All this talk of Shiraz etc will no doubt have got rid of the Hill acolytes who swoon theatrically at every syllable he writes. Not serious enough, y’see. There are people who just can’t fathom why readers find Hill “difficult”. They know it all, are vastly more intelligent than ...well... anyone who suggests that there might be a few complexities to overcome when reading Hill. It is reassuring when they use Hill to assert their intellectual superiority without (of course) offering us the slightest proof of their unique understanding. I always enjoy that. Hill knows very well that he is difficult and thrives on the fact. Anyway, the Shiraz is going down nicely and I feel like raising a toast to Astraea, goddess of justice for whom this world was unendurable. Perhaps that owl with the mouse in its mouth, which adorns the cover of Clavics, was one reason why Zeus placed her within a constellation in the night sky. Cheers, Astraea, wherever in Virgo you are (according to that reliable source, Wikipedia, there is also a ‘La Vida es Sueno’ reference, as one of the characters in that play takes on the name ‘Astraea’ when in court. ‘La Vida Es Sueno’ features heavily in Hill’s ‘The Orchard of Syon’). We really need you down here, by the way, Astraea. And Hill also knows it:
Bring torch for Cabbalah brand new treatiseIndeed. This is how poem 1 begins, so we’re in the realm of metaphysical digging. The Cabbalah is a way of understanding everything, more or less, although it has no agreed canon and can incorporate internal contradictions with aplomb, which is extremely handy for everyone. Hill adds to the mishmash and invokes the goddess who is watching from her starry haven. I read the invocation as angry, sarcastic. As such, I’m taking a rather different view of this poem to Lachlan Mackinnon in his now infamous “sheerest twaddle” review, where Astraea represents Elizabeth I. Hill is trying his best to get to the truth, to the centre of things, but he is locked into his tradition (as we all are, whether we recognise it or not), and moving things on from it is no easy task. He is unhappy with Astraea’s chilled distance and calls her a “bitch” in his typical politically-correct way. She may have been physically exalted but, in Hill’s eyes, she has returned “rich/ To the low threshold of contemplation”, which at least has given Hill the opportunity to prove himself, as ever, the undisputed master of spitting irony (even rhyming ‘bitch’, ‘ditch’ and ‘rich’ is supremely ironic). I should mention at this point that the poems all rhyme and are technically demanding, to put it mildly – plenty of lines with two (or sometimes one) accented beats. Try the form and see how far you get! Anyway, seeing as Astraea isn’t playing her full part, we’re left with the poet/artist/composer (I presume) as:
Numerology also makes much sense,
Her servile master subsisting on scraps
As one pursuing ethics perhaps.
Astraea seems to function as a pitiless form of Muse here, an object of devotion who nevertheless feeds the artist only on scraps. It is a particularly religious feeling, a severe Kierkegaardian sense of the utterly transcendent God who can barely be approached, yet must be obeyed humbly by e.g. the pursuit of ethics. Time to fill up my glass, although I note there is not enough left in the bottle to fill it up more than half.
The second section of the poem riffs on the writing process, partly through the metaphor of musical notation. It can be done with “care” (like prayer) or with “flair” (which I suspect is not so good). He makes reference to musical stress marks, also surely a mischievous allusion to the curious stress marks which adorn some of his poems in other books. If these are simply flair, mere affect:
Dump my clavic books in the mire
And yes bid me strut myself off a cliff.
No, don’t do that! I quite like Poem 1 and it’s obviously been written with a great deal of care (and flair too, I think, and just as well). Some readers will be saying, “But that’s quite an ‘easy’ poem, relatively speaking.” And I agree. It is highly compressed writing, a more radical compression than most poets would employ and this, combined with the tight rhyme and accentual scheme, necessitate a degree of odd phrasing and strange syntax, which make certain sections of the poem hard to make sense of – but not impossible. Later poems do present more formidable challenges.