The Ongoing Menace
Aug 25, 2015
15 Min read time
Toby Martinez de las Rivas is the first poet to rise to Geoffrey Hill's manifold challenges.
Is human experience grafted—inevitably, excruciatingly—to guilt? Geoffrey Hill would say so. A fine judge of complicity, perhaps even a connoisseur, Hill has long argued that the responsible writer must confront how language ensnares its user in error and misdeed. His early essay “Poetry as ‘Menace’ and ‘Atonement’,” the brilliant opening salvo in his Collected Critical Writings, even goes so far as to diagnose two specific levels at which literature is implicated in the problem of guilt:
It is one thing to talk of literature as a medium through which we convey our awareness, or indeed our conviction, of an inveterate human condition of guilt or anxiety; it is another to be possessed by a sense of language itself as a manifestation of empirical guilt.
The distinction here is subtle but all-important. In the first case, literature is a means of expression, a medium for talking about guilt as much as it might be for talking about love, justice, classic cars, or anything else. In the second, the material of literature, language, is itself cast as a “manifestation of empirical guilt”—that is, guilt becomes an endemic problem, etched into the medium itself, not a contingency of subject matter.
A concrete example of this “empirical guilt” can be found in the opening of Hill’s famous poem “September Song,” about a deportee to the Nazi concentration camps:
Undesirable you may have been, untouchable
you were not. Not forgotten
or passed over at the proper time.
Every adjective here is balanced, nauseatingly, on the edge of a barbaric cliché. “Undesirable” equivocates between its usage in totalitarian eugenics (the primary meaning here) and the residue of a comparatively trivial, if tasteless and disturbing, sexual sense. This ambiguity is present also in “untouchable,” but this time the fascist implication lays rough hands on any other meaning and forces a horrible paradox: normally being desirable and being touchable (and their opposites) go together, but not here. The fascist sense of undesirability leads inexorably to touching, and of the most profane and violent sort. The point is that language participates in the atrocity; even the noble poet seeking to elegize an innocent victim is bound by the same field of meaning as the perpetrator.
In a recent interview conducted on the eve of his final lecture as Oxford Professor of Poetry, Hill returned to his perennial theme of guilt in language. Asked about the correspondences between music and poetry, he demurred:
Every word has a bit of itself that is rebellious to one’s desire to make easy use of it. Music has always seemed to me free of the taint of original sin, whereas words are full of it. That’s about the only strong tie I have to Judeo-Christianity: I profoundly believe in the reality of original sin.
These words draw a poignant circle around the now nearly complete corpus of Hill’s thinking. “Empirical guilt,” that apparently eccentric term of art from “Poetry as ‘Menace’ and ‘Atonement’,” collapses into the theological orthodoxy of “original sin.” Given that he is routinely and lazily categorized as a Christian poet, it jars to hear Hill distance himself from the canons of Christian belief. But that one article of faith that he admits to is no meager concession. The reality of original sin—and the manifestation of sin in the slippery, transient, “coercive” medium of language—haunts and animates Hill’s writing from first to last. We are imperfect creatures and our tongues betray us. Like a coltish horse trying to overthrow its rider, language “is rebellious to one’s desire to make easy use of it.”
The first poet to rise to Geoffrey Hill's manifold challenges is Toby Martinez de las Rivas.
Far more than most contemporary poets, Geoffrey Hill has labored over the course of his career to create the taste by which his work should be judged. Perhaps unsurprisingly, an essay like “Poetry as ‘Menace’ and ‘Atonement’”—wary, severe, harrowing in its vision for the art—has proved less successful in inspiring others than in training critics how to read his work. I would say that the first poet to rise to its manifold challenges is Toby Martinez de las Rivas, whose debut collection, Terror, managed to baffle, affront, and in some cases thrill the British poetry scene when it was published last year. There can’t be a review of this book that neglects Hill’s influence, nor should there be: ignoring it would be akin to ignoring feathers in an account of how birds fly.
