“Arsenio, let us put this joke to bed,” Geoffrey Hill enjoins Eugenio Montale in the forty-fifth numbered section of the long-poem, or Daybook, Al Tempo De’ Tremuoti. He addresses Montale under the pseudonym, Arsenio, adopted in the poems to Clizia (Irma Brandeis, the Jewish-American Dante scholar). The “joke” is in the preceding poem, number 44, where Hill provides a comically shuffling commentary on the word “Capercailzie”; that is the word that Hill had settled on the first of his six variations of Montale’s “Il Gallo Cedrone” (the poems are numbered 43 (a) to 43 (f)).
Excusing himself to Arsenio/Montale, Hill compares himself to Malvolio (Malvolio doesn’t use these words, but he does chide those revelers up all night in the house of the Countess Olivia), as “late sprung, as privy-mad | As I have been.” With the Malvolio comparison, we might think of the cruel joke that is played by Feste; Hill might be tickled by sympathy at Malvolio’s plea, I say this house is as dark as ignorance, though ignorance were as dark as hell; and I say there was never man thus abused. I am no more mad than you are. Make the trial of it any constant question. From Hill’s words, though, we are perhaps to think of sprung rhythm, of Hill’s adoption of Hopkins’ abrupt verse; we are to think of the private life in the public sphere, of the guarded secrecy of Montale’s hermetic verses, and of Hill’s likewise; and we are to think also of the toilet, since Hill will not flinch from the filth and shit of the world (as neither would Swift, another Hill-hero, who figures in the book), and since Hill has been in Florence conducting research at the Gabinetto Viesseux; a cursory google search will turn up “toilet” as a translation of “Gabinetto.”
Montale, who “might, with Feste, call the mind an opal,” held the post of chairman of the Gabinetto Viesseux, a library in Florence, from 1928-1938; like Feste, Montale sings against the onslaught of the wind and the rain; the “hey ho” in Feste’s refrain is kin to the child-like mouthings in some of Velemir Khlebnikov’s lyrics (one translation is titled “Bo-beh-o-bi sang the lips”), one of many Russian poets Hill honors and engages; Feste’s wind does not die down, but picks up and is picked up, in Khlebnikov’s junior by five years, Pasternak, whose “paen for dead Blok” Hill renders freely in Al Tempo, opening with the line, “The wind’s heard everywhere.” “Blok hailed that storm, its power to overthrow” writes Pasternak-Hill: Montale’s storm was elsewhere, in Florence, though he was nearly two decades away from the city when Blok published his collection of lyrics, The Journey to Italy, whence some of Hill’s most beautiful translations; in one of which Blok is moved by Ravenna, its vestiges of past power and glory; we are assumed to know also that Ravenna is home to Dante’s tomb, most famous of Florentine’s; his heir in the vernacular was Petrarch, born just south of Florence, whose “Il Trionfo del Tempo” provides the lines for the epigraph to the book, the sixth and last of The Daybooks, first published, along with a few others, in Broken Hierarchies Poems 1952-2012 (the title defiantly declines “Collected”). Petrach’s poem in its entirety (in original and in translation) can be found here, but the pertinent lines in translation follow:
And I saw time such loot bear away
That our renowns appeared as nought to me.
The title of Hill’s collection, or long-poem, (I waver, unsure whether to call it one or the other) is taken from Francesco di Giorgio’s painted book cover, from 1467, depicting Siena. The tremors are earthquakes; but tremors are also associated, in current English, with symptoms of old age and Hill writes, as Yeats did before him (“I have outlived Yeats now,” he writes, in section 33–one of several Yeats’ appearances), with self-dramatized senescence–though it is tempered, calmer, in this collection than in others. Di Giorgio was a sculptor as well as painter, from Siena; among those who influenced him, Donatello, who is probably the protagonist of the collection, Montale and Blok the major supporting cast, and a host of others behind.
Donatello the sculptor, but not because Hill would be “the poet as Sculptor,” the aspiration, on some days, of Pound, in polemical mode at least. Here turn to hear the voice of another bard, whose presence has been constant through Hill’s work and who, if not as busy on the surface of this collection as it is elsewhere, is one of its muses. His “Conversations on Dante,” from 1934-35, provides a commentary on the ends and aspirations of Al Tempo. It also warns against the sculptural analogue, not for poetry in general, but for the great European poet, Dante (and this from the poet whose first book of poems is titled Stone): Whoever says, “Dante is sculptural,” is enslaved by beggarly definitions of a magnificent European. Dante’s poetry is characterized by all the forms of energy known to modern science. Unity of light, sound, and matter constitutes its inner nature.
Our greatness is in showing how things go
And stand revealed. The impetus of quantum
Physics may have inspired this phantom.
