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Title: Insert Here
Poet: Geoffrey Hill


That is our true state. That is what makes us incapable of certain knowledge or absolute ignorance. We are wandering in a vast atmosphere, uncertain and directionless, pushed hither and thither. Whenever we think we can cling firmly to a fixed point, it alters and leaves us behind, and if we follow it, it slips from our grasp, slides away in eternal escape… (Blaise Pascal)

I take this evanescence and lubricity of all objects, which lets them slip through our fingers then when we clutch hardest, to be the most unhandsome part of our condition. (R. Waldo Emerson)

It is Pascal whom Hill references directly, but Emerson, knowingly or unknowingly, was rewriting Pascal. Thus, knowingly or unknowingly, Hill must make peace with Emerson as well. That is enough by way of apology for my insertion.

Fuit d’une fuite éternelle—no, founded
in eternal light. And then what?

Hill is a fan of false starts, beginnings that must be qualified if not outright denied. Here, too: “Fuit d’une fuite éternelle,” from Pascal, rendered (badly) above as “slides away in eternal escape.” (It is many years since I knew French with any competence, but “flees in an eternal flight” strikes my ear as closer in meaning and sound.) But… “no”… And why not? “…founded in eternal light.”

Quite what this correction entails, I do not know. The Platonic story would have us founded in such light, only to be corrupted by the body. Perhaps Pascal is not sufficiently Platonist (I am no expert in Pascal). Regardless.

A clash of trodden ashes, if clinker
can be called ashes.

Thus enters the body, whose breakdowns are a fond theme of Hill’s, in my limited experience. Ashes to ashes. Humans as the residue of burned coal, the byproduct of some other process. Humans as secondary. Or at least the body as secondary, perhaps not the mind.

This in answer to the question, “And then what?” What comes after our founding in eternal light. This clash of ashes. But there is another image, too, in this aftermath:

……………………… The angular
sun on windows or windshields like swans
taking off and alighting.

I think of Plato’s sun, shining into Plato’s cave, in this case barred by windows or windshields, but perhaps only because I have already put Plato into my brain. I do not draw much specific content from this, only a contrast with the clinker. The product of burning, now the burning itself: a recreation of the movement out of Plato’s cave.

Thus is life, all that follows our founding in eternal light, summarized in two images, together complete. All that remains is to die.

Let me be, says the dying man, let me fall
upward towards my roots.

The root, of course, being the eternal light, to reach which the poet must fall, quite literally, up the page.

I clutch at the poem, but it slips through my grasp, fuit d’une fuite éternelle

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Title: On the Reality of the Symbol
Poet: Geoffrey Hill


My brain has grappled with Hill’s “On the Reality of the Symbol” several times now, losing each bout – yet each was more evenly matched. What follows are the scattered insights I have gained from being each time rebuffed, not yet integrated into any whole.

1. To produce a psalm is like pissing blood, not yet painful but a sign of pain to come. The first symbol, translated into sharp bodily reality. Yet this poem is not a psalm. It is a translation, merely a symbol of the original. For this the mouth will suffice. Pain need not be feared.

2. Breath and pipes return, the breath now numbed, the pipes scoured, a purification. Old age. The breakdown of the body. Symbol interweaves with all too real decay, the “remote / cry of the blood sugars” heard over the “terminal welter of the flood.”

3. A bourgeois drama, a strange acting in life, life as a symbol of itself. And a bad joke: “late scaffold-humour.”

4. Here Hill plays with a tautology: “Everything mortal has to give from life.” The poetic turn is to make this something more than an analytic truth: “mortal” comes to represent a category that only accidentally “has to give from life,” that gives from life because it is subject to exhaustion “by ill-willing, the fictions of our joys.”

5. To be forgotten after death, yet to know you are numbered, as the stars. But beyond this I can make out little in the gleaming black.

6. The last line an indication that somehow in all that came before he has not said what he meant to say, that he has tried to express grief over his meaning. I wonder if this meaning is the same ghost he raped before – if the female ghost is a symbol of his meaning, or ‘meaning’ a symbol of the woman.