Unfortunately, much of this discussion of influence has delved little further than the surface texture of Martinez de las Rivas’s verse: its heady admixture of Latinate abstraction and vernacular English; its penchant for namedropping cultural critics and nonconformist theologians; its tendency toward violent, vivid fragment amid the painstaking syntax of argument. All these features are present, and Martinez de las Rivas might have done himself more favors if he wished to deflect the name of Geoffrey Hill. What has largely been missing from reviews is any sense that this engagement with Hill’s work is a legitimate and serious undertaking as opposed to an excitable affectation. Tellingly, the discussion has focused largely on Martinez de las Rivas’s evident immersion in Hill’s poetry and not on his debt to the critical work.
• • •
Terror is fluent in guilt. The disciple of Hill comes to see fault and barbarity lurking in the most anodyne situations, and Martinez de las Rivas is a trained observer. Time and again, nature itself is cast as the culprit in a grand criminal drama, where sinister mood music supplies the menace that we might be too complacent to notice ourselves.
The yews like sentinels, divested of life, bristling with dull pods or cherries
of blood . . .
the drowned mole in this baptismal water, claws subtly demonstrative
of admonishment, supplication, woefully arrayed.
Beyond the singing gate lay the dark field which ate
the bodies of the lambs & threw up the bleached fans
of pigeon wings: the grass grew red in those places.
Listen. The blackbird that screams at the terror of the morning. The disorder of
its syntax. Poor bairn.
And on it goes: image after image of the fallen creation, not only red in tooth and claw but disordered, mistaken, “woefully arrayed.” In these examples, the body count is trumpeted aloud, with all the delicacy of a high-class slasher flick. At other times Martinez de las Rivas’s language of terror is more insinuating and “subtly demonstrative.” In “Blackdowns,” two disarming verb choices twist the knife, imputing baleful agency to the very-much-animate world. Early in the poem we are given the associative fragment of “storm baiting the fields with light.” Storms are often destructive or harmful in literature, but rarely is light. Here, though, storm light is “baiting” the fields—teasing them, antagonizing them, as if the fields were a chained bear and the light a pack of dogs. Later on “the water discloses in a moment the shape of its tresses.” “Discloses” might refer immediately to one of those rapid, beautiful moments of natural transformation, as when a butterfly emerges from a chrysalis, but the word drags in with it the dead weight of more compromised disclosures: leaked information, tabloid rumour, lobbying and smears. The voluptuous “tresses” secure the lurid undertow.
In all this, Martinez de las Rivas pays tribute to the second half of Hill’s anatomy of guilt: namely, the “empirical guilt” that stalks our every utterance and is cognate with the original sin of Christian theology. And as you would expect from work so steeped in Hill’s thinking, it is not just nature that is presumed guilty in Terror, but language and self-expression itself. “To narrate is to relent,” declares the first line of “Blackdowns,” before adding a terse vow that more casual readers might regret: “in me there shall be no relenting.” Indeed, one way that Martinez de la Rivas departs from Hill is in the agony and drama of his battle with language. In Hill that battle can sometimes feel aloof and cynical, as if he knows full well the treachery of language, and so sets up in his poems staged skirmishes that prove the intractability of his thesis. Martinez de las Rivas, on the other hand, thrashes in the net of language, never content to let its “coercive force” obtain: “I fail the words or they fail me, but: I am not failed by.” This admirable sense of responsibility encompasses hope; language and its user are admitted to be at odds but the failure is not inevitable, as it would be in the passive construction the speaker eschews.
By now you can probably sense whether you have the stomach for this level of meta-poetic, meta-critical jousting with empirical guilt. Before dismissing (or embracing) Martinez de las Rivas as a rebarbative egghead, however, it is worth bearing in mind that he writes with searing passion about guilt, too: not the guilt we find etched into language, but the first half of Hill’s anatomy, the more colloquial guilt we experience when we do bad things. In “Woolbury,” the penitent speaker declares, “I am heartily sorry for my fault, my offence,” and we don’t assume that he’s talking about his wayward use of language. Even so, what this “fault” might amount to is left bewilderingly open-ended. “Misereatur” attempts, perhaps, to flesh it out:
That I have kept a tiny and concealed speck of myself innocent through sexual betrayal, through punishment, that I am in my marrow a physical coward . . .
