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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

  1. I think that the correction is simply a redescription of the same phenomenon, a paradiastolic view. La fuite éternelle is, from the perspective of the one grasping (and here Hill would chastise your Emerson also) is a loss. We cannot grasp the point. Yet imagine the same image not as grasping, but as transforming the point into a ray — it is not the frozen chase of Keats’ urn or Bernini’s Apollo, with Daphne always just out or reach (and no longer quite Daphne). Rather, the point is a repeated effect of the reflection off the windshield, its coming and going as natural to it as the swan’s taking off and alighting. I think less Plato than Robert Grosseteste here:

    “The first corporeal form which some call corporeity is in my opinion light. For light of its very nature diffuses itself in every direction in such a way that a point of light will produce instantaneously a sphere of light of any size whatsoever, unless some opaque object stands in the way.” (On Light or the Beginning of Forms)

    I have a feeling you will be reading Robert Duncan with me this summer.



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