In Geoffrey Hill’s final collection, a long sequence, The Book of Baruch by the Gnostic Justin, each poem hangs and holds together like a tangle-web, not a cobweb of symmetrical perfection or a dense fabric of threads; and the entire collection holds together with the same sort of unity. The lines of the collection are delicate, fragile, and tentative; the space between them, and the vertiginous openness of that space, needs to be felt as much as the connections and relations. Where they cross, it is through recurrent preoccupations, dwellings of mind, and through the patterns of rhymes, near-rhymes, visual-rhymes, and assonances within and between lines, themselves irregular, and, as with the crossing points of threads in a tangle-web, more frequent than first observed, but no more to be relied on as a source of support for all of that. It took me a long time to see this. It took me as long to hear the poem aright: as muttering, murmuring, growling inwardly.
It is a “song to himself” more than a “song of himself”. It is composed of a public voice uttering privately, rather than, what is more common in contemporary poetry, a private voice uttering publicly; that is, its concerns are public, its audience is as intimate as the poet’s own mind. But the poem also bristles against so curtailed a relationship of poet and public, the turning-inward, and an object of seething impotent ire is the condition of civic life that cannot accommodate a public voice of poetry. The axis of private and public is realigned throughout Hill’s career. It is owing to the struggle to achieve reconciliation between private and public that Hill finds affinity with the poets of the twentieth century, including Mandelstam and Celan, whose burden of witness was, he would acknowledge, so much heavier than his own; they are alike not in their relationship to atrocity, but in their struggle with the relation of poem and publicness.
Though I suspect Hill would have had mixed feelings about Mill’s reduction (distillation?) of lyric poetry to “thoughts overheard,” this collection accepts the full weight of the statement. It is, Hill acknowledges, more a daybook than the Daybooks; if the heroes of the poem include Coleridge and Ruskin, that is in part because the corpus of their writings seem both to exist as integral wholes and also defy efforts at discovering unifying centers or formal unity. Hill’s collection seems to take up a challenge Coleridge did not see: could the notebooks and marginalia be harmonized into something like poetry?
Hence the harmonies and unities of Hill’s poems in this collection are emergent, incomplete, and unresolved; the drama of thought here is improvisational, but informed by craft. The one time I met Hill, I overheard him speaking to a graduate student about his admiration for Frank O’Hara; it was surprising, but it is less surprising with this book in hand.
How does it affect how poems are read? It’s difficult on the page to impress the sensuousness of the verse–but it needs to be read slowly, softly, but intensely nonetheless, considering itself as it goes, turning on itself, but not performing and self-dramatizing as Speech! Speech! does.
I will take a somewhat difficult, small poem as an example. This is section 57:
Gandhi’s sleek adobe palazzo, which I recall having seen, a millionaire’s child’s playpen, so at odds with that small gaunt naked man, no matter how well he would fit in:
Go on, say, there is always a different agenda from the one we imagined.
Not even our law’s Mercator, the “Institutes” his straight-lined equator, gives more than a grand hint of the eldorados of entitlement beyond Antarctica awaiting settlement.
In the acquiring of craft discipline, jazz is just fine.
Please, not to debate the fateful life of Mr Pope, as though it were, in its entirety, a masturbatory hate story; grotesque in his grotto, a tubercular aged putto.
The poem is bookended by Gandhi and Pope, who we might number among the hall of heroes in the collection–that they are together here is odd, but can be explained without too much trouble. I assume that Gandhi’s palazzo is Mani Bhavan, in Mumbai, where he resided from 1917-1934; “palazzo” echoes with “grotto” and Pope’s villa at Twickenham, with the famous grotto, was built in a Palladian style, imported from Italy, but the difference is acknowledged too with “adobe.” The description is anyway quite vivid and clear; it’s a fine piece of travel writing and Hill here, as elsewhere, travels from place to place within a single poem. Gandhi seems not to fit into such a palace; it’s too grand for him, and his small gaunt frame, for the Gandhi that has been handed-down. And from the description, a temptation to cynicism, this the second line of the poem: to suggest that Gandhi had another agenda, that there was a desire for wealth and riches, despite all of the claims. The comma after “say” is difficult to explain except if we imagine that there should be quotation marks around “there is always…imagined,” but it could also be that “say” is set off like a “for example”: “Go on, for example, [some cynical remark here].” It chastises and rebukes by anticipating the cynic.
The next line is the most difficult: Mercator is a map-maker, the John Calvin’s “Institutes” is given as the equator in the map of laws by whoever the Mercator of our laws might be, and the thought is that, from that equator, he has hinted at a place beyond the south pole of laws, beyond which there exists a fantasy of entitlement (not real)–but that he only hints at this. The mapmaker of laws, in other words, only hints that there is, in the span the moral laws that criss-cross the earth, a place where “entitlement” can exist–and that place is not on the earth at all. I take the point to be, possibly: we do not know what entitlement is, it is not something that our moral laws can accommodate, and so we should be wary of accusing Gandhi of claiming an entitlement that was not his to have or that was hypocrisy to accept.
“Institutes” might also suggest predestination; the notion that there is always a set agenda of virtue, that people follow a moral law superscribed beforehand, and this is a notion that the poem argues against. The “agenda” of craft discipline, a discipline of life as Gandhi knows it, a discipline of verse as Hill knows it, requires improvisation, some of the spontaneity that jazz allows. But “just fine” can be heard another way too, not as acceptance but as limitation: it is fine but only fine. Something else is required too. The uncertainty, even that unstated, is part of this poem, as it is part of others; things are left out, or left without elaboration.
And in the last line another thread, at an oblique: do not debate whether Pope’s entire life was a masturbatory hate story: too reductionist, unfair and unimaginative. His vituperative attacks stands a pole apart from Gandhi’s philosophy, perhaps, but his frail figure, naked (a “putto” is a naked cherub), warped and pained, recalls, as a grotesque reflection the “small gaunt naked man.” In the final words, one of the collection’s many invocations and images of age, compounding pity and horror, the tenderness of “putto” inapt, the resemblance of young children to the old a reminder of differences.
In these lines, Hill argues both with himself and with others, but the argument against those others is waged quietly, in undertones of voice and breath. “Please” is polite and a comment on politeness (pertinent to Pope), but is also fatigued, retiring. There is much we do not know, cannot know, about Gandhi and Pope, but also about what lines of thought are not on the page, about the spaces between the threads of thought we have; and that is what this small poem is about. We might want for a poem to close in on itself more than this does, but it lives with others of similar openness, and it invites readers to live in the openness.