Canaan

Geoffrey Hill, Author
Geoffrey Hill, Author Houghton Mifflin Harcourt (HMH) $22 (96p) ISBN 978-0-395-87550-6
Reviewed on: 09/01/1997
Release date: 09/01/1997
Paperback - 96 pages - 978-0-395-92486-0
Hardcover - 96 pages - 978-0-14-058786-9
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The poet of this apocalyptic sixth collection looks down over the moral fate of England, inextricable from its own history and that of Europe, as Moses looked down from Pisgah. More savage in his indictments than Eliot in Four Quartets, Hill here seeks the nation's soul, repeatedly referred to as lost within a biblical ""Dark-land,"" finds it and condemns it as beyond redemption: ""Whereto England rous'd,/ ignorant, her inane/ Midas-like hunger: smoke/ engrossed, cloud clumbered,// a spectral people/ raking among the ash."" That a late-20th-century poet would even attempt judgments on this order is rare enough, but that one could make the writing and reading of such poems seem not only relevant but essential to the good life, is a testament to Hill's extraordinary powers. Hill, who has been living and teaching in Boston since 1988, published a third of these 39 poems in 1994's New & Collected Poems but has here compiled a volume of dazzling coherence and cumulative effect. Be forewarned, though: those without a superlative command of the Bible, a knowledge of arcane figures in British and European history and some German and Latin should be prepared to read this collection in the reference room of a well-stocked library: ""Time passes, strengthening and fading. Europa/ hetaera displays her parts, her triumph/ to tax even Durer's resplendent economy/ in rictus and graven sorrow."" While addressed to a country whose history is quite different from our own, these poems, difficult as they are, speak to the collective spirit of a ""star-gazing planet out of which/ lamentation is spun."" (Oct.)
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