house/ so tall and livid, grave sentinels on the grounds/ I walked each day in my mind.” Notable about this and most of Hogue’s poems, the natural world acts stabilizing barometer to village life, even after it is injured or imperiled. The odd inspiring aspect of Hogue’s work is her ability to witness and yet to reach subjective lyrical states, as in this of the “living/dead” person who listens to “a stream burble nearby” and “could have wept out loud / for an eternity.” There are no clunky conclusions in these poems: they are evocative, stirring, deeply personal and rooted in landscape.

           A pair of poems in the middle of this volume concern another “once-child” (a personal homage to Hogue’s husband, a central memory source, as he grew up in a “burned village,”); the father “kicked the boy” (“The Father”). The adjacent poem, “The Opening,” speaks to Hogue’s transformative “Instead, it is,” gray-scaling or blacking out “dark.” This latter narrative poem shows the boy in reparative play, creating a dam, so that “a tiny salmon” could “swim home.” It also depicts the father and son discovering an “entrance to / the cave,” that has been “overgrown.” They enter and the boy takes a “stalagmite” (a preserved depository, evidence of how climate has changed during glacial and interglacial periods). There is thus an objective correlative in historic memory for other times that have been buried (much like the invasion of the boy’s village) that leads to an affirmative experience, if not articulated at the time of the father/son adventure. This ending shows Hogue at her best, using line breaks and quick reversals not to cover over but, as if she too were venturing into memory’s cave, to find renewal:

                     They never spoke of how

                                               they’d stumbled

                      onto a vast silence, how gamely

                                               they had crawled

                     into a hillside, opening to nowhere

                     anyone knew to be significant, and faced

                     the darkness no light breached before,

                     and corridors of void like empty arms.

Still elliptical, in this single lyric sentence, Hogue navigates towards an “opening’ in the “vast silence.” Yet this is no settled conclusion, with a “void” beckoning to more silenced histories.

           By the second half of this compelling volume, Hogue examines post-World War II violence, and as mentioned already, the poem on Columbine with poet as reporter (“the week after the shootings was the closing / of each lid on each child so many shuttered lids we / had to record each shutting out the child’s light and /, the.” Again, lines run-on in her stanza, bravely inconclusive. Another provocative poem addressing the echo of the past in the present, “The Lost Private,” deserves attention. There is a subtle revision of Frost’s “Stopping By the Woods on a Snowy Evening,” hinted as the hiker, likely the poet’s Loire Valley husband, “who went off trail every chance he had” who spotted “suddenly from the steep trail,” a soldier’s belongings including “a desk chair” “facing the valley,” and upon closer investigation, discovers “a blue plastic bag”:

           With identification card (listing an address

            on a military base closed fifteen years ago),

           Mold-covered prison release papers,

           A suicide prevention plan (writing washed off)

The man ghosting his chair, not a World War II casualty, was most likely among the first veterans of the first Iraq War. Hogue’s empty chair revives the ghost of the “lost private.”

          The final poem in the volume, “The Loire Valley (Solstice 2015),” strikes out into the hills, to discover not the “mounded rows you think at first are graves,” but “the one-thousand-year-old fortified grange,” not damaged by the war; its silent speech overlaid by someone’s idea to make the nearby barn into a musical venue: “Silence opens wooden gates/ made from the primeval forest / cleared to farm.” The speaker hears an owl “whose contrapuntal hoots / you hear before you see him,” and after the concert’s over, finds “carless field, nor other farmstead near” (Frost again), that might “dim the sense of / not belonging here.” Thus, instead, it is dark, invites the reader to have similar consciousness of lives lost and smudged out, privations suffered, and glossed over. Hogue asks that we listen to what transpired and transpires beneath every stone, every inch of ground.


The echoes of the past reverberate in new edition of HERmione, not published in H.D.’s lifetime, but posthumously in 1981 with foreword (“Pandora’s Box”) by Perdita Schaffner, H.D.’s illegitimate child in 1919. This 2022 edition sports an afterword by Francesca Wade, who claims the poetic novel “is perhaps the most radical of all her novels in its triumphant refusal of what the poet Adrienne Rich called ‘compulsory heterosexuality.’” The decision to reissue the book comes from its contemporary relevance in our age of non-binary gender. When H.D. wrote this novel, she had already joined forces with the proto-transgender Bryher (born Annie Winifred Ellerman), but she still mulled over her youth before Bryher through to World War I, and the illegitimate heiress Bryher’s adoption of Perdita—and staying on as second mother until she died in 1981.

