If we consider WDNF to be the start of a war poem and a language fantasy, then the poem's quiet opening surprises. Neither an explosive scene of "Apocryphal fire" (which appears later in the first section) nor all arresting vision like H.D.'s famed "writing on the wall," the opening stanza presents the extraordinary—bombing—as the quotidian:
An incident here and there, and rails gone (for guns) from your (and my) old town square.
Amid the settling grey ash of the blitz, this narrative tone of reportage sounds "mist-grey"; it displays "no colour" (3). Yet perhaps the continual, commonplace, and quotidian threat of death best characterizes the civilian's numbing experience of war—just as the trite, euphemistic, or ironic expressions of death constitute the only "new" language for the civilian war poet." An incident here and there" points casually to a few of the "fifty thousand incidents" (as the British press ironically called the blitz) spread randomly, and fatally, "here and there" throughout Britain's capital. The language of civilian casualty, it seems, evinces a matter-of-fact casualness: war's idiom comes to reflect the willful self-numbing of civilian survivors, those "patient[s]" newly "etherised on a table," to quote language born of an earlier war-to-end-all-wars. H.D.'s first lines thus focus the reader's attention on the "here" of language—the hard, ossified, outer shell of words rendered trite by overuse and willful irony, what H.D. calls "bitter truth / wrapped up in a little joke" (16) in WDNF; Here, in London, language appears as unresponsive as the faces of civilian survivors.
But if "here" marks the world of civilian shell shock, where is the "there" of WDNF? In beginning her poem with deictic words—the indispensable "pointing" words, like "here and there"—H.D. does more than mark a temporal distance, the "here" of "London 1942" versus the "there" of "Karnak 1923," a distance easily gleaned from the poem's epigraph. "Here and there" simultaneously points to language itself, and particularly to the language of H.D.'s own poem. If "here" refers to the "forlorn husk" (22) of clichéd language, the reflected image of language users "dragging the forlorn husk of self after" them, then "there" refers to the suddenly meaningful inside of language, an inside that reveals itself only through the most focused scrutiny. An "incident" here and there: here, on the outside, the word merely replicates an ironic newspaper cliché, But "there," on the inside, the word reveals its hidden meaning: "incident," from the Latin incidere, means "a falling in," a multiply appropriate phrase for the physical danger of bombing, for the emotional danger of civilian life, and for the linguistic danger to a poem called The Walls Do Not Fall. Suddenly the physical, emotional, and linguistic valences of this word flicker through its outer "husk." And the fact that, for five centuries, Anglophones have used that very word, perhaps recognizing its multiple significance during a moment of crisis, offers a different sort of salve for the Londoner who would otherwise turn to ether.
The word "incident" does nothing to stop physical bombardment, but for the civilian war poet the word offers an enduring mold for emotion that might otherwise collapse in on itself—a linguistic structure for fearfully unstructured (or destructured) subjectivity. And within the poem called The Walls Do Not Fall, the five-hundred-year-old word "incident" suggests that language, if nothing else, can resist both sudden trauma and gradual decay. The word affirms that, amid falling buildings, a poem exerts a sturdy constructive force. The word itself begins to refute the charges (leveled against H.D. herself) that poets "are not only 'non-utilitarian,' / we are 'pathetic'": "but if you do not even understand what words say, / how can you expect to pass judgment / on what words conceal?" (14).
Look there, inside the words, H.D. apparently suggests, offering a macroscopic ars legendi for WDNF via microscopic scrutiny, a scrutiny that links H.D.'s sensibility to an earlier American war poet, Emily Dickinson. Like Dickinson, H.D. jolts the reader out of surface interpretation (a skimming of the outer husks of language) by an almost amputating concision that obscures syntactical meaning. "And rails gone," for example, remains opaque because of its syntactical simplicity (a mere linking of a plural noun with a past participle). But H.D. again focuses the reader on the inside, not through etymology but, appropriately, through syntax. Typographically marking an inside through her use of parentheses, H.D. leads the reader to the explanatory phrase that renders "rails gone" suddenly clear: "(for guns)." Just as meaning disappears "here"—on the outside of language, as well as "here" in "London, 1942"—so, too, meaning reappears "there," on the inside of language, where disappearing rails of London's squares are suddenly recognized (and reappear) as the raw material of munitions.
Language, H.D. suggests, enforces this outside/inside interplay, for good and for ill. Her final line, "from your (and my) old town square" implies, again syntactically and typographically, that the reader's ("your") outside perspective must find a bridge toward the poet's inner vision of language, a vision both necessary to the communication of meaning and necessarily marked with parentheses: "(and my)." The parentheses here, while visually inscribing an inner meaning or perspective within language, simultaneously imply a pessimism toward the reader's ability to discover that vision—one as easily discarded as any parenthetical (that is, extraneous) locution. And the poet's inner perspective on her language carries private "associations," including Freudian "free associations," meanings available only to the analyst and (occasionally) to the analysand herself. Indeed, to the reader familiar with H.D.'s history of psychoanalysis, the last line suggests—but will not confirm—the association of this general "old town square" with the particular Tavistock Square, the site of H.D.'s first psychoanalysis in the late 1920s (Friedmaft 18). If so, the "old town square" as locale recalls the moment at which H.D. discovered that dreams themselves—the poet's own dreams—were made of a "here and there" language, one composed of a cryptic outside and a multiply significant inside.
[. . . ]
From the fires of the blitz, fires that melt human flesh (and, no doubt, "fleshly" poetics of the past), a modernist "frame" emerges. "A new creation," H.D. wrote 10 August 1943, "is already on us" (Pearson v):
the bone-frame was made for no such shock knit within terror, yet the skeleton stood up to it:
the flesh? it was melted away, the heart burnt out, dead ember, tendons, muscles shattered, outer husk dismembered,
yet the frame held: we passed the flame: we wonder what saved us? what for? (4)
At this pole of H.D.'s language fantasy, it is the "husk" or "bone-frame" or "skeleton" that "save[s] us" in providing "protection for the scribe"—both for her meaning and for her subjectivity. Indeed "Pompeii has nothing to teach us," for "we know crack of volcanic fissure, / slow flow of terrible lava"; that is, the formlessness or dispersal of meaning which slips all too easily into "oneness lost, madness" (43). If, both in London's smoldering house frames and in Egypt's decaying temples, "there are no doors" (3), then "eternity endures," via H.D.'s homonymic pun, indoors—within some durable husk or "frame," physical, psychological, and linguistic. The husk offers, the comforting enclosure so desperately sought by hiding Londoners who would seek the ever deeper, safer "cellar"—only to find, to their terror, "another sliced wall, / where poor utensils show / like rare objects in a museum" (4). The survival of language, like one's physical survival, depends upon the discovery of an enduring husk.
At the opposite pole of H.D.'s thoughts about language in WDNF, though, the enclosed psyche cries for liberation from all enclosure. Here the poem echoes with the voice of the claustrophobic survivor of the blitz or the concentration camp inmate:
pressure on heart, lungs, the brain about to burst its brittle case (what the skull can endure!) (4)
For this voice "eternity endures," human life and poetic meaning survive, amid "ruin everywhere" only because "the fallen roof / leaves the sealed room / open to air" (3). Eternity endures only because "ruin opens" (3); poetic meaning survives when it can break free of its suffocating husk. The violent polarity in H.D.'s vision of language—the crashing "tide and ebb" (51) of her poetics—reflects the profound psychic split that simultaneously torments and sustains war's civilian victim, at once a casualty and a survivor.