Clavics, by Geoffrey Hill.
It’s a commonplace in the uk that the seventy-nine-year-old Geoffrey Hill is the best poet now writing in English, which doesn’t mean it’s not true. Like Paul Muldoon and Frederick Seidel, two other contenders, Hill started tight and grew weird. And he grew talky. In the first three decades of his career, he published five books. Then in 1997 Canaan inaugurated his logorrheic, ssri-enabled mode: fantastically knotted densities of a cantankerous prophet who knows he can be too dour for his own or anybody’s good. The Triumph of Love, which followed just a year later, is one of the most hermetically learned collections of poems since The Cantos—its annotations would require annotations. Hill had become an open sluice—Speech! Speech! (2000) could be the title of his collected poems: The Orchards of Syon (2002) begat Scenes from Comus (2005), which begat Without Title (2006) and A Treatise of Civil Power (2007), which begat the odd five-part series The Daybooks, of which Clavics forms the fourth volume but is, Star Wars-like, the second to appear (after last year’s Oraclau|Oracles).
The clamor for “accessibility” in poetry has always been absurd. Paradise Lost and Jerusalem are less accessible than ever, I suppose, but when people complain about “accessibility” they mean they wish John Ashbery would write poems with paraphrasable content. Hill’s not amused. In Speech! Speech! he waves away the objection:
wantonly obscure, man sagt. accessible
traded as democratic, he answers
as he answers móst things these days | easily.
This restates Hill’s claim, in a Paris Review interview from 2000, “that genuinely difficult art is truly democratic. And that tyranny requires simplification.” It is restated again in A Treatise of Civil Power: “that which is difficult/preserves democracy; you pay respect/to the intelligence of the citizen.”
By this measure, The Daybooks may represent Hill’s most democratic vistas yet. The dust jacket claims that this volume is a tribute to early seventeenth-century poetry and music, in the form of an elegiac sequence for William Lawes, the Royalist musician, killed at the battle of Chester, which spells “unputdownable” as far as I’m concerned. Each of the thirty-two sections of the sequence is composed of two stanzas, together forming, more or less, the shape of a key (“Clavics,” the epigraph informs us, is “the science or alchemy of keys”—quoting the, ahem, 2012 edition of the oed). But you don’t need to know anything about William Lawes or clavicular alchemy to delight in Hill’s pageantry of rapid-fire wit, nastiness, and sheer intellectual wow. Hill always ranges far beyond his ostensible occasion.
As Oracles employs one of Donne’s metrical patterns, the two sections of Hill’s key poems modify the stanzaic structure of George Herbert’s “The Altar” and “Easter Wings”:
Intensive prayer ís intensive care
Herbert says. I take it stress marks
Convey less care than flair
Shewing the works
Be mere affect of clef
Dump my clavic books in the mire
And yes bid me strut myself off a cliff.
This is the sort of thing Hill does these days—if self-referential jokes in crabbed syntax aren’t your bag, you might find this Hill too much of a climb. His sense requires work to catch, and not only because his syntax is Miltonically Latinate. The keys to Clavics include Kabbalah, metaphysics, numerology, Ben Jonson, Nabokov, Yeats, and Rimbaud, but also Nescafé, Richard Dawkins, and “bling.” Hill is less James Joyce than kitchen sink, but the point is the light these poems give off, not the compost that fuels them:
The day cuts a chill swath,
Dark hunkers down.
I think we are past Epiphany now.
Earth billows on, its everlasting
Shadow in tow
And we with it, fake shadows onward casting.
The mausolean beauty of these Lowellian lines (Cal has a walk-on part in Clavics) is atypical of this poem’s “Discord made dance.” “For harmony/Seek harmony in my/Unfeeling toe,” Hill quips (he quips a lot). He defends his “dissonance to make them wince” by mimetic analogy to Lawes’s mishmash of musical themes. But in fact that dissonance results more from Hill’s imitation of Herbert, whose crimped lines don’t always suit Hill’s coarse-hewn style. They tend to emphasize Hill’s awkwardness—he stretches out lines to make them fit the pattern and sometimes reaches for clumsy rhymes:
D u t i f u l l y
I t s e e m s
O f b u t t e r f l y
Clavics continues Hill’s didactically complex relationship to Christianity—“not believe, hope,” he says in Treatise—but his cognitive acoustics are better suited to more spacious rooms, like those of Without Title:
my question, since I am paid a retainer,
is whether the appearances, the astonishments,
stand in their own keepings finally
or are annulled through the changed measures of light.
Imagination, freakish, dashing every way,
In Clavics’ Herbertian schema, it’s the first sections’ last four lines—the altar’s base—that best support Hill’s clotted, carny-barking lingo:
Smudge-typed Admiralty communiqué
Pronouncing valediction: in dense skeins
Of frozen spray
Corvettes upwhelming through Icelandic day.
I may be monstrously understating—
eternity irradiates couple.
With none to care
Blank Cretaceous settled down this bubble.
Clavics may be Hill Lite, but it still kicks sand all over the ninety-pound weaklings of most contemporary poetry collections. Hill has more thuggish power and ambition in his unfeeling toe than the last hundred graduates of the Iowa Workshop combined. He is up to his eyeballs in the language. It will never be the same.
Moving Day, by Ish Klein.
Canarium Books. $14.00.
The opening poem of Ish Klein’s second collection is a ringer. It begins:
There’s a swell.
Brim, drip straw see and sip.
Ring right of feather glade.
Grow low and left or now pre quell a mane.
So move somehow,
yes, yes now.
like the ruler or the doer now.
—From “There Is a Swell Now”
This is the sort of thing that gets called “interesting language,” which is review-speak for “uninteresting language.” Poems in this style are popular, for tiresome and obvious reasons, but reading them is like going to the dentist.
Moving Day, though, turns out to be a thrilling, reckless book, and it’s somehow appropriate that it should begin so unpromisingly. Klein’s a maximalist, she takes it all in and lets it all out: “I’ll go on about homeostatic functions and science fictions,” and she will. She’ll go on about battlefields and railroads and mutants and masks and ghosts and lots and lots of animals. At her best she elevates period style into completely bonkers alien transmissions:
They’ve made new lingo to go with the genuine penis.
They say unicorn, I say wasabi.
Apparently, almost everyone gets green horseradish with sushi.
Wasabi takes several million years to grow,
its taste is delicate. When I mentioned Japan
earlier, I meant the motor city.
—From “No Promissory Notes”
“New lingo” is like nitrous oxide to Klein. “Smoke Outside” begins as a monologue in American vernacular:
Okay. I’m not happy about the fact that I officially smoke.
It’s a bad habit. Not a defeat; actually, a bit of a transfer.
Before, I drank too much.
But also I’m not smoking that much.
After all, there needs to be something to look forward to—
a pleasant sensation on the horizon.
Klein’s pitch is perfect in such passages—from the inane introductory “Okay” and that use of “officially” to the pileup of cliches in the last two lines, this sounds exactly like transcribed speech. It’s funny, but you’re pretty sure you’ve got the poem’s number.
Then the other Ish Klein takes over, the one the poet Patricia Lockwood calls, approvingly, a “glitching android with super-hearing ears for bureaucratic and institutional language”:
Yes, I would say discomfort is normative.
Buddhists say this too. Life is suffering.
Knowing this definitely contributes to my overall discomfort.
I’m actually Taoist, and Taoists respect the changes
and could recognize a viable system.
Maybe I can’t recognize a viable system....
Did I mention my sister has the gorilla now?
No, sorry, of course not.
She does love it.
My blasé mage sister who used to be perfectly brutal.
Now she outstrips me in everything
including forgiveness and pma (positive mental analogs).
—From “Smoke Outside”
The misuse of “normative,” the grating ugliness of “viable system,” the motivational drivel of “positive mental analogs”—this is the language a cubicle would use to write a poem about cubicles. Klein recognizes its vapidity and deploys it to comedic effect, but without exactly condescending to it. What interests her is, as David Foster Wallace said of his own work, “to take something almost narcotizingly banaland try to reconfigure it in a way that reveals what a tense, strange, convoluted set of human interactions the final banal product is”:
Some feelings you get when you consider
“What if this happened to me?” and you will want to remedy
the situation to secure yourself from the (negative) condition of it.
Together, humans create one body—the planet earth
and its projections. The things in the stomach
affect what goes on in the head. On the web
many people make money with miracle potions.
—From “Fairy Tales from the Web”
Yes, there is a superficial resemblance to the time-stamped fad known as Flarf. But where Flarf’s virtue is in its failure to hang together, Klein’s poems exude counterintuitive coherence. Her code-switching is nonchalant—she’ll be chatting away about a stuffed gorilla she used to have, then in the next line she’s got all the personality of a search engine—but paradoxically unidirectional. She writes, always, as if she’s trying to make sense of things the rest of us take for granted—sex, emotions, dailiness—in order to reveal them as tense, strange, convoluted. This explains her linguistic pica, her desire to stick the soil and spent batteries of the language in her mouth like breath mints: “trash day,” “safety valve,” “special offers,” “modern life skills,” “factory-wrapped,” “off-hours,” “meds,” “tight-knit community.”
And while Flarf tries so hard to be funny it should come with a laugh track, Klein is genuinely, effortlessly funny. Often her best lines address her sense of herself as “a pseudo-scientist” observing a tribe to which she doesn’t quite belong:
a) Everything’s embarrassing. I’m not supposed to be here.
It is embarrassing to say. See premise a.
What about me? Well, raised by wolves.
If the sky is the heart of the land
and the earth your cherished bed,
if air current your spirit,
and the city your tomb, if waves are made
and babies cry when you say stuff, you are alive.
You may have a tree of your own—you may have a home
in your own tree. Congratulations. If you write an instructive
pamphlet you can bet I will read it.
I do not want to go out in darkness.
I am doing everything I know to prevent this,
and thank you, by the way, if you’ve written a pamphlet.
Of course no one who writes with such self-awareness about her own alienation is as alienated as she makes herself out to be. But no one for whom alienation is all artifice could write about it with such self-awareness. Moving Day is as much of its moment, and of nearly as much moment, as Life Studies. Listen: I’m telling you: Ish Klein is waiting in the sky. She’d like to come and meet us, but she thinks she’d blow our minds.
Come and See, by Fanny Howe.
Graywolf Press. $15.00.
Like Geoffrey Hill, Fanny Howe recognizes that the slapdash atheism of much intellectual culture is as unearned and thoughtless as the most backwards fundamentalism. Howe’s religious thinking, as she told us in the essays of The Wedding Dress (2003), is deeply informed by the writings of Simone Weil. “God exists,” the Jewish Weil, who was never quite a Christian, wrote: “God does not exist. Where is the problem?” Howe’s new poems are similar expressions of a sophisticated faith in “a system of gravity that God or someone invented.”
Gravity, and also, sometimes, somehow, grace: “Like fish in a secular city//flipping through sewers for a flash of Christ.” For forty years, Howe has been filing quietly devastating reports from the fluid borders of faith and doubt, her eye trained on the traditional material of the lyric, her ear tuned to more modern stations. She works best with lucent shards, not because she fetishizes fragmentation but because cracks are how the light gets in:
Some long-ago light is pulsating in a trout’s heart
on a laboratory dish.
That light has entered all the holes,
no matter how small, because it is the light that wants to live.
—From “A Hymn”
She knows the pressure points of description and narration, the burden borne by ordinary objects, events, and places:
I am now upstairs and you are down
in a white-washed cottage
packed in salt and wind
The rooster’s crow is not against the law.
You sip cold water from a silver glass.
I climb back upstairs with a hot water bag.
Tomorrow I get everything we need.
I mean today. I did.
—From “The Grotto”
“Come and see” is an invitation to witness, to behold something remarkable: “The sky is a fish packed in ice.” But in some of these poems, Howe attempts to close the gap between poem and essay, to bear witness in a more expected sense, and the result can lack both fluency and urgency. A poem ends:
What was our generation’s definition
of the way to live? Something about action,
We wanted to kill those who are now us. Grown-ups!
—From “The Rachmaninoff Hotel”
The sentiment is as stale as the language is undistinguished. Elsewhere she asks, “What good are humans to this poor earth?” We learn that “It was a terrible century:/consisting of blasted/oil refineries and stuck ducks.” Raise your hand if you’d already heard it was a terrible century.
This need to spell out what everyone already knows mars the title prose piece (I can’t bring myself to use the term “lyric essay”), a rumination on Ilona Karmel:
How can we meditate on the new visions of time and space without remembering that physics produced the bombs over Japan and now, having accomplished that, will take us to another drama, or trauma?
Howe wrote about political atrocity with more subtlety—more poetry—in The Winter Sun (2009):
They are not soldiers but civilians in the middle of their hopes.
They simply can’t believe it. It is like coming to understand the full meaning of the five words:
Everyone gets what he deserves.
To understand what these words mean takes as long as it lasts to get back to the day when someone said them for the first time.
Listen backward long enough and you will get there. But try and stay with the present tense. It’s hard!
What’s frustrating is that Howe knows better: in “Come and See” itself she writes that “poetry is not just a set of enjambed lines on a page. It is not just poetry.” When she remembers this, the poetry becomes more than just poetry. The lines on the page spin off like pinwheel fireworks:
Now a second snow
is falling on the first.
In a land of troubles
every snowfall is the same.
Even the hard-packed balls
outside the cathedral
remind them of stones
in emergencies above.
When she writes like this—when she pays attention to the way “Yellow snow/puffs on a bulb” instead of explaining that there is much injustice in the world—Howe has an affecting economy, a facility for lucid placement. When she tells me that “poetry reveals the face of justice through syntax, balance, image,” I check to make sure my wallet’s still there. But when she says “God is aeronautics and orange,” it doesn’t matter that I don’t believe it. Where’s the problem?
Michael Robbins is the author of the poetry collections Alien vs. Predator (Penguin, 2012) and The Second Sex (Penguin, 2014), as well as a book of criticism, Equipment for Living: On Poetry and Pop Music (Simon & Schuster, 2017). His poems have appeared in the New Yorker, Poetry, Harper's, Boston Review, and elsewhere; his...