Poem: Pindaric 4
Poet: Geoffrey Hill
Link: Google Books
A great deal occurs in the opening lines of Hill’s fourth Pindaric (a series of poems in conversation with Cesare Pavese). Here are the lines:
Rattled emplacements, wind-garbled rookeries
of mistletoe; no traceable shiver
at the world’s heart: untouchably not
as we are, not everlasting.
Darkly a primed sun works to expose grand chill;
the nesh yellows of Spring acclimatize
against black soil in lee of the Fleam Dyke.
In unpacking these lines, it is easiest to start in the middle: “untouchably not / as we are, not everlasting.” As I have remarked in other commentaries on Hill’s poems, he is frequently apophatic, employing a method of negative definition. This emerges here as well: we are “untouchably not.” Here “we” could be all humanity, or simply Hill and Pavese. This negative aspect, this inability to describe directly, leads to the inability to touch, a sort of direct contact that is here ruled out of the question. And why should we be this way? Precisely because we are “not everlasting.” Corruptible and corrupted becoming is too much in flux to submit to description. It lacks Being.
Sparked by this kernel the rest of the lines unfold their meaning. Because we are subject to generation and hence degeneration, we require defense: thus the “rattled emplacements” with which the poem begins. This though returns later in the form of the Fleam Dyke, a 6th or 7th century construction used for defense by some ancient Saxon tribe. The very location of the poem thus speaks to our finitude. Further, because we become, we have a history. Fleam Dyke is itself a relic of history, no longer used—and the Saxon tribe that used it of course no longer exists.
Fleam Dyke implicates the ineluctability of time on the grand scale. The “nesh yellows of Spring” do so on the smaller scale, that of the change of seasons. “Nesh” here is a rich word with a variety of pertinent meanings. It can indicate a soft texture, timidity, a lack of energy, dampness, and—perhaps most pertinent here—susceptibility to cold. In a climate where “darkly a primed sun works to expose grand chill,” we can imagine that a nesh yellow is not long for this world, no matter how much they “acclimatize.” Meanwhile, the sun puts in mind Plato’s cave, where it exposes the shadows on the wall for the grand chill they are (think how we take to the shade to escape the sun’s heat).
In this setting, already imbued with so much thought, Hill demands of Pavese that he:
Bridge me your question from that other country
of speculation which you may enter
without leaving my side. And did I dream you?
Speculation, thought, is here another world—I suspect the eternal world of Being. At least, so it would be for Plato. But immediately we are back at Fleam Dyke:
Glazed wedges of furrow, tilting shield-angles,
prism a flash hail-squall; light cries now!
I get a sense of weary resignation as the poem continues, with Hill questioning the merits of our earthly say: “We did not need this / episodic fabric, this longevity.” But it is inescapable, and the poem ends grotesquely, as Hill himself admits:
…………………………….Grotesque as yours
my hid sex thrust like the mounted
head of a fox.
The genitals are emblematic of desire, and it is desire that characterizes becoming. Desire is a lack, implies incompletion, and that is only possible in fluxible becoming. It is incomprehensible that self-sufficient Being should desire. So we end with Hill’s “hid sex,” with the inescapability of desire. Yet Hill, as he is writing this, is old, becoming ever more decrepit, and so his “hid sex” takes on the aspect of a mounted hunting trophy.