Bethlehem’s H.D.: an artistic vision that counters the dismissal of women as spiritual leaders (13)

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(13th in a series of posts on H.D.)

We continue to learn about this Bethlehem-born writer (1886-1961), the “Lehigh Valley’s most important literary figure,” as the plaque at the entrance announces to our library patrons.

Finding H.D.: A Community Exploration of the Life and Work of Hilda Doolittle

The next event in this year-long series is a panel discussion on “H.D. and the Natural World,” Tuesday, April 16, 6:30-8:00pm at the Bethlehem Area Public Library.

We’ve done three posts on Prof. Mary Foltz’s lecture on “Challenging Limited Understandings of Gender and Sexuality” on March 6, and now we’re ready to look at a fourth slice. Here’s the full audio of this fourth section and below are selected sound bites from Mary’s prepared text.

Listening to Mary undeniably best; you know that Gadfly always says go to the primary source.

Remember that in the previous post, Mary focused on the formative awareness the young H.D. had in Nisky Hill cemetery as described in The Gift: “when the young Hilda seemingly only finds the names of women preserved on gravestones, she is gesturing to the absence of familial, cultural, and national recognition of women’s value.”

Now think along with Mary and the audience after you read the following passages and ask yourself: 1) How is women’s labor described in these two passages? 2) How is the father’s labor described? 3) How do you understand the separate spheres for men and women in the family and larger community?

H.D. 7
“Women’s labor in Hilda’s home is child-rearing, creating activities for the children (art projects, etc.), sweeping and other forms of cleaning, and caring for the larger family. Mary 1Working class white women here belong to a house, they are tied in servitude to pleasing affluent white men, women and children. Her father belongs to the world and his work matters to the world as journalists, students, and other researchers value his contributions. The young Hilda here, despite her youthful ambition to be an artist, does not have in The Gift examples of women from her family who have succeeded in the outside world or whose work has been valued beyond their labor to support husbands and children. Of course, Hilda, this young queer child, has ambition in The Gift beyond becoming a wife alone and in particular is invested in becoming an artist.”

But women artists are mocked too, not only in society at large but within her own family. Look at the devastating effect her father’s perhaps unwitting denigration of her mother’s singing has on the mother as well as the young H.D., for whom her mother is model. This incident cuts Gadfly deeply.

Min. 5:25 ff.

H.D. 11

Min. 7:55

“Toward the end of The Gift, H.D. commits herself to offering an artistic vision that counters the dismissal of women as artists and thinkers, but also as spiritual leaders, Mary 2providing insight into how communities might fight against sexism, racism, and violence in the world. The closing of the text allows her to recall a message from her Mamalie when she was a child and Mamalie began to lose her grasp on the present in her old age. Mamalie drifts back to a time when she learned about “papers” or deerskin document that told of rituals on wound island in Monocacy creek, during the time in which women were valued as spiritual leaders, when Christ was seen as feminine and masculine, when the holy spirit is understood as feminine. H.D. gives us these memories of Mamalie’s story and glimpses of what occurred on wound island before the sifting time in fits and starts and it never becomes fully clear to the reader what the exact rituals on Wound Island might be.”

H.D. 9

“What is clear is that the rituals involve women in leadership roles, a sharing of indigenous religious belief and Moravian religious belief, and the understanding of sacred femininity as part of the divine. Here, H.D. reminds readers of the massacre of Mary 3Lenni Lenape indigenous people who share pacifist religious beliefs with Moravian missionaries that they encountered. Nearly 100 Lenape were murdered by a white militia led by Lt. Colonel David Williamson in retaliation for raids in PA, in which the group of Lenni Lenape had not participated. Mamalie and H.D. here contrast this horrendous massacre with the ritual at Wound Island where indigenous and white people honor their religious traditions together, where domination of one group of men over another is not sought, but challenged, where domination of women by men is not seen as natural but challenged by divine spirit. As white masculinity in her childhood community is believed to be superior and is supported by exploiting women’s labor and by the removal and domination of indigenous populations, H.D. takes readers back to a time in Bethlehem when religious ritual actively fought against such forms of domination.”

Min. 14:45

H.D. 10

“Sexism, racism, and homophobia are part of this problem of violence as specific groups of men write their superiority across the sky with powerful bombs, pounding their Mary 4power and strength into the ground, onto the bodies, of those that they see as disposable, as waste. But at Wound Island, where men can let go of a masculinity that erects itself in its divine difference from simple woman, where European immigrant men can let go of their need to dismiss their spiritual insights of groups different from them, where men can contemplate exploring their own femininity, their own vulnerability, their love for other men, H.D. places her hope. In Bethlehem’s past, there was a place on an island where the fantasy of superiority was seen as sin, and the divine feminine and masculine merged, when women were valued as equal as men, when indigenous and European came together to share their beliefs and to delight in the sacred value of each body.”

Now pause for a moment. Tug at the edges of your hat with both hands. Tighten your belt. Hike your socks. Mary ends in a breath-taking rhetorical gallop.

“It will be the work of lesbian, gender non-conforming, and bisexual women at the end of The Gift to reach into the historical archive to show the value of sacred foremothers. It Mary 5will be the work of lesbian, gender non-conforming, bisexual and feminist women to create works of art that provide beehives of words that readers can visit, in which we can live as we build communities in which diverse women can thrive. It will be the work of all of us in all our many genders, sexualities, to engage with the language that devalues others and celebrates the few, structures that benefit the few while exploiting the many. We, too, are asked to create new narratives and structures that might challenge violence in the world, as we attempt to address  sexism, racism, homophobia, biphobia, transphobia, in our communities.”

Trumpet flourish!

Remember: the next event in this year-long series is a panel discussion on “H.D. and the Natural World,” Tuesday, April 16, 6:30-8:00pm at the Bethlehem Area Public Library.

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