          HERmione is an autobiographical novel of an artist who is a bisexual. H.D.’s first love was “sister-love” with Frances Gregg (uncannily born the same day as Bryher), a scholarship girl she meets after she dropped out from Bryn Mawr. While she was engaged to Ezra Pound before sailing with Gregg to Europe in 1911, she quickly noted that he was a “blundering youth” who could not appreciate her. As with Hogue’s recovery of echoes of the French Occupation, deviant love, was one of H.D.’s major subjects, along with war—and thus led to this novel’s and her own obscurity until Susan Stanford Friedman lifted the poet from her crypt of patriarchally produced burial. Perdita writes in her foreword: “I’ll never escape the past.” Indeed in both Hogue and H.D., the past constantly rears up.

          In descending from the American Transcendentalists, H.D. (once “Dryad”—tree spirit—to Pound) was “wood maniac, a tree demon, a neuropathic dendrophile,” also incarnated by George (Pound) as either “a Greek goddess or a coal scuttle.” The narrator (“Her Gart”) in the opening pages, muses on the phrase “‘arrested development,’” and stares at a “network of oak and deflowered dogwood,” with the excitable Larch, its “green that, each spring, renewed her sort of ecstasy, this year had let Her down. She knew that this year was peculiarly blighted.” As with Hogue’s “Negative,” “[l]anguage rooted in earth—like plants—/ when sounded opens the mind’s portals”; H.D.’s avatar too finds the language of trees and plants as inwardly reflexive, while no nomenclature could describe her own organic being, her vexed sexuality. Mirroring “development” in nature, she finds it is no more linear, predictable than her own. “Nebulous” though she feels, she is bolstered to discover “her entire failure to conform to expectations was perhaps some subtle form of courage.” This is the blueprint for HERmione’s circular search forautogenesis: “I am in the word TREE. I am tree exactly.” Trees are for her both “gelatinous” and “celluloid,” not clearly demarcated from her own self-incantation: “I am HER, I am Hermione . . .I am the word Aum.”

          This highly charged, linguistically dense poetic novel, offers a role model for those who cannot find their identities in cookie-cutter patterns—and in fact speaks to the wildness of organic being akin to natural forces with unknown chthonic powers. What is so magnetizing is H.D.’s ultra-modern (as in “now”) identification not only with plants but with other species, particularly striking in comparing herself to an octopus: “Under the sea, deep-sea consciousness, she was putting out premature feelers.” Or like an “amoeba giving birth by separation to amoeba,” “a sort of jellyfish sort of birth by breaking apart.”

           This poetic novel is difficult, always mesmerizing, and rewards all efforts to follow its trail. One sinks into its poetry, its allusions as with the title to both Shakespeare’s Hermione of Winter’s Tale (thus the silenced wrongly blamed wife turned statue) and as the legendary daughter of Helen of Troy, also blamed. While queerness is more accepted than during H.D.’s life, yet outlawed sexuality continues to be challenged by hyper-binary societal norms (depending on global location). HERmione offers refuge in its wild refusal of all binaries, including that which divides prose and poetry. “Love is art,” Her Gart tries to convince Fayne (alter for Frances), a recalibration of the masculinist credo of “art for art’s sake,” where erotic and spiritual love is bracketed off from artistic production. This is precisely a current cultural aim, to find a place where spirituality and creativity overlap.

           Meeting Fayne at a schoolfriend’s party, she is immediately taken: “Hemione apprehended but did not grasp, a thing that whirred like a bird up, up into a forest of metallic leaves and a forest of leaves that waved like seaweed under water. She saw the girl . . .” which “caused a queer sort of blurring-out.” H.D’s language is distinctively her own, taut and much like the feeling she has when being near Fayne, akin to “apprehending something, that was perceiving something like a dynamo vibrating with electricity from some far distance.”


Maggie Milner’s Couplets is full of wit, and in the anti-tradition of Hermione, shelves heteronormative norms.  The speaker confesses to being in a relationship with a man whom she felt she could not live without and who then meets a lesbian, and wants to branch out. It smashes the relationship with her male partner who “for years [she] loved him more than” herself, while her vexed relation with a woman, who has simultaneous relationships with other women. The boyfriend predicts, stereotyping, “She’ll make you suffer in the end.” In this 2023 “love-story,” Millner gives voice to desire and magnetic kinships in language, revolving around a love triangle (similar to H.D. and Bryher’s lifestyle of inviting a third as “beard,” first Robert McAlmon, who was liked by Perdita). “Mother” and “Father” and “Child,” in what is the most stable of triangles, falls apart through war in Hogue. This confessional “love story” takes risks in breaking it down to couplets.