The allusion here to “sexual betrayal” and cowardice at least suggests what leads the speaker into these contortions of remorse. Elsewhere, too, the guilt appears to be erotic. “Ptuj” depicts a nightmarish, “polychromatically hungover” bout of lovemaking:
the exposed décolletage manifesting slight sun damage falling and lifting, cowled swan-head of the pubic bone, eyes, that òpen, were of such a violent and comely blue, my own reft self in the spectral disk of each iris, clósed.
Note the manifold depredations that lurk in this description: the “slight sun damage” of the décolletage (only Martinez de las Rivas could employ such an unctuous, relishing word with such anxiety); the fact that the lover’s flesh lies “exposed,” like a guilty secret (resonant of “disclose”); the beautiful “swan-head of the pubic bone” given a mortifying, penitential cowl; the “violent and comely blue” of those eyes, where the comeliness seems to issue directly from the violence; and that final image of annihilation, as the speaker glimpses his “own reft self in the spectral disk of each iris,” only for those eyes to close. “Reft” is a typically fraught choice of word, flickering between two unhappy senses: primarily “split, cleft” (the self is seen divided between each iris), but more urgently the obsolete meaning of “taken by force”—the self as a hostage to erotic fulfilment. As it was for Shakespeare (“Th’expense of spirit in a waste of shame”), lust in these poems leads surely to obliteration. The beginning of “Pyropsalm” puts the case candidly: “Separate. Radically alone, even inside each other. Physical bliss equals extinction.”
• • •
Those readers after an etiology of Terror’s guilt will search these pages in vain. Beyond a few enigmatic clues—the sexual angst, which spills frequently into a fretful though loving paternal angst; a boyhood spent hunting rats “with a break-barrel .177, hunched in the dark”; a visit to Cordoba—this book has little time for autobiography and narrative. The encounter Terror stages with sin is general and recursive, not personal, directing us away from the causes of guilt (as if guilt were something contingent and therefore possible to evade) to the inescapable formal drama of being guilty. Here we are led back to the problem of original sin, though Martinez de las Rivas engages with it at an altogether more primal level than Hill does. As his comments in recent interviews make clear, Christian theology has always functioned in Hill’s poetry more as a profound myth than a tenet in any sort of orthodox faith. The doctrine of original sin does not describe a divinely ordained condition; rather, it is a supremely powerful analogy for that secondary, “empirical” level of linguistic guilt.
For Martinez de las Rivas, salvation (if you can call it that) has the quality of a traumatic ordeal.
Martinez de las Rivas, it seems, believes in the Christian story more fundamentally, and this might well account for the visceral emotive pitch—the terror—that differentiates his work from Hill’s. Many of the poems are set in fields and forests: exposed natural theaters where birds of prey lie in wait, ready to carry off creatures like the rat eulogized in “Skull of a Rat, Museum of Antiquities, Newcastle-upon-Tyne,” who “knew what it meant to break cover & scuttle / beneath the gale of talons, the tailfeathers’ ineluctable airbreak.” In “Annulment” the aerial threat comes from God Himself:
Genuflecting among the basal leaves of withering harebells, I saw and see the barred and agile God ravenous in hís snowdrift of feathers tearing at the plucked anus. . . .
Here the register veers risibly toward hysteria, but it would be unwise to doubt its sincerity. The God of Terror is one whose love “is not our love, in constancy and affection, but as the wind that thrashes the maple, then withdraws” (“Coldsong”). From here it is perhaps only a short leap to imagining God as a winged assailant, like Zeus come in the form of a swan to ravage Leda.
This is where I must begin my objection to Martinez de las Rivas’s exacting, electric first collection. My quarrel isn’t poetic so much as theological: throughout Terror there is a deficit of grace and light. Yes, Christianity teaches us about the predicament of original sin, but it also delivers the good news of Christ’s death and resurrection. For Martinez de las Rivas, salvation (if you can call it that) has the quality of a traumatic ordeal. In “Boscombe” it is compared to an airplane thundering overhead as it comes in to land, “the scream of turbofans decelerating as if the last days had come upon us.” “Stability in the Text” refers to
the moment of redemption not felt as love,
but a self-righting by which hé might,
without guilt, look us
in the eye.
Most implausible about this theological position is its implication that Christ—presumably the “hé” (these accented pronouns seem always to refer to the divinity)—is the one who would feel guilt, rather than fallen man. It’s a telling heterodoxy, since this continuous imagery of God as predatory and harassing has the cumulative effect of binding Him into the mire of human guilt—not as the ultimate release from guilt, as the gospels surely promise Him to be, but part of the problem.
• • •
Near the end of “Poetry as ‘Menace’ and ‘Atonement’,” Hill quotes the seventeenth-century cleric Jeremy Taylor: "Attrition begins with fear; Contrition hath hope and love in it; the first is a good beginning, but it is no more." He later appeals to the theologian Martin Jarrett-Kerr, who claimed that “repentance is an attitude of mind which implies readiness to have the mind changed.” Both of these wise and moving homilies strike me as vital correctives to the despairing, superstitious, and arguably heretical vision of faith at large in Terror.
Overwhelmingly, the speaker’s remorse is won through the attritional forces of self-reproach; there is little of hope and love in either its general attitude or its formal eschatology. What this amounts to, in such relentless quantities, is a wearying unwillingness, or inability, to have the mind changed. The result is a radically foreshortened scope for the “atonement” that Hill reminds us is the end of all great literature. One doubts whether Martinez de las Rivas, who has internalized so assiduously Hill’s observations on guilt and “menace,” has paid adequate attention to the second half of the essay’s concerns.
For large swathes of Terror, this ongoing menace is upheld formally, through stanza shapes that are boxy and hemmed in, tending toward the austere terrain of prose poetry. The second of the book’s four sections, Natura, consists of sixteen precisely measured ten-line verse paragraphs. This formal straightjacket is striking at first, but over the course of the sequence—which contains the bleakest and most despairing material in the collection, such as “Gehenna”—the strict, foursquare boundaries inflict a grinding lack of movement and ironic interplay. As a sustained performance it is admirable; it is just no place to linger for any length of time, for the sake of either spiritual health or imaginative nourishment. Mercifully, Martinez de las Rivas’s talents as a prosodist aren’t limited to these inclement experiments. Several poems in the collection flourish by dint of a lilting, enjambed music that stands in poignant contrast to the surrounding asperity. Where redemption feels genuinely possible in Terror, there tends to be a corresponding openness of form.
We see this in the penultimate poem, “Jack Clemo,” which builds to one of the few moments of uplift in the whole collection. We begin on a misty mountain, exposed once again to the ominous movement of birds above—their “wings drilling the invisible host from cover to cover”—and a natural world filled with gothic wickedness and dread, in which “the cramped and sullen thorns in anguish loomed.” Then, in the final four lines, we turn a corner:
picking our way down a gully deepening into spate,
the fog whitened, glared alarmingly, then lifted in one sweep
from the sheer drop-off of the cliff—we saw
as if through glass the road receding among grey rocks | the citadel.
The redemptive power of these lines derives largely from enjambment. Each line ending moves us quickly down a steep gradient. When the fog whitens, then lifts, it is more than just beautiful; it is a lifesaver, enabling the speaker and his addressee to see the peril of the cliff-face and halt before the abyss. The line break awakens the senses. To arrive here, the speaker of the collection—if we can allow such a generality—has had to make himself vulnerable, receptive, alert to circumstances beyond the controlling dogma of his despair. In short, the flexuous movement from line to line reflects a willingness to have the mind changed. Small wonder, then, that at this late hour of the collection the prospect opens, finally, onto redemption in the shape of “the citadel.” The restless penitent has progressed to Jarrett-Kerr’s “attitude of mind” that denotes genuine repentance, and through it found genuine grace.
August 25, 2015
15 Min read time