Mandelstam said we should read Dante so. (35)
There are several such exchanges with Hill’s old interlocutor and poetic friend. For instance. Mandelstam: “The question occurs to me–and quite seriously–how many sandals did Alighieri wear out in the course of his poetic work, wandering about on the goat paths of Italy?” Hill, again:
Archaic lore, the proud civilities
So natural to some, as of their being,
That Dante must have had despite his wrath,
Wearing his shoes thin on the exiles’ path;
The self self-knowing in the Other-seeing. (40)
The poem communes with, gathers together, a society of Dante’s finest readers. Mandelstam, but also Beckett, briefly; and Blok:
Blok’s verdict on the age, austere and scabrous
Was much like Dante’s, at whose tomb he kept
Vigil for Europe, in twinned prescience rapt. (61)
Gramsci read Dante by the maestro’s laws
In carcere, letting the grammar work
His own redemption out of grief and shock;
Fascisti justice like the harpy’s claws. (21)
And Donatello himself, if not invoked as a reader of Dante (though he would have been, probably) is invoked as a reader with Dante. In the stanzas preceding Gramsci, the first two of section 21:
Quomodo sedet sola civitas—
How Dante loads that cry with glory’s toll,
The death of Beatrice, the City’s shell,
Zion among its mounts its cavities.
Quomodo sedet–Vulgate Jeremiah.
Donatello also did him: savage twin turn,
Damning the tyrants with its mud-mouthed grin,
God’s grandeur custody of the pariah.
“How doth the city sit solitary”–Sienna alone on the hill, withstanding the earthquake in the picture by Di Giorgio.
In the descriptions he offers of Donatello’s work, Hill finds an energy beyond stone, according to the sculptures the attributes and compounded energies that Mandelstam finds in Dante. Including the Jeremiah sculpture, there are allusions to at least a half dozen Donatello pieces in the poem, that are points of return and convergence, where Hill refocuses the expansive rush and associative thrust of his creative method, where the cast can convene.
First, in the poem’s opening, Donatello’s Madonna and Child, of which there are several. Donatello is not named in the first section, and so we are not in the know right away as to what we are seeing in Hill’s description: “The mother’s face foresuffering, the child| Big, almost unmanageably held.” My money would be on this one, but why need it not be this instead? Genuine ambiguity to match the line: “For love only one might hazard souls immortal.” –For love alone, or one only (Christ, the child in the sculpture), might hazard souls immortal? –and variations to match Hill’s Montale translations.
But Donatello is heralded first when Hill sets himself before the sculpture of the minor Old Testament prophet, Habakkuk.
Long before Arno sludge a fouled cleansing.
Donatello made me think Scriptural
In situ: Habakkuk barely raptural,
His stock of prophecy, the stone sensing
Itself maltreated, slain into magnitude.
A prince of God, dole-featured Habbakik,
Pondering his extraction from the block,
The garb shit-colored and the head nude.
Here, without warning, meet a half-crazed
Asceticism that imputes its right,
That knows itself abhorrent to our sight,
Sparing no grief for wisdom by apprised:
The lures of Babylon inure its tongue,
Mouthing the old exordium with new cause,
The laboured wrath that battens on our ease,
Disfiguring beauty it is stood among:
Christ thrashing money-changers from their stalls
Derives his blood. Indeed, the New Zion
Empowers such protestation’s ancient kin
And sets the prophet up, stark in its halls. (12–in its entirety).
Finally, there is the Amor-Atis, “he of the laughing fierce | Destruction that Yeats courted in high verse.” (51).
It is not ever, though, a poem about art; it is a poem about what art registers, witnesses, sustains, and itself endures: the forces extrinsic to art, by which, through which, art’s intrinsic properties, what worth it has, are realized–though this worth is sequestered, alienated from its conditions. See section 48, where Donatello’s Penitent Magdalene is invoked.
I do not think it will be a fribble,
The rabbis’ prophecy, He shall arrive
And they be lucky who no longer live.
The naked spine of my disjointed Bible,
Threats to be reconciled with some Redeemer
If that were possible. Götterdämmerung
Was, is, gross; and there are Judgements hung
Across Europe, having survived the War
In ways not known to Jews and gipsy-stock.
Art is impregnable in what it claims,
Consoles itself while children curl in flames.
I could not say what registers the shock:
Perhaps nothing; perhaps the Pietà;
Or Donatello’s Magdalen–calloused body
And withered mouth, lost teeth; a dried up wadi
Might hold such remnants of things left to die:
Piero’s or Bellini’s Resurrection,
A barely-noticed miracle sustained
As the new blessing of all things by kind,
His risen light no less our light’s refraction.
Or bet that little demon Amor-Atys
Impersonates the feral ghosts unborn,
Tarred embryos mismatched with those who mourn,
In the foundations of Millenial cities. (48–entirety)
“In ways not known” ; “consoles itself while children curl in flames”: these are two touches that set this apart.
