Geoffrey Hill, Without Title


Reviewed by Melissa Flores-Bórquez

The first word of the book is an italicised Traurig, often a musical direction to play sadly. The rest of the line is: "Traurig as one is between bearers, dancers," – the sadness of a still point between movements. It could be a point of departure or death, and also dream revelation, where the bearers start dancing.

This opening poem is 'Improvisation on 'O Welt ich muss dich lassen'', this being a Lutheran chorale, a contrafacta of Heinrich Isaac's lied Innsbruck, ich muss dich lassen, a beautiful melody set twice by Brahms in his last work, the Eleven Chorale Preludes. It was also set and transposed numerous times by Bach, appearing twice in the St. Matthew's Passion (as "Ich bin's, ich sollte büssen" then later "Wer hat dich so geschlagen"). The association is always to the grief-laden leaving which is the original lyric, where Innsbruck has now become the World. Four lines later Hill's poem continues:

Queer noise going ón there like a gander
rehearsing its angry call. I long to stay
immortal and ageless, to stick around
for the Bacchantes' orgy, folk throwing up.
I had a dream in which this is all real,
where we rip off our masks and sing
'O Welt ich muss dich lassen'; medics on cue
for the recite-a-thon. Forget your science.
Dead friends are no remoter than in life.
This is a fluent conversational short-hand in which the line-breaks serve to joy along the spoken measure, the everyday patter of "stick around" and "folk throwing up" interrupted by the brisk "Dead friends are". As a speaking point of view the poem coheres around "I": an angry, mocking essayist with a wide range of reference, several registers to abruptly shift between, and a plain verse form to body forth.


Though he had written after and in praise of before, in Canaan Hill began essaying the achievements of an ever broadening range of artists and orators, each one receiving a line or two, the process akin to an accountancy of styles, a list of miniature tributes. Laurel and Hardy are commended for their "flawless shambles" while Hopkins "had things so nearly right" (both The Triumph of Love) and "Shakespeare's elliptical late syntax renders clear the occlusions, calls us to account" (Speech! Speech!). And on it goes, Without Title packed with these. It's not ekphrasis, unless the form is adapted to be nested interruptions. 'Improvisations for Hart Crane' concludes "All in all / you screwed us, Hart, you and your zany epic." King Lear is reduced to three lines

Lear is too easy, the puréed madness
a kind of parity with the mad crime,
the self-willed absence from his royal self.

(from 'Pindarics' 17)
Karl Rahner is described in 'On the Reality of the Symbol':

Fine theologian with or against
the world, in sense that are not the world's,
his symbolism, both
a throwback and way forward, claims its own
cussedness, yet goes with the mystery.
Being told that Rahner – whose range of concepts is detailed over the 23 volumes of lectures and articles collected as Theological Investigations, a range scrupulous in its unsystematic approach – was a writer whose symbolism "goes with the mystery" is akin to reading the lecture doodle of a theology undergraduate. The next line swerves away, "Parturition of psalm like pissing blood" which leads to the penis figured as an organ of translation, "the old linguaduct" – a territory of which, two pages later, Hill writes "This is late scaffold-humour, turn me off." This technique of brief summation seems better when perceiving a gorse bush,

Now here's real alchemy – the gorse
on roadside terraces, bristling with static,
spectator of its own prime, inclement challenge

(from 'In the Valley of the Arrow')
than when reading the late fragments of Pound:

[...] Pound glided
through his own idiocy; in old age
fell upon clarities of incoherence,
muteness's epigrams, things crying off.

(from 'Pindarics' 14)
This sounds elegantly plausible but go back to those Pound notebooks (which were bounced into publication) and "clarities of incoherence" doesn't stick. If this is marginalia the margin is a little too wide.


Writing a reflexive poetry which ruminates darkly on the ethics of rhetorical figures has previously proved to be a skill in Hill's possession – the concentrated segments of 'De Jure Belli ac Pacis' (in Canaan)and scattered patches of the quartet of long works which followed that book. There are further examples in Without Title but overall a process of diminution seems to have occurred, "I'm spent, signori, think I would rather / crash out". The stylistic reticence which was always Hill's means of bringing a depth effect to the work is dissipated. However, the stronger poems remain compelling. One is a fine elegy, the title poem, "culling the bay bowers to which he / cannot return", which observes the process of elegising and concludes with an image of elegised life as artifice, "no restitution but with wired laurels." Another is the notably plainer in style 'Offertorium: December 2002', amid "rain-sprigged yew trees, blockish as they guard / admonitory sparse berries",

for late distortions lodged by first mistakes;
for all departing, as our selves, from time;
for random justice held with things half-known
The favoured Hill style of allusiveness, ellipsis and emphatic transition / interruption means that the choice of classical model for the long central section of the book, 'Pindarics', comes as no surprise; the recurring and reductive images of sexuality and the narrow permutations of a chosen form mean that "after Cesare Pavese" is well fitted. A tempered conversation of sorts with Pavese turns out to be a facilitator for close argument – subjects include lust, the body politic, fascism. When Hill's writing tries to address the greatest human pain then it tends to shift into a thwarted and urgent chorus:

I think catastrophe; feel, touch, stasis
wholly without stillness. The pilot scans
into the nimbus of his utmost fix;
an ancient anabasis, lift of pride.

(from 'Pindarics' 11)
The sequence ends with a statement for poetry, one which the book as a whole falls short from:

Patterns of lines, mostly, raw in appearance.
I see I've defined a poem. Something I'd say
held over, deep in reserve, so that it may strike.

[£9.99, 96 pages, ISBN: 0141020253, January 26th 2006, Penguin.]

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