After reading Geoffrey Hill's quartet of books -- Canaan (1996); The Triumph of Love (1998); Speech! Speech! (2000); The Orchards of Syon (2002) -- my head ached, expanded, and juddered like Pavarotti's prostate after a high colonic performed by a sadistic fireman with a supertower pressure-hose. If that's slightly hyperbolic, remember that Pavarotti played a sublime tune through his higher cylinder (pre-three Amigos) even under physical stress.
It's become a long-running gripe that the high-modern tag team of Pound and Eliot not only brought back difficulty into their poetry practise and prescription, but introduced skull-busting incomprehensibility. And Hill, like those two and others they influenced, won't amplify a point with, say, a symbol from nature when an arcane suggestion about a little-known fourteenth century mystic can replace it. But Hill isn't a sadist, despite the "you figure it out, riff raff!" glower from the back page photo, at least not in his fundamental intentions, if I may be so bold as to imagine chasing the secretive overactive neurons in his noggin. He knows a lot of stuff 'n' things -- eh? -- and why shouldn't he use the full range of his referential arsenal? Oh I know, to "better communicate". But in this case, when the sonic architecture is so rich, sense really is an added bonus, a surfeit already beyond the bounty of the rhythms and syntactical collisions issueing from "the fieldstone, intricately veined and seamed;/moss, lichen, dobbed with white crut of birds" (from 48. in Speech! Speech!) and "Pigeon-mobbed, on the play-patch, my own/public madman hurls at the laden air/his archive of bagged injustice." (from 69. in The Orchards of Syon).
And in order to deal with the 'high path with no rail' meditation on human nature, including responsibility and guilt and complicity for the horrors of the twentieth century, and for the possibilities and limitations for what lay before us, the author must have an enormous back range of incriminating evidence to deliver the convincing though queasy judgements he proffers for historical figures, contemporary wanderers, readers, and himself: "Suppose I cannot/unearth what it was they buried: research/is not anamnesis" (from 67. in The Triumph of Love). The path is extremely difficult, but there is a finish line, or at least a provisional brightly-coloured rest stop ..... somewhere.
Some critics have -- at times -- seen a cautious or muted hope in these poems, one reviewer going so far as to call the last book in this series, The Orchards of Syon, Hill's "Paradiso". Now that's just wishful-thinking, understandable as an apposite feint after the anguish and severe vision of what's been imaginatively enacted. But hope is not a word to be associated with Hill, and I, for one, am relieved, after reading poem upon poem of soul-scouring honesty, that that's the cause-effect recording. When the subjects are historical human proclivity, and present and future psychological unfolding, hope is a disease, a pernicious and agreeable defense against the mirror and the mind.