It is too easy–or has been too easy for me–to become ensnared on the sections of The Book of Baruch by the Gnostic Justin that baffle and deny. Reading those centers, the temptation is to think that Hill’s poem follows a logic of the ideogram, that its parts do not aspire to unity, that they are dislocated in place. I’ve succumbed to all of them, each time owing to my starting with what is most difficult.
But most of the poem is not like that. Of the 271 sections, I would guess that somewhere between 50 and 70 are genuinely difficult, and that more than half, without having to do much work at all, open, immediate, wonderfully alive before the reader. We see poet as critic, the poet as historian, the poet as political polemicist, the poet as patriot, the poet as autobiographer, all at once. It is deeply a poem of memory, individual and collective, of what is worth remembering, of what is eroded in memory, of what memory serves, and of how memory can recover a possibility for a nation that has never been, will likely never be, realized in history; it makes sense of history as art can. Hill writes “Art can incorporate a summation of what we inherit to impart of national tradition” (109) and the faint chiasmus of rhyme, sound and prefix in “Art” “incorporate” “inherit” and “Impart” apprehends the relationship of the terms.
Why not choose, to demonstrate the poem’s occasionally raw beauty, a section like 100:
The cosmos is an alchemist of star-compost.
Our cells are the posthumous largesse of red giants; of supernovae the weird beneficiaries or clients.
The universal constants are of attraction and repulsion but not of love, nor does the solar wind infuse itself with the breath of God. There is phase but not mood.
There will not be one last dire blast of forgiveness laying all things waste; nor even a spreading boredom of stars with their own stardom.
I feel the unstrung language of faith recoil slenderly to a spool tongue-balancing behind my teeth.
The blank, flatness of the lines guards against a sentimental swoon, a maggot-ridden tone of awe, as if the nature of what Hill describes needed impressing upon us. In his phrases, too, “there is phase but not mood,” though mood in that phrase refers to the grammar of verbs, and so removes the processes (the phases) of creation from the grammar of creation that is the Logos. But the lines are free also from any “mood” that the author might feel; in looking up and out on the universe, the poet is released from the moods that elsewhere, self-consciously, irk him. (Yeats’ “phases” of the moon might be at play too).
At any rate, first line, without fanfare, says to try this on for size: “The cosmos is an alchemist of star-compost.” The splendor of the claim returns us to the dream of alchemy, capable of huckster’s manipulation and also of passionate intellectual pursuit by no less, and no earlier, a figure than Newton (who features elsewhere in the poem). But this alchemy is genuine: it does do what alchemy sought, and transformed metal into metal. In particular, gold–the aim of alchemy– is thought, on one theory, to be the stuff of supernovae. But the line is transformative in its effects: Hill’s formal innovation in the poem asks us to see and hear the evolutions, displacements, and alterations of words in rhymes, near-rhymes, eye-rhymes, and slant-rhymes across lines. Here “cosmos” is picked up in “compost”: what we are is waste. And that sentiment is felt throughout the poem, which would redeem and mourn, at once, the waste of history, the waste (abundant and futile) of erudition, in figure after figure, scene after scene (the Blitz; the naval battles of the Great War). The thought carries into the next paragraph: “our cells are the posthumous largesse” means both that are the generous excess (largesse is the waste as generosity) from the red giants that have died, their matter becoming what we are, and also that they are themselves posthumous, as if the matter of our cells were alive and itself only when as a star. Our life is death; we are death in life or the life of death. We find a grammar of creation–a theology–in what the line suggests, but not what it says. Similarly, in the word “weird,” which rings a note of colloquial bafflement at how genuinely strange the phenomenon is–a colloquial note that is apt because no more lofty term would better grasp the magnitude of strangeness that the universe’s entities contain–the smallness of “weird” the word registers the smallness of the poem in relation to what it describes. But “weird” is also the “weird” of the Weird Sisters, the Fates, so that we are the fated beneficiaries or clients, destined to receive. “Beneficiaries or clients” tilts the poem towards another sort of equivocation: whether we have inherited or whether a patron has bestowed. If the latter, our relation to the universe is one of debt, of obligation; in the former, inheritance, one of preservation, possibly stewardship. Both bring the poem into the orbit of politics, of power; if we are either beneficiaries or clients of supernovae, what could it involve?
Against the neat rhyme of “giants” and “clients” in the second paragraph, the third barely stirs with the play of sounds: “infuse” is caught by “phase,” in a way, and “God” thuds against “mood” (like “blood” and “good” in Eliot’s quartet). The effect is to remove Hill from the line, to set it apart, alienated, or else quoted; it feels like an inversion of a religious creed, an affirmation of absence, which is itself absent of the energy and play of poetry. The universe is being and becoming, but not a making or poiesis. “Nor does the solar wind infuse itself” and not “Nor is the solar wind infused” both suggests that it would have to be the solar wind that infuses itself, since God is either in that wind or nowhere at all, either imminent in the most basic particles of creation or not–and also suggests that it is not for the Wind to do that, that the human mind must contribute particles of its own energy (elsewhere in the poem, on several occasions, Hill takes up Berkeley’s notion that the particles of the mind are particles of energy, linking it to the painter David Bomberg’s theories of art and optics), if God is to be infused there; we can hear “nor does the solar wind infuse itself” as a version of “these dishes won’t wash themselves.” “There is” in the universe, out there, “phase but not mood.” It is human grammar that contributes the latter.
The next paragraph quickens: “blast” evolves into “waste” and “boredom” to “stardom.” But the quickening compounds the denial. The syntax is very much the next item in the materialist’s credo. But in the credo itself is an articulated vision of what might be imagined: “one last dire blast of forgiveness laying all things waste.” “Dire” suggests this might be cause for relief; “last” suggests that there might not be a “last” blast of forgiveness but that there might be, maybe have already been, in human history at least, others. “Laying all things waste” is similarly ambivalent: the end promised by the Christian God is an ultimate destruction of all things, the “waste” a tragic loss of the abundance of the material universe, or perhaps it is a destruction only of “things,” allowing the spirit to remain. But the word that ought to perplex, the word that suggests not that Hill is confused but that Hill wants for us to see he is wrestling with his own thought and not inherited religious creed, is “forgiveness.” We would expect “judgment” in its place. A “blast of forgiveness laying all things waste”? Is that “waste” the waste of tragedy or the waste of the commons, permitted to all who would benefit from it? The suggestion seems to be–and the temptation here is to pose instead a set of questions so uncertain is the suggestion–that judgment and forgiveness must, in the final reckoning, be one, and that the forgiveness that is judgment, or the judgment that is forgiveness, would reduce all things to waste. The implication still deeper is that, since there might be no “last” such blast, but may be others, to “forgive” is to lay waste–and this itself is not so strange a thought when we reflect that the two senses of forgiveness (the philosopher Avishai Margalit elucidates the point) refer either to a blotting out or crossing out the past, with his preference for the latter since it “lays waste” to what is written while retaining its legibility; here is memory on a cosmic scale.
“Nor even” as if we are owed, or might think ourselves owed, or have come to expect: “a spreading boredom of stars with their own stardom.” Hill responds to Eliot’s whimper. “Boredom” thuds dully against “stardom,” “dom” “dom” a hollow sound. But the phrase is also vitally different in its vitality from the phrases of denial that have come before–it is fanciful, whimsical, toying with the ways in which the universe will disappoint. It has the tincture of Auden (“fish swam as fish, peach settled into peach”) and the marks a return of the poet to the processes of decay he describes. “Stardom” is also Hollywood-celebrity; the ennui of the film star, catching and spreading until none are left. In its vision of a cosmos-engulfing boredom, the image is also secular, the atheists sense of a universe so deadened to its own sources of life and light that it can no longer muster the curiosity of self-consciousness. It’s a delightful shift of tone, makes clear that reverie is alive throughout the section, that the poise is a balance between despair and whimsy.
The last section is a perfectly delayed first-person pronoun, placing the poem not just in the poet’s mind, but in the poet’s mouth. The line is the most difficult of the section, once it is entered. “Unstrung” suggests the language of faith has been loosened or relaxed; it suggests also nervous anxiety and mental disorder. The chief implication is that the words we have just read are themselves the unstrung language of faith, but it is also possible that the last section refers to other words, words of faith that, in light of what has come before, have come unstrung and remain unstated. “Feel” and not “hear” suggests that they are something less than spoken, supporting the latter; it might also suggest that the words are felt rather than understood, or heartfelt (spoken feelingly), which accommodates both possibilities. “Recoil”: not Hill from the words, but the words from Hill, from what they are, from themselves; but Hill grants a natural, proper sense of “recoil”: they re-coil back around the spool, and “slenderly” undermines the thought of recoil as flinch and sustains instead the thought that they re-coil into a slender bundle. Even with that sense, though, “slenderly” is strange, as if the words themselves were slender, slipping out, or less substantial than other words might be. It’s a judgment that I cannot make out. But Hill doesn’t swallow his words (that expression is active behind the paragraph): “tongue-balancing,” a balancing of two words by a hyphen, might be equivocation or else equanimity, mutual possibilities held in place in language (the Empson vision of poetic concord), a doubt towards the Cosmos that need not be resolved, but that can be held, neatly (spool) and securely on the tongue, behind the teeth. “Behind my teeth” is exact, and the precision of the final line, the anatomy of words-made-things in the poet’s mouth, stands against, but not apart from, the rest of the poem: not apart from because we are to see that all of what he has said is contained there, behind his teeth. He can roll the universe into a ball and place it on his tongue. The perverseness of the scale, the corporal physicality of the abstraction, and the self-dramatized delicacy–almost finicky (“slenderly to a spool”)–recall Baudelaire. “Unstrung” was caught exactly by “tongue,” but “teeth” is an off-rhyme with “faith.” The tongue and teeth alike participate in the sounds of speech, both in the words that attest faith or doubt, but the “teeth,” with connotations of food, of tearing, of biting, of lying through one’s teeth, of decay, of aging, of bone, do not accord easily with; the tongue can hold it in abeyance, but for speech to find the words, the teeth must not mangle the sounds.