           Desire turns into art, for Millner, in this exuberant tour-de-force of unusual yet pliant and reassuring rhymes. If Hogue, among these three, is the most austere, tapping into the unsaid, she calls attention to the foundation of both HERmione and Couplets, the latter confessing the narrator’s experiment with polyamory. Instead of H.D.’s underwater consciousness, this volume asserts a very “versed,” stylized portrait of her new love, a butch lesbian: “So much from that time is still so redolent / of nervousness and sex: her sandalwood cologne / and reading H.D. on her phone.” Millner’s literary ballasts are, among H.D., the closeted, queer Virginia Woolf, and Willa Cather (she travels to Nebraska for a night with her lover, but they still can’t hold hands in public as they would in their “native” New York), and Audre Lorde, drawing on her “Uses of the Erotic,” as broadly assigning art and creative drives as part of an erotic spectrum.

           The tone is satiric, saving itself through self-satirizing the bourgeois mores of New York life. At first, the glib agility in couplet-making (a pun of course) initially appears as a Woody Allen version of polyamory with the slickness of jokes that offer critique of faddish culture while participating in it. Her portraits of her lesbian lover borders on caricature (though the speaker/poet mocks herself as well):

                 I knew my lie, while hers remained


                 a vivid new reality that swirled

                 behind a scintillating door, a world

                 where people wore athleisure haute and seemed

                 to vape incessantly.

If we consider Couplets as another kind of bildungsroman (alongside HERmione), the first section admits at the start: “Mostly I can’t see myself at all / until I sense in someone else a parallel.”

            Along with strict necessitated couplets, there are prose poem interruptions; this one shows the speaker as enthralled, hypnotized, driven:

                to drink coffee with her when you woke; you did; to kiss her on the mouth: you did:

                 to kiss her with your tongue; you did: to let her touch you once, just to see if you

                were really as wet as you said you were; you did: to unclasp your bra; you did: to rub

                yourself against her till you came; you did: to read her the erotic poem you loved;

                you did: to remove your pants; you did: to let her taste you; you did: to let her taste

                 you; you did: to come again, inside her mouth: you did: to penetrate her gingerly;

                you did;

This passage shocks as much as it refreshes through sure-fire though uncomfortable confession. This is no H.D. ecstatic “Aum.”

            Lyric couplets, the volume’s main constraint, echo the S/M element in her relationship to her butch girlfriend: “I felt most free when I was choked and tied//with cables to the bed; when bound and gagged; / when told that I was very, very bad.” The off-rhyme clips braggadocio, and woven into this poem, she gives us a reality check, dating the poem in 21st century colors: “The rich people/ I knew still entertained a kind of magical// thinking—we could always run off/ to the country, they repeated—as if.” Acknowledging the hyper-personal element in this narrative (“I had let my life become a story”), Millner provides some background to a claustrophobic indoors life, “the grip of leather tugging at my wrist / where the cuffs that were her birthday gift.” Note the off-rhymes (“off” and “if,” and “wrist” with “gift”) in collusion with the uneasy awareness of a larger reality: “Outside entire species // were expiring. Fascism had come / back into vogue with every random // website.” Guilt begins to aerate this tightly bound body and psyche, as if her being cuffed accompanied the freedom she imagines in new sex. In this long narrative poem (an unusual mode these days in itself), after a holiday to the poet’s upstate New York childhood home, as if it was not classy enough, the girlfriend breaks up with her. But have no fear. Strolling through a “[c]old, ecstatic,” perfume shop, “tree-ish word[s]” on commodities, she claims herself: “—I am my own husband,” at last “bonded” to her “authority alone.” This ending makes sense of this “story”—moving through two lovers, one she loved more than herself, another who she wanted to be owned by. This is satisfying, less dependent on commodified identities, recognizing herself finally as a poet, whose verse depends upon transformation, though she returns to breezy couplets that start the volume: “stories like these” (i.e her own), “seduction” by an electric city: “That and the bagels, / You sally forth, practicing your Kegels.”

           These three books are well worth reading: each one taps into the unspoken and draws up unconventional and uncomfortable if scintillating subjective spaces. Hogue practically disappears in her text, H.D. rides the waves of her unconscious imagination, and Millner determines that poetry is more liberating than prose where “the characters should actualize, / rather than transform as many times // as time allows, as is the case in verse,” acknowledging in her new confessionalism that poetry is her “engine of // self-knowledge,” making “everything” “worth suffering.”

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