Barry Hill: Eagerly We Burn: Selected Poems 1980 – 2018

Bristol, UK: Shearsman, 2019, 193pp.

At fewer than two hundred pages, Eagerly We Burn – the title is taken from one of the poems in a collaborative book with the artist, John Wolseley, devoted to birds – is a restrained and tight selected given the size of Barry Hill’s poetic output. The poems are organised by book but retrospectively (ie beginning with new work and ending with Hill’s first book, Raft) and there’s quite a bit of revision, especially of the earlier work, though it’s not rewriting, more a matter of adjusting and polishing. Raft was published when its author was forty-seven and the earliest poems in it were written when he was forty. That’s a late start for a poet but it does provide some clues that might help frame a description of what Hill has done and is doing. One gets a strong sense that the poems arise from what one is tempted to call “projects” though this can convey an inaccurate impression of a preconceived and planned intellectual quest. Hill’s projects might better be described as long term engagements with certain cultural, spiritual, intellectual, emotional and artistic experiences. Not necessarily an unusual source of poems but seldom done so exhaustively. Engagements like that are part of the powerful drive to extend the borders of the self, to, in Auden’s words, “twig from what we are not what we might be next”, and they tend to begin in maturity.

A good – and reasonably self-contained – example might be Naked Clay, a series of poems engaged with Lucian Freud’s paintings. At a hundred and fifty pages, it was twice the length of the average book of poems and nothing like the mere sequences that tend turn up in other poets’ ekphrastic work. I mention this vulgar matter of size just to stress how exhaustive Hill’s engagements can be. These poems work through the whole span of Freud’s career but one’s sense of them is that they want to come at the paintings from every possible angle; to probe not only the paintings but the capacities of poetry itself especially as it relates to the visual arts. Most of the poems acknowledge the painting to which they refer in their titles. Some of them describe the painting – “A smear of snotty cream / marks the forehead / for the squall” – rejoicing in words’ capacity to “capture” or at least analogously recreate the thick impasto of Freud’s technique. We might think of such poems as belonging to the historical origins of ekphrasis, involving a recreation and transmission of an original. But there are poems which enter into the imagined consciousness of the sitter sometimes as a simple statement of what might be in the model’s mind – “The girl with the white dog / as still as the door closed behind her / is daydreaming of mice / in a drawer of socks” – and sometimes as monologue – “In the palm of one hand / I can feel the soft weight of the bird . . .”, “Because I keep the company of lions / he’s given me a Jack Dempsey nose”. Sometimes he’ll make a stab at entering the consciousness of the painter himself: “Wasteground with Houses, Paddington, 1970-72” does this at length beginning with the death of Freud’s father – “As his father lay dying / and after the death of his father / he turned to look / out of his window . . .” and finishing:

Even now the eye can run along them like a hand
                   takes hold of a warm cock
                   more than half a dozen of them
to be frank to be crude to fuck this painting up, almost.

It’s what happens to views in miserable London light.
You can come back from somewhere else
                    from the Low Countries, for instance
feeling you have put so many things behind you
                    and looking out the window
                            as if for the first time
the most ordinary thing has an extraordinary glow
                            to it, has caught fire.

At other times the poems spin into Hill’s own autobiography. “Hotel Bedroom, 1954” begins “This painting hurls me back again / into where my first wife slept – / my dreading the day she’d turn to see / all my clinical tendencies” and Freud’s mother paintings lead to Hill’s own parents, the book finishing with a long poem, “Magnanimity”, which revisits life with these parents. Another extended poem, “In Sight of Death”, might be seen to be a version of the book in miniature but it also deals with the question of poetry itself and how it is influenced by the fact that it is enmeshed in a “project”.

The mother paintings and Hill’s “Magnanimity” also front up to the issue of the human body and the disconcerting experience of seeing it as exposed as it is in Freud’s paintings. In other words, the autobiographical drift that a number of the poems have is balanced by a generalised intellectual interest in the body and the way it is represented in the paintings. And that isn’t all that these poems attempt but it’s enough to establish the idea that Hill’s poems often are embedded in a multipronged assault on a particular issue. And sometimes the poems are only part of the process. Hill has a collection of essays and reviews, Reason & Lovelessness, which shows that many of the subjects appearing in the poems can be accompanied by some extended expository prose dealing with the same issue: in this case there are two essay/reviews relevant to Naked Clay – “Brushes with the Body” and “Getting to Grips with Naked”.

I’ve looked at Naked Clay at some length – and it is a tour de force – but in truth I could have done the same for any of the projects that Hill’s life and intellectual work embrace. “Exhaustive multipronged engagement” would be the best condensed description I could give of this poetry. I have written about Lines for Birds (another tour de force) elsewhere on this site but, revisiting it – and there is a good and generous selection in Eagerly We Burn – you can see that it shares a similar pattern though its interests are as far from the human body as is possible since it is concerned with birds, inhabitants of the natural world which we interact with but which are, ultimately, beyond our understanding. As in Naked Clay, there are poems of “capture”, poems of exploration and poems of scientific engagement: multipronged but different. At one extreme there is something like “On the Brilliant Engagement of Two Paradise Riflebirds” which deliciously evokes those amazing birds but is done as a monologue from the male bird’s point of view – “What we did was preen and groom / our feathers. We opened the orange / depths of our beaks / pleased at the split husks // the crimson fruit, its surrender”. This unusual perspective, coupled with the highly “literary” title and a set of possible double entendres means that a reader is always going to be aware of the possibility that the relationship spoken about is a human, sexual one. As a result what seems to be the most daring inter-species extension of the self might be, at the same time, a single-species love poem. The poem which begins the selection from Lines for Birds is “Thrush Summer (1959)”, a more straightforward piece of personal poetry:

That bird, in the heat
bursting out of itself.
. . . . . 
O summer thrush of youth
a rush of beaky songs
the streaming of bass notes
as if culture is new!
The corn under starry skies.
When we were young and ablaze -
spirit arrivals.

