15 December, 2003Issue 3.1LiteraturePoetry

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Language and Grace

April Warman

Geoffrey Hill
The Orchards of Syon
Counterpoint, 2002
72 pages

Difficult to end joyful starting from here, But I’ll surprise us.

These lines, taken from near the end of The Orchards of Syon (2002), follow one of Geoffrey Hill’s frequent references to some of the less humane moments of history (‘the Berlin Wall… Carthage chemically defoliate’), but they could easily be applied to Hill’s own poetic trajectory over the past seven years. In 1996, the first lines of Canaan, Hill’s first book for more than a decade, announced a significant shift in his conception of the poet’s role. They left behind the highly-wrought, self-involved lyrics for which he had become known, in favour of a mode of public denunciation, as in the poem ‘To the High Court of Parliament’:

Where’s probity in this –the slither-frisk
to lordship of a kind
as rats to a bird-table?

The Triumph of Love (1998) and Speech! Speech! (2000) continued Hill’s angry, almost unseemly, engagement with public life, or as he put it, his aspiration to ‘Active virtue: that which shall contain/ its own passion in the public weal.’ By Speech! Speech!, this civic passion had come to seem so choked and obstructed by disgust that it was hard to see how Hill could continue, let alone ‘end joyful’. Even the most positive reviewer was forced to describe Hill as ‘no longer writing poetry but composing cryptic crossword clues’, and, in this fair sample of the book, one can see his point:

…Bodylanguage my eye. Regarding the shrimp
as predator: EYE TO EYE IT IS TRUE.

So it is with some trepidation that one begins The Orchards of Syon. One can never expect Hill to be easy, and a first reading of his 72 uneasy, cryptic and often baffling poems yields a vague tangle of impressions overlaid with a sense of a deep and watchful regret (shot through with moments of astonishing lyric intensity) for the tragedies of the past century, for the inadequacies of art and of his own life. But The Orchards of Syon does represent a kind of loosening. The clenched, convulsive 12-line units of Speech! Speech! have relaxed into a freer, more flowing sequence of 24-line poems. While the poems themselves can at first each seem like a collection of bizarre non-sequiturs (what is one to make of ‘As for posterity,/ whose lips are sealed, I do prefer/ Polish to Czech though, not speaking/ either language, I am unable to say/ why’?), it is easier to follow threads of meaning from poem to poem, to have some apprehension, if not full comprehension, of what the Orchards of Syon might represent.

Hill has said that the book is ‘concerned with forms and patterns of reconciliation’ though with ‘numerous lapses and relapses throughout the sequence.’ This reconciliation is attempted on many levels, including the relationship between Hill and his readers. The obnoxious chorus of ‘PEOPLE’ in Speech! Speech! makes way for the appearance of a ‘you’, a non-antagonistic interlocutor whom Hill can address with a degree of wistful goodwill: ‘Tell me, is this the way/ to the Orchards of Syon/ where I left you thinking I would return?’ Hill also seems to be reconciling himself to the polity which he has so deplored. He relinquishes public protest, representing his engaged self as a ‘public madman’, inviting the reader instead, in his somewhat disconcerting acquisition of youth-speak, to ‘Dig the – mostly uncouth – language of grace’.

Hill’s attempt at a reconciliation of language with grace is perhaps the most unexpected aspect of The Orchards of Syon. While the inevitable collusion of language with evil has been an almost overwhelming preoccupation of Hill’s early work, in this latest sequence he looks beyond a stifling assumption of culpability. The eponymous Orchards of Syon become a figure for grace untainted by the processes of history and the disgraces of the public realm. Moments of quotidian beauty, ‘the slate roofs briefly/ caught in scale-nets of silver’ become ‘signals’ of a ‘new-aligned/ poetry with truth, and Syon’s Orchards/ uncannily of the earth’. Beyond, or perhaps out the other side of, the demands that the atrocities of history make on poetry, Hill concludes the sequence with a vision of

the Orchards of Syon,
neither wisdom
nor illusion of wisdom, not
compensation, not recompense: the Orchards
of Syon whatever harvests we bring them.

From a poet who has for so long, and so honestly, struggled with the difficulties of poetic recompense, with the spurious ‘illusion of wisdom’ that poetry can so temptingly offer, such an affirmation, however tentative, is remarkable, and all the more arresting.

April Warman is beginning a DPhil on treatments of death in contemporary poetry.