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I discovered him via his memorial poem addressed to Gillian Rose, one of UD’s heroines. Hill uses her early death, her complex and botched love life, and her lifelong commitment to justice as idea and act, as a way into a restatement of his own “bleak ontology,” his lengthy depressive struggle to love a broken world and the souls that inhabit it. The long poem’s first stanza introduces you to its themes and its emotional attitude:


I have a question to ask for the form’s sake:
how that small happy boy in the seaside
photographs became the unstable man,
hobbyist of his own rage, engrafting it
on a stock of compliance, of hurt women.
You do not need to answer the question
or challenge imposture.
Whatever the protocol I should still construe.

One of the greatest challenges is to love one’s own particular soul, to figure out (but you can’t figure it out; you ask only “for the form’s sake” — not to mention that you’re asking someone not in a position to answer) your fallenness from primal joy in a fully satisfying natural world all the way down to obscure shaky neurotic rage in a world of hurt. The poet anticipates Rose telling him he’s full of shit, he’s posing the question in the wrong way (“challenge imposture”), but however she might take his opening gambit here, he intends to continue (“I should still construe.”).


There is a kind of sanity that hates weddings
but bears an intelligence of grief
in its own kind. There are achievements
that carry failure on their back, blindness
not as in Brueghel, but unfathomably
far-seeing.

Here Hill sketches Rose’s particular sensibility, her radical rejection of traditional, constraining rituals like weddings, yet her higher “weddedness” to humanity via her compassionate understanding of our weakness and pathos. All ontologizing is bleak (“grief,” “failure,” “blindness”), but humanity’s highest seers have the capacity to carry this comprehensive failure on their backs and achieve remarkable degrees of lucidity.

You asked not to be
cheated of old age. No kidding, it is an
unlovely parley, although you
could have subdued it and set it to work,
met it without embracing. Edna
with her prosthetic jaw and nose
prevails over these exchanges.

In her last book, written as she was close to death, Rose featured brief sketches of acquaintances who had managed to survive into old age even with profound impairments. Edna was one of these — a very old woman whose face had been disfigured by disease but who still sought out a life of passion and intensity. The poet acknowledges that if Rose had been more lucky, if she had not gotten a fatal cancer in her forties, she would have found a similar way to make “unlovely” old age work for her.

Your anger against me might have been wrath
concerning the just city. Or poetry’s
assumption of rule. Or its rôle
as wicked governor. This abdication
of self-censure indeed hauls it
within your long range of contempt,

unlike metaphysics which you had time for,
re-wedded to the city, a salutation
to Pallas, goddess of all polemics,
to Phocion’s wife — who shall be nameless —
in Poussin’s painting, gathering the disgraced
ashes of her husband. As you rightly said,
not some mere infinite love, a finite act
of political justice.

Here Hill touches on the perennial poetry/philosophy tussle. It was metaphysics, Rose believed, that brought us to the clarity and courage that prompts actual real-world acts of political justice, while poetry could ventilate all it liked about “some mere infinite love,” but was always secondary to the world of polemic. She would see Hill as a complacent poet, someone who assumed the “rule” of poetry over philosophy, and she would find his attitude infuriating.

If there is a healing of broken love it is not
as dyslexia’s broken, learning to read signs.
In broken love you read the signs too late
although they are met with everywhere

Yes. See Gore Vidal on Edmund Wilson’s response to his young wife’s sudden death: ‘[T]he inevitable epitaph: “After she was dead, I loved her.” That is the story of every life — and death.’  And see the gorgeous final lines of James Merrill’s The Thousand and  Second Night: “He slept through moonset, woke in blinding sun,/ Too late to question what the tale had meant.”

So it continues,
the work, lurching on broken springs
or having to be dug out or jump-started
or welded together out of two wrecks
or donated to a good cause, like to the homeless

in the city that is not just, has never
known justice, except sporadically

Love’s Work was the title of Rose’s final memoir, and though I don’t recall her using Hill’s jalopy metaphor, she described an authentic life as a persistent messy headlong agon in the direction of unachievable justice, with the whiny retro business at the opening of Hill’s poem an unforgivable waste of time.

The odds are heavy-set against us all
though medics call the chances symbiosis
in their brusque insolent manner that denies
self-knowledge as the sufferer

Justice is ever in abeyance; and as for our own individual fate – the odds are heavy-set against us. When she was hit with her illness, one of Rose’s doctors told her, “You are living in symbiosis with the disease.” And Hill alludes to this comment in these lines, chiding medicine for trying to deny her her agon, her condition of higher understanding deriving precisely from lucid suffering, from a sense, if you like, of the “unjustness” of her fate.

Poetry’s its own agon that allows us
to recognize devastation as the rift
between power and powerlessness. But when I
say poetry I mean something impossible
to be described, except by adding lines
to lines that are sufficient as themselves.

Hill concludes with a pitch for his art as itself a powerful agon in its lyric measuring of our vulnerability. Yet unlike Rose’s lucid metaphysics (she attacked those she considered obscurantists, like Jacques Derrida), poetry can only enact itself endlessly, can only mysteriously elaborate itself. Like a coastal shelf.

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