At first there seems no doubt that the bird must be subordinated to the human here since it’s a poem about the ecstatic sexual love of sixteen year olds. But Hill’s poetic personality is such that the bird is more than mere symbol. The young man moves out of himself into the bird – “Young man bird / woman at his call” – and in the last line the thrush is configured as the spirit which arrives to turn dreary adolescents into burning lovers. There is also an ambiguity in that last line – the plural “arrivals” nags one into thinking about it – so that perhaps it is the couple who are spirit arrivals. If that is the case then the superimposition of the bird and the couple becomes attractively complex: bird metamorphosing into the spirit of summer, Shaw Neilson style, and humans metamorphosing into spirit as well so that birds and humans are interspecially interwoven.

In Lines for Birds the first poem is not “Thrush Summer (1959)” but “Eagerly We Burn” which goes on to be the title of this selected. Whereas the former aspires to be nothing more than a complex lyric, hiding surprises under what seems to be a conventional genre piece, “Eagerly We Burn” is difficult at every level. Set in the aftermath of a fire in the scrub lands of north west Victoria and south west NSW it is partly a poem about the collaboration of artist and poet in the book. The drawings on paper are made with charcoal, the material that the fires have left behind but, just as the bush recovers quickly from fire – “there’s amber growth from tubers / frisky ginger everywhere” – so art and poetry are involved in recreation: “If it [the Honey Eater] perished it would live / in the lines you make”. This seems unremarkable enough but there are a couple of complexifying features. The poem’s first line, “From the war-zone of burnt goodbyes”, suggests that the bushfire itself might be symbolic of destroyed human relationships. And the very mention of fire recalls Buddhism – a subject appearing throughout Hill’s work and which I’ll speak about later – and the notion in the Fire Sermon that fire symbolizes the human world of sensory attachments. And this reading makes the tone of the title (and last line) tricky to establish, at least for someone approaching Hill’s poetry from the outside. It’s a matter of how Hill’s poetry engages with a different culture with a different attitude to the natural world, that is, an intercultural issue of the sort that others of Hill’s “projects” are involved with. Here it might be designed to reveal a double perspective on the same landscape.

If the poems devoted to the Freud paintings take us into questions of the body, the mother (introducing an analytical perspective established by Lucian Freud’s grandfather) and the multiple meanings of nakedness, and Lines For Birds takes us into questions of our relationship to other species, other “projects” of Hill’s bring us into the equally complex world of extending the self by encountering different cultures. He has moved west (and into the interior of Australia) in poems relating to experiences of aboriginal culture and east in poems engaging with Mahayana Buddhism. Interestingly not into the north – the equally disorienting regions explored in the past by people like Rasmussen and more recently by Barry Lopez.

The poems about Aboriginal culture have two loci. There are poems in The Inland Sea which are responses to life in Central Australia, what one might call lyrics with an analytical touch. These are counterparts to Hill’s work on the biography of TGH Strehlow (which, I’m ashamed to say I am yet to read) and they also mesh in with a series of essays on Central Australia collected in the second part of Reason & Lovelessness. In other words, there is the same sense of powerful intellectual engagement producing both prose and poems as part of the equipment with which it can be tackled. The central issues of any desire to expand the self by meeting the different are laid out in the opening paragraph of an essay called “Crossing Cultures”:

If crossing means overcoming difference, arriving at some point of identity, making a whole new home in another culture, this, with regard to Aboriginal culture, is next to impossible. . . . . . We may enter the other, yes, but only via the dream, the unconscious, night-time enactments of exotic signs. You might reach the other side, yes, but how do you safely get back?

Orientalism generation who see all such things as results of patriarchal imperialism (the Oedipal lambasting of ancestors is surely the dreariest of contemporary genres). I won’t go into this at any greater depth since Hill’s own poems about Central Australia are only a small part of his thoughts about the issue. But it does occur to me that the real “crossings”, the real points of contact and sympathy may need to be made not with other ethnicities but with our own predecessors whom contemporary intellectual positions tend to distort and cartoonise. Hill’s essay “Through Larapinta Land” isn’t free of this judgementalism when it looks at the work of Baldwin Spencer but operates by contrasting him to Darwin, a more acceptable nineteenth century intellectual.

The other component of Hill’s engagement with black Australia is in his booklength account of the life of William Buckley, the convict who, escaping from the first attempted settlement at Port Phillip Bay in 1803, lived among Aboriginal people before surrendering to the merchants who arrived thirty-two years later. Buckley’s case is fascinating and, seemingly, designed for a late twentieth-century treatment because of the complicated way it is locked in text. We only have extended access to Buckley though a ghost-written autobiography of twenty years later. And the author is a not entirely trustworthy journalist with an agenda (it rather recalls Rusticello‘s ghosting of Marco Polo’s travels). There are other textual fragments scattered among other people of the period who came into contact with Buckley. And so far from being a sudden trustworthy anthropological insight into the alien world (as, for example, Ibn Fadhlan’s meeting with the Vikings on the Volga) we have an enigma amongst enigmas wrapped in text. And given the local Aboriginal’s tendency to see a giant white man as a ghost, a whole new range of meanings is added to the contemporary phrase “ghost-writer” (Hill’s book is significