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Growing old playfully with Sir Geoffrey Hill.

I'm still reading Hill's Ludo from his Collected, Broken Hierarchies which was published last year and have to report that the aging poet is a further 'thread' running through the sequence as well as playfulness. This topic has received sporadic attention from our poet for a good many years and Hill has said fairly recently that his writing has been consistently informed by anxieties about the fate of his soul.

All of us, even the most hardened athiests, are concerned about dying. We will go to great lengths to avoid it and those who actively seek it are viewed as irrational - unless they have a terminal illness. I'm guessing that most of us have some deep but unspoken fear of being judged after death because the idea of God still resonates with even the secular because it is woven into our cultural history.

In addition to his own mortality, Hill has written that: "I would seriously propose a theology of language; and a primary exercise to be undertaken towards its establishment. This would comprise a critical examination of the grounds for claiming (a) that the shock of semantic recognition must be also a shock of ethical recognition; and that this is the action of grace in one of its minor, but far from trivial, types; (b) that the art and literature of the late twentieth century require a memorilizing of the dead as much as, or even more than, expressions of 'solidarity with the poor and the oppressed'.

To my mind, In Memoriam Gillian Rose is, for all sorts of reasons, one of Hill's finest poems which demonstrates his ability to walk the the walk. On most occasions, however, he memorialises martyrs, especially those with strong religious beliefs. Without getting overly theoretical, the question in my mind is whether there's a process of self-remembering going on which is gaining momentum as time progresses.

The evidence for this supposition in Ludo crops up in ways that vary from the obvious to the typically ambiguous. This is Poem 15:


    Waving her arms and hands at Easter mass,
                     Christ's happy tictac
                     Cash in the Attic
                     appears hypnotic
    or so I condescend to see pass.

    Shall not embroider this a confession
                      of ingratitude.
                      It is mercy snide
                      and common; devoid
    of what the clergy nickname compassion.

    How shall I sing the Lord in this strange land? -
                      if that is my brief
                      which I doubt: a thief
                      of others' belief.
     A mercy almost the now-failing mind.

I'm going to ignore the tictac conundrum because that would require much tentative and inconclusive digression. The interweb tells me that Cash in the Attic was a BBC television programme in the noughties which helped people find/identify antiques that they didn't know they had. I haven't watched any of these and, even as a Hill obsessive, I don't intend to. Such a premise could also be about hidden spriritual value that needs 'bringing out' or acknowledging.

Other than this, the poem appears to be Hill's confession of his cultural snobbery rather than ingratitude. 'Mercy snide and common' is endearingly typical but I do want to draw attention to the last stanza. Is this another piece of self-castigation or is it something about the role of the poet as transposer of faith into language? There are three ways that minds can fail: as part of getting old; as a result of brain injury or as an episode of mental illness. This one would appear to relate to the first , Hill was born in 1932 and the 'now' would suggest this rather than his previous experiences of mental illness. Aging's major effect on the brain is a deterioration in memory and the ability to concentrate but it may be that it is Hill's failing memory that provides some relief from the starker realities of his life.

The 22nd poem is one of my favourites from the sequence:


    These roses are convoluted lanterns, 
    especially gratifying: themselves
    yet other; standards from the queen's gardens
                 that some legend improves.

    The wired pear tree I still associate
    with hard sour fruit, Ihave not seen, now,
    for sixty years that are as chalk on slate.
                 Age no less keen now

    confers its fullest preoccupation,
    concentrates, thus: time, luminant details,
    eddies of recall spinning on station
                  as memory falls

    into renewed exactions. Overhead,
    its engine cut, the small yellow trainer
    deploys in a stall, as they planned it would
                  for the beginner.

Hill is our best nature poet and the first seven lines bear this out. We then get to becoming older which doesn't affect one's keenness with it's double sense of sharp and enthusiastic. There is also the memory falling into demands that have been made before and are perhaps fraudulently enlarged. I'm particularly fond of the eddies of recall which suggests to me how memories can be subject to small variations together with the idea of spinning in the appointed place or, more precisely, on duty in the appointed place. The use of 'luminant' suggests that there are other details that are not illuminated and not apparent.

I don't think this experience of only 'luminant' details is exclusive to the elderly, I'm certainly aware of events that I have only 'flashes' of recall about whilst the rest of the detail is lost in the shadows. We'll also avoid the question of wwhether or not eddies can e said to spin and the 'stations of the cross' ambiguities other than to acknowledge them as part of something really quite complex. I find the yellow trainer to be especially poignant and moving because it's a memory from childhood and it's about being a novice who is subjected to a planned 'stall' or failure. As is reasonably well-known, the main common factor in mental health problems is something referred to as 'childhood adversity' which covers much more ground than physical and/or sexual abuse. I don't usually go into social worker mode but Hill has made indirect allusions to this kind of difficulty and the consequent damage. Is the stall a further allusion and is the failing mind compensated by the fading of these difficulties?

As with all accomplished work, there is a great deal of ground covered in these sixteen lines, one of the reasons that Hill is so very good is his complete command of knowing how to say many complicated things at once. I'm going to finish with a further and more radical act of compression there are two one line poems in this 64-part sequence, this is poem 61 in its entirety:

The mortifications are the fortifications.

On some of the wilder shores of the Christian faith, there is this belief that the infliction of pain and injury by either yourself or others is an added piece of insurance in the afterlife. So, is this saying that the mortification of the flesh is the only way to protect oneself from eternal damnation? As with his politics, Hill's theological leanings seem to be well outside of the mainstream so this may indeed be the case. I'm hoping that instead he means the mental guilts and shames that must be undergone to strengthen personal faith and commitment. I'm also hoping that it's an example of a rhyme that he couldn't resist.

This may be a clutching at straws-that-aren't-there but it may be that he is referring to the state of being humiliated and this arises from thinking about or recalling past sins (mistakes). It could of course refer to both. Psychologically, this kind of introspective rumination does nothing but damage.

In conclusion, I'm impressed with Ludo as a collection of technically skilled poems that use this ludic guise to say serious and occasionally quite sombre things. Being familiar with the rest of Hill's output, I'm beginning to think that his best work (Mercian Hymns, The Triumph of Love) contains this same mood. With these particular poems there are also general concerns about aging and the consequent risks of memory failure/dementia. I've been prodded into thinking about this in a more deliberate way rather than have mortality humming away in the background. It turns out that I'm less bothered about death than I am about degeneration, my hearing is getting worse, I'm less fit and increasingly absent-minded although my memory is better than most. My 'soft' atheism means that I'm not concerned as to my fate after death and, as someone with type 2 bipolar, my own demise has seemed a very attractive alternative to the slough of despair. The other re-consideration that I've prodded into is a greater interest in the uses of rhyme.