Poem: Tu B’Shevat
Poet: Geoffrey Hill
I return again to Geoffrey Hill in the role of interpreter, though perhaps “I cannot well pronounce it / interpreter,” given that my aim shall be merely to put on the table a few pieces of a puzzle whose final shape I see but dimly.
The title of the poem refers to the Jewish holiday, the “new year” for trees. The poem moves from an internal mode (“Returning to my own green winter”) to an external mode (“Not much to go for there” – referring back, I presume, to the first section).
The jumping off point is a hint given in the second stanza of the second section: to the chief musician. This points to Psalms 139 and 140. Each psalm contributes one clue to the poem (that I can recognize).
Psalm 139 first. I quote from the King James Bible:
16. Thine eyes did see my substance, yet being unperfect; and in thy book all my members were written, which in continuance were fashioned, when as yet there was none of them.
God sees us before we are formed: we are written, past and future, in his book. This is echoed by Hill in the first section:
Returning to my own green winter, dense
invocation and slow-growing charge
unlike anywhere: Hebrew alone will serve
this narrative which is a broken thing—
because I cannot well pronounce it
interpreter, mage, teller of righteousness.
There is the image of growth (appropriate to Tu B’Shevat), the becoming implied in the psalm, and the suggestion is that it is the poet’s own life that is the “narrative which is a broken thing.” The psalm ends with a plea for God to search within the psalmist and root out “any wicked way in me,” and we should read this under the surface of these rather defeated-sounding lines.
Turning to Psalm 140:
11. Let not an evil speaker be established in the earth: evil shall hunt the violent man to overthrow him.
In the poem, the evil speaker and the violent man are unified in the figure of Moshe Dayan:
en route to Suez, praised the flourishing
which was not to the purpose. I salute purpose:
festivals where they strip the vital groves,
attune their joy and wish nobody harm.
Dayan, serving as Israel’s 4th chief of general staff (a politician, thus an evil speaker), urged pre-emptive strikes against Israel’s enemies in the leadup to the Suez crisis (thus a violent man). Hill does not mention this directly, instead focusing on a bit of speech by Dayan, in praise of the Palestinian date-harvest, which is not quite evil but is “not to the purpose.” Purpose is found in festivals (Tu B’Shevat again) that “attune their joy and wish nobody harm.” In this, again, I get a sense of weariness.