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Geoffrey Hill. Boston. Houghton Mifflin / Penguin. 1997. xii + 76 pages. $22/[pounds]7.99. ISBN 0-395-87550-1.

Geoffrey Hill's poetry has a reputation for being notoriously difficult, for making few, if any, compromises with his readers. The poems contained in Canaan will not appreciably alter that reputation. It is not so much his persistent penchant for being intertextual that makes for most of the interpretative obstacles. Here the range of allusion is fairly narrow - mostly, as one might expect from the title, to the Bible - and where it isn't, as in the multitude of epigraphs, the author has appended a few notes at the end of the volume where one senses at least the intention of wanting to be helpful. To be sure, some of these notes pose problems of their own. Why, for example, when referring to the quite innocuous "sorrel," is the reader pointed to page 317 of John Amphlett and Carleton Rea's Botany of Worcestershire (Birmingham, 1909)? The point is, apparently, that in Worcestershire sorrel is sometimes pronounced "sorrow," but does Hill really expect his "normal" readers to go forth and verify this assertion in what is no doubt a worthy but nevertheless not overly available tome? Or is the real point actually to suggest the extent of Hill's vast and esoteric knowledge? And why should it not be more relevant to know that sorrel is, as the concise OED tells us, "one or other of certain small perennial plants belonging to the genus Rumex, characterized by a sour taste?" One suspects the whole thing of being some sort of convoluted joke along the lines of Eliot's infamous notes to The Waste Land.

Still, Hill's formidable difficulty, arises not so much from his allusiveness as from his elusiveness. The "I" that makes occasional appearances in these poems is not so much Hill himself or even a persona as it is a kind of shrouded, ghostly presence, sometimes grieving, sometimes querulous, never happy. For most of these poems it is almost impossible to imagine an actual speaker or to postulate a specific context. Not only are virtually all connecting links omitted, but the lines are often disconnected and even the punctuation is minimal. As a result, the stark spareness and fragmented brevity of these poems leads one to wonder if substantial parts of them did not get lost on the way to the publisher. Reading through them is like looking through a glass, darkly. And darkness indeed is a theme running ominously through the whole collection. "I am of Dark-land," begins one of the epigraphs (from Bunyan, Hill's note tells us), and it might well serve as the motto for the whole book. The specific name (or at least one of the names) of the dark land invoked here is Canaan - by no means a land of milk and honey, but rather a land of gall and, as it were, sorrel, a land living (insofar as it is living) under threat of imminent destruction at the hands of a wrathful God. "O Canaan, the land of the Philistims, I wil euen destroy thee without an inhabitant," runs the last part of the long epigraph at the beginning of the book, excerpted (not from the King James but) from the 1560 Geneva Bible.

Even though the speaker of the elegy for Aleksandr Blok promises that he "will not deal / in the vatic exchanges," there is everywhere in this book an unmistakable sense in which, if not divinely inspired, the voice behind these poems is very much in the know about the dreadful doom that awaits the land of Canaan (for Canaan read Britain or Europe generally). Any hope of possible salvation is blunted by the sorrowful evidence that the righteous have mostly departed Canaan, a fact that becomes ever clearer as elegy succeeds elegy - for the poet Blok but also for the poets Stefan George and Christopher Okigbo, for Hans-Bernd von Haeften (executed after the July plot against Hitler), for William Arrowsmith (teacher, translator, and colleague at Boston University), for Winston Churchill, and, finally, for Ivor Gurney, poet of the Great War. And where they are not elegiac, the poems tend to be polemic, moralistic indictments of the materialism of a mob-run parliamentary democracy.

Along with being known for his difficulty, Hill enjoys a reputation for being a great poet. On the book-jacket blurb Harold Bloom is quoted to the effect that Hill is "the strongest British poet now alive" - presumably meaning that he suffers few of the anxieties of influence to which other British poets are prone - and John Hollander extols him as "the finest British poet of our time." Both of these laudations emanate from American sources; neither takes into account that Hill has been living in the United States for the last ten years - the precise temporal interval since his last volume appeared. But then Canaan and America are apparently not to be confused with each other.

Peter Firchow University of Minnesota
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Author:Firchow, Peter
Publication:World Literature Today
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Jun 22, 1998
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