SPEECH! SPEECH! by Geoffrey Hill


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Gone are the days when Hill wrote precise, formal poems of condensed agony: this collection, his eighth, is pure rant—although it’s often difficult to tell what is under attack. The agony is still there, emerging in severely chopped phrasing and cinematically rapid cuts between moods and voices. As its title indicates, it’s a speech of sorts, complete with markings that indicate the correct pronunciations of particular words and phrases. Think of it as a political speech so brilliant, difficult, and elliptical that nobody has any idea what Hill is running for, much less what his platform is. Divided into 120 12-line sections in honor of the 120-day countdown to Sodom’s destruction, the volume combines a high-modernist literary sensibility with a contemporary fascination with advertising and slang. Digs at the contemporary political and cultural scene abound (“Queer place for a cigar, Herr Präsident”), as do countless puns and anagrams and mythological references. Such juxtapositions keep the reader constantly off-balance, resulting in couplets that seem simultaneously profound, amusing, and hermetic (“AUTHENTIC SELF a stinker; pass it on, / nasum in ano / the contagious circles”). Occasionally the narrator breaks out into lyrical, “poetic” language, generally finding ways to undo the spell through self-reflexiveness (“overnight / the first frail ice / edging across the pond, / self-making otherness by recognition— / even as I describe it”). Ultimately, this is a great deal more interesting than simple chaos, and the whole does begin to add up (when it adds up at all) to what Hill in his closing lines calls the “English Limper” (as opposed to, say, the English Sapphic).

Not for readers bent on clarity: it’s nearly as messy as, and a great deal more erudite than, real life.

Pub Date: Nov. 1st, 2000
ISBN: 1-58243-098-5
Page count: 80pp
Publisher: Counterpoint
Review Posted Online:
Kirkus Reviews Issue: Oct. 1st, 2000