book Speech! Speech!

reviewed by Rachel Barenblat

Published in Issue No. 46 ~ March, 2001

Because Geoffrey Hill is an Important Poet, I came to Speech! Speech! prepared to invest whatever energy the book required in order that I might achieve understanding of what I was certain would be a literary masterpiece.

I failed, or else Hill failed, because I’m not sure I understand anything.

The book opens with two epigrams: one in Latin, one in German. My Latin is mostly forgotten; I have no German. Even before reaching the poems, I felt I was at a disadvantage. That feeling persisted through my encounter with the first poem:

Erudition. Pain. Light. Imagine it great
unavoidable work; although: heroic
verse a non-starter, says PEOPLE. Some believe
we over-employ our gifts. Given identical
street parties, confusion, rapid exposure,
practice self-emulation: music for crossed
hands; for two fingers; music
for taxiing to take-off; for cremation.
Archaic means | files pillage and erased
in one generation. Judge the distance.
Innocent bystanders on stand-by. Painful
scenes mar final auto-da-fé.

There are phrases here that I like. The line about music for crossed hands, for instance. But what is self-emulation, other than a play on self-immolation? What’s the point of the diacritical | mark, other than showing us Hill knows that’s a good place for a caesura? To whom does PEOPLE refer?

Hill puts many words in caps, and not all of them seem to be characters; sometimes he does it just for emphasis. (“CAPITALS | STAGE DIRECTIONS AND OTHER/ FORMS OF SUBPOENA,” he explains belatedly in poem 117.) But other character names appear, as PEOPLE did: RAPMASTER, for instance, recurs. Unfortunately, I never deciphered who or what they are.

Hill teaches religion, and I am a religion aficionado; the lines and phrases I liked best in his book tend to be ones which mark that intersection of our interests. “Finally/ untranscribable, that which ís,” he writes in poem 16, a pleasantly taut restatement of the assertion that the Tao which can be spoken is not the eternal Tao.

Many of his religious allusions are witty. Poem 19 brings the phrase “Semiotics/ rule | semiautomatics,” which made me laugh. Poem 31 begins by playing with the Christian notion of the Word made flesh. “This WORD | the word you are so strenuously/ enacting: could it be CHARADE? Or CHIE?/ Nót CHIE? Merde then | I pass ”

Of course, I don’t know what CHIE means, nor in what language’s dictionary I should look for it, but I’m amused by his conflation of the Incarnation with a children’s game.

In poem 29, he treats the reader as a confidant:

Between us
is the Pope to be trusted? Cán he divide
night from day? What is his sphere of desire?
What price the menorah’s one-octave
chant of candles?

“[D]ivide/ night from day” uses its line break beautifully, evoking God’s famous speech in the book of Job. And I love “the menorah’s one-octave/ chant of candles[.]” But why should the menorah come at a price?

In poem 20, he riffs on Valery’s “All art aspires to the condition of music” with “Not/ music. Hebrew. Poetry aspires/ to the condition of Hebrew.” The lines reward my awareness of Valery; had I not known the quote, I would have found the assertion confusing. What’s frustrating is the feeling that every confusing element in this book might have a point, but I’m not sufficiently intellectual to get it.

Most of these poems contain interesting things that don’t link together in a way that I can decipher. The beginning of poem 71, for instance:

I trust that she is now done with the body
search, close interrogation, the finger-
printing, the restless limbo of the Quais,
the depilatory | and ritual bath.


Who is “she”? Whose body being searched? The next poem sheds no light whatsoever:

Parrot Prophet X – ad lib PRETTY
BLOODY PRETTY BLOODY. Those bloody Scots
basted in contumacy: new Bannockburn,
old dereliction. Sullen Welsh pride,
the carp half-glimpsed, a glow and shadow
deep amid water-smoke, potent, unheld

Scots? Carp? Smoke? Again and again I found myself wanting an annotated version of Speech! Speech!, a guidebook to lead me through these seemingly-unconnected words.

But I wonder if such a guidebook is even possible. He writes in poem 26:

When are computers peerless, folk
festivals not health hazards? Why and how
in these orations do I twist my text?

Why and how indeed!

I am not a fan of hypertext poetry, largely because I find the examples I’ve read to be devoid of meaning. Unfortunately, this book reads to me like a hypertext poem, as if I wandered at random through a sea of stanzas and links.

The book jacket indicates that Hill has written “a poem for each of the 120 days of Sodom,” and that this “may go too far – but then, as T. S. Eliot said, it is only by going too far that you find out how far you can go.” I could find no connection between Speech! Speech! and de Sade’s famously taste-defying book, unless it’s that Hill’s poems are so meaningless that they push the envelope of what a reasonable reader can be expected to endure.

Except they’re not all meaningless. Poem 101, for instance, is clearly about the tragedies of early Antarctic exploration:

[T]he group leans
into the camera, the unstable darkness.
Let us interpret their eyes, their uncondoned
self-recognition. Look – to be lost’s as good
as being tethered: Oates might have been found
dead on all fours behínd the tent.

Captain Scott’s ill-fated polar journey was first mentioned in poem 2; clearly this is a theme for Hill. Being obsessed with that continent’s early explorers myself, I want to engage with this poem. I just can’t figure out how it fits into the rest of the book, what role Hill means for it to play.

At first Speech! Speech! reminded me of John Berryman’s Dream Songs. The two books resemble each other in form, and initially my experience of reading Hill was not unlike my experience of reading Berryman. As in Berryman’s book, the first few poems here defy my old-fashioned desire for immediate meaning. However, the comparison broke down for me as I ventured further into Hill’s book. The Dream Songs do, ultimately, tell a story; it may be “a tale told by an idiot,” but it’s a recognizable human drama with loss at its core. Speech! Speech! seems to take Berryman’s postmodern narrative to a new level: I’m not sure there’s anything here I’m meant to understand.

Can’t you read English? What
do I meán by praise-songs? I could weep.
Thís is a praise-song. These are songs of praise.
Shall I hyphenate-fór-you? Syntax
is a dead language, your incoherence
the volatility of a dead age.

In poem 99, Hill asserts that something in his narrative is intended as a song of praise. But if syntax is a dead language (which might explain this scattered, shattered verse), then I can only assume that, for the purposes of this book, God is dead. In that case, what is left to praise?

In “Author! Author!“, William Logan cites a recent interview with Hill in suggesting that the reason Speech! Speech! makes so little sense is that Hill is on Prozac.

“Is style chemical?” he writes. “Can swallowing an amine neurotransmitter change the comprehensions of syntax a life has earned? Can the inner governings of meaning be overthrown by the palace coup of a few neurons?”

Hill is a poet deeply suspicious of his reader, of the compromises public speech demands. But a moral poet need not be styptic or mute – think of Auden, brilliant and chatty – and Hill’s poetry is the Calvinist ethic made word: only the elect will labor toward meaning.

I don’t mind laboring toward meaning, but I’m not convinced that there’s meaning here to be labored toward. Speech! Speech! may be poetry at its most perfectly postmodern: rife with plays on words; witty in places, forbidding in others; and constructed entirely out of surface, with no ultimate referent to serve as anchor. I like postmodernism as much as the next gal, but when it comes to poetry, I guess I need that anchor after all.

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Rachel Barenblat is co-founder of Inkberry, a literary organization in the Berkshires. She holds an MFA from the Bennington Writing Seminars. A chapbook of her poems, the skies here, was published by Pecan Grove Press (San Antonio) in 1995. Learn more at