361. (Geoffrey Hill)

Poem 154 of The Book of Baruch by the Gnostic Justin:


Cinquefoil apple-flowers touch down in grass; early roses crouch to rawer sessions; irises appear

painted on glass. All are powers.

Wind’s light glissando through the green strands so well defined: as to the celestial mind in its

rotunda, its panopticon:

So that I am inclined to say, leave well alone.

The utterly dire disciples are on their way, and have no shame. Nor do they tire latterly despite

the distances they have to come:

While a mild-seeming muddled worker bee mistakenly disburdens her swollen legs of pollen,

wringing herself dry on my knee.

“Painted on glass” is the clue to the poem: the irises appear as if painted on glass, semi-transparent, but also appear painted on the glass of the window through which Hill patiently attends the patient movements of the natural world. But “painted on glass” also invites another possibility, perhaps placing the poem within a church, or perhaps an indication of how, in the act of perceiving, Hill himself imagines the scene as being painted on the windows of a church. Though stained glass irises are not common in churches, “cinquefoil” window shapes are. I take this to be not an actual church, but a Ruskinian exercise of transfiguring the natural world as a church, its concrete animate entities not mere expressions of divinity, but made, by the way they are perceived in thought, immediate as representations: the poem acknowledges that in seeing them, they become artefacts of the mind. We can recall elsewhere in Baruch the tussle with Berkeley’s idealism, and the constant, unsettled work of seeing, which both makes more immediate (nature here is “so well defined”) and also alienates things from their natural, habitual appearance—and then also, in that alienation of things, bringing out something more essential, if ineluctably other, in what they are (“as to the celestial mind in its rotunda”).

“Wind’s light glissando” is the faint wind that stirs the grass blades, allowing them to be seen, each alone, more distinctly; but “wind’s light glissando” is also the “wind’s light,” the light of the wind (and spirit) that plays like music (of the spheres, of heaven, of otherworldly order) between the green strands of the grass, akin now to green reeds; the line recalls both the Coleridgean experience of nature’s music playing from and through itself and also, in the “green strands,” the dissolution of the world in mind that occurs in Marvell’s “The Garden.” Hill both is within the panopticon and is himself, in his mind, the panopticon; his head is the rotunda. Baruch as a whole does not shy away from the self-willed, self-contingent glimpse into otherness, inherent value, and the life of things; it acknowledges its Gnosticism is liable to be charged with arbitrariness. That is caught in the sudden centering of the next line, with its equivocating “inclined,” “so that I am inclined to say: leave well alone.” He is speaking to us, and to his own active mind, but “inclined” casts the semantic spell: it is a disposition, a habit, and a whim, not grounded any more than in the happenstance of experience that has led to this moment, but also not refusing this moment of perception its own validity. The finite can be configured so as to make the infinite immanent.

“The utterly dire disciples” might be, in a flight of fancy, figures appearing on stained glass; but even with that flight of fancy, I would like for the poem to remain placed in the garden; this is a poem that dwells in its moment of seeing. As such, I would say that the disciples are also the bees. “Have to come” is not “have come”: it acknowledges that they serve a necessity, whether it is the animal instinct of a hive, or whether it is the beatific inspiration of Christ’s disciples; that difference is collapsed, and they are “dire” because of how their agency is compromised, as well as because of the news they preach (which stings). The lines express admiration and perturbance at the distance they must, and do, travel. Whether the disciples are the bees or not, in the last line, we are firmly in the garden; the spell has been broken by the arrival of the bee; perhaps Hill was outside all along, perhaps the irises were reflected in a window, or perhaps the window was open. Visualizing the scene is not pedantic, but does justice to the poem’s demands. This one bee that alights on his leg is a stray, and astray; it is mild and muddled. It is a figure perhaps of the poet; it echoes, at least, the Gnosticism of the book, and its poetry that draws pollen and disburdens it in the wrong place, a futile waste.

At the same time, it allows us to imagine the poem that Hill does not write: the poet as a John the Baptist, bees swirling around him, as he eats wild honey. But that is not Hill. It is both an act of sympathy and whimsy to suggest that the bee “disburdens.” It is at once a comical leap of the imagination to think the pollen is a burden, but also an acknowledgement that yes, in fact, it is a burden, that what counts as a burden is a matter of scale, and that it is for each person to disburden themselves of what they gather. “Wringing herself” dry exacerbates the shift in scale, the moisture of the pollen now a wetness that is wrung dry on his knee; this is both an unsettling thought, with a shade of scatological effect, with an insect wiping itself off, but it is also a heightened awareness of the moment, the bee felt as wet, the knee serving some purpose after all; the pollen goes nowhere, serves nothing, makes for no new life and no honey, but the poet has himself allowed for the bee to disburden himself, and also, in the fact of the poem’s being written about the bee, the bee has pollenated the poet’s mind. “Knee” rhymes with “bee”; perhaps this is the right place for the bee after all.

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