The other pieces are attended to more fleetingly–the relief of the Feast of Herod might lie behind the mention of Salome (section 68); Judith and Holofernes are in the final section (95), along with the sacrifice of Isaac.
The inclusion of diverse voices, persons, and works of art is not new to Hill’s poetry, but it is different here, because the density of relations between voices, persons and works–they form a skein. And at the center of that skein is Italy, specifically Florence, and its neighboring cities. Mandelstam, writing of Dante’s erudition, gives us this: The end of Canto IV of the Inferno is a genuine orgy of quotations. I find here a pure and unalloyed demonstration of Dante’s keyboard of allusions. It is a keyboard promenade around the entire mental horizon of antiquity. A kind of Chopin polonaise in which an armed Caesar with the blood-red eyes of a griffin appears alongside Democritus, who took matter apart into atoms. Dante brings order to the mess in part by setting it within a scrupulously measured out geography: Hill does something similar, but rather than place the voices in a cosmic order, he returns again and again to a particular region, with its particular history, where so many of these voices, their tracks remaining in traces, crossing one another at the space of centuries and decades, had spoken or written. Which is not to say that Hill has written a book dedicated to Florence, Sienna…there are other places, too, in England, in Ireland, unidentifiable (“Pepperwood”?) but charged with personal significance. Yet even these are subordinated to the constellation of Italian cities.
The presences of others in Hill’s poems are never summoned with the solidity of Dante’s figura. Shades gain solidity in Hill’s poems, without his forgetting, and reminding us, that they are shades, liable to disappear, and never fully accessible to begin with. A poignant stanza from Al Tempo:
We should have been together in the House
On the Fontanka; should have known Mandelstam
Pushkin and Blok, Akhmatova’s mute Poem,
Before their worlds collapsed into applause.
Before they became celebrated–celebrities of resistance. “Should” compounds frustration, self-incrimination, regret, and yearning nostalgia, if the yearning for what could not have been can be accounted nostalgia at all; in so far as Hill feels that house, those poets, to be an imaginative home, it can be. But the peculiar word, the word that flirts with and shies away from self-aggrandizement, is “We.” Not, of course, the royal “We,” not in a poet whose “I” jars the verse regularly. But another, unspecified gathering of poets, the larger family of which Hill is a part, for whom he speaks, not as the head, but as a member nonetheless. These figures remain absent presences, and present absences.
But they figure more prominently in this collection, where Hill’s voice meets theirs in the sustained acts of conversation that are admittedly “free” translations. Hill’s ekphrastic responses to Donatello are translations of his art into the medium of language. But a more conventional a use of “translates”, Hill carries Blok and Pushkin into his language, idiom and style–without smothering them beneath his voice. As happens when translations are creative and successful, Hill finds a new voice within his own in these pieces:
My soul, be still, even as you strive and love;
Neither urge onward nor yet hold me back.
It will come soon enough, that stark
Encounter | with the certainty of love.
Something happens shortly around section 70. We are in Italy less insistently; the voices of the Russians fade; Donatello’s sculptures are glimpsed more rapidly, obliquely.
The turn does not diminish the poem or poems–the context, the gravitational center, has been well enough established, when the turn occurs, with the poems written in memoriam R.B. Kitaj (d. 2007), the painter, for whom “Donatellos is grant guest-| Master of things constrained in the wrist:| Mass, void, stress, torsion, stone that can grow.”
In the final third of the book, Hill returns to places and people nearer to him in space and time, acquaintances and friends, dead and living. It is as if he has returned from Italy—or at least is less fully inhabiting the imaginative Italy he has assembled in the first parts of the poem–and finds himself back in England, no longer fully possessed by it, by its voices, but beholden–voluntarily, gratefully–to the form of verse into which it has cast him, to memories, to what he has already woven of what he saw, heard, conjured. The difference is not severe, but it is pronounced; a coming down, a slow wakening–the vision at its most intense reappearing, but with a flaw, an uncertainty of attribution, that tinges it with foreboding. The first stanza describes a sculpture:
The Apostles grunt and twitch, each as they’re strewn;
How would you step among them? A courtyard,
Contorted accusation, Pilates guard
Poising their torsos as they leer and fawn.
Perhaps not Donatello; one stands bemused.
That much would be in keeping. Error is,
And is endemic, and speaks mysteries;
Yahweh himself not wholly disabused
Of procreation. Time is the demiurge
For which our impotence cannot atone.
Nothing so fatal as creation’s clone.
The stars asunder, gibbering, on the verge
Stars, Dante’s final word, is not Hill’s, but it is near; that final blank, where a period would be, not an error, but mimicking one, perhaps.