Helen of Las Vegas, or the War Today
by Patricia Maloney
The War is the first and only thing in the world today.(1)
– William Carlos Williams

Why do I doubt? Why wonder?…Was War inevitable?... Who won? Who lost? / Must the battle be fought and fought? (2)
– H.D.

In 2002, Joan Jonas went to war. Lines in the Sand, her multimedia performance and installation commissioned for Documenta XI, was created just months before the United States invaded Iraq, when troops were already engaged in Afghanistan. Lines in the Sand is not about the war on terror, nor does it illustrate it. Instead, Lines in the Sand is the politics of war read through H.D.’s Helen in Egypt. According to a surviving fragment by Stesichorus of Sicily (640-555 B.C.E), from which H.D. crafts her book-length poem, Helen was never in Troy. “Helen of Troy was a phantom….The Greeks and Trojans alike fought for an illusion.”(3) It was a trade war, fought over gold, cinnabar, dried fish, and Chinese jade. Helen was as present as weapons of mass destruction.

But we cannot read Lines in the Sand merely as political theater, nor Helen as metaphor. Jonas places Helen not in Egypt but in the desert sands of Las Vegas, beside the ersatz monuments of the Luxor Hotel. In one moment, projected as video, Jonas stands on a low wall, waving her arms in a fitful choreography. A construction vehicle—a feller buncher—with a lowered arm passes before her; it appears like a battering ram. “Obviously Helen has walked through time into another dimension,” H.D. writes, and Jonas enacts this.4 Location is irrelevant; regardless of place, Helen is always absent—“Past, present, future, she was never there”—and therefore, war is always at hand.(5) William Carlos Williams asserts the same thing in his “Introduction” to The Wedge: The “today” he refers to is the continuity of time, an ever-insistent now.

Poet Susan Howe echoes this sentiment in her 2003 conversation with Jonas, invoking the Iliad’s brevity and brutality as resonant in our contemporary moment. Howe and Jonas, who have been friends since the early 1960s , are the same age, and Howe describes the violence of their mutual childhood: “[B]arked orders, bombs, swastikas, marching soldiers, newsreel shots of children being torn from their parents, such fear everywhere.”6 Suspended and re-enacted, war is a trauma that is lived again and again, without comprehension or resolution. The actions of Lines in the Sand are fragmented; in her customary style, Jonas lays down one movement and picks up another without transitions between them. But embedded in the structure are layers of repetition, gestures such as drawing and pacing performed over and over, each iteration just slightly removed from the previous, a wobble or gap to create difference, but not progress. “The War is the first and only thing in the world today.”

These gestures form the structure of the performance, which is the structure of a poem. In the conversation with Howe, Jonas describes how she arrives at her compositions by reading poets such as Williams. The movements described above—the passage from one scene to another and the asynchronous repetitions—eschew redundancy, which Williams himself rejects for poetry, ascribing to his art instead the efficiency of machines:

As in all machines, its movement is intrinsic, undulant, a physical more than a literary character. In a poem this movement is distinguished in each case by the character of the speech from which it arises.(7)

In Lines in the Sand, Jonas employs text as a soundtrack for, not a narration of, the performance; it is at once unassimilated yet inherent to every gesture. She works against the text with her images, creating a perceptible gap in the interplay between them that duplicates the variances—the wobble—found within the repeated gestures.

Williams argues that the poet composes his words “without distortion which would mar their exact significances.”(8) But Howe cautions us regarding the limits of language, noting that while it might “convey the essence of the violence of war,” the language of pain is writ only with great difficulty.99) H.D. articulates this further in Tribute to Freud, from which Jonas also recites:

The effect they have on mind and body is different. They are healing. They are real. They are as real in their dimension of length, breadth, thickness, as any of the bronze or marble or pottery or clay objects. But we cannot prove they are real.(10)

Lines in the Sand hovers between this exactitude and this deficit. What we witness in the movements of Jonas and her three fellow performers are illusions conjured in an effort fill the space created by Helen’s absence, which exists not only as a physical void, but also a state of incomprehensibility.

Jonas notes that, while editing Lines in the Sand, “With every choice I made, I was thinking of the situation in the world.”11 Williams states that the arts do not exist apart from or as a diversion from war; artistic activities are as “compatible with frustration” as any other aspect of life. Perceived through this double lens of worldly consciousness and historical compatibility, Lines in the Sand does not simply reinterpret contemporary events through myth; it provides us with a language for a war we know is real, but for which we can perceive no end.

Notes:

(1) William Carlos Williams, “Author’s Introduction (The Wedge),” Selected Essays of William Carlos Williams (New Directions, 1969), p. 255.

(2) H.D., Helen in Egypt (New Directions, 1974), pp. 31, 34, 35. Presented as a single statement by Jonas and in the transcription accompanying the exhibition Light Time Tales, presented at the HangarBicocca in Milan, October 2, 2014 to February 1, 2015.

(3) Ibid., p. 1.

(4) Ibid., p. 107.

(5) H.D., Helen in Egypt, as paraphrased by Jonas and presented in the Light Time Tales transcription.

(6) “An Exchange between Joan Jonas, Susan Howe, and Jeanne Heuving,” http://www.asu.edu/pipercwcenter/how2journal/archive/online_archive/v2_3_2005/current/workbook/joans/exchange.htm

(7) Williams, “Author’s Introduction (The Wedge),” p. 256.

(8) Ibid, p. 256.

(9) “An Exchange between Joan Jonas, Susan Howe, and Jeanne Heuving.”

(10) H.D., Tribute to Freud (New Directions, 1974), p. 35.

(11) “An Exchange between Joan Jonas, Susan Howe, and Jeanne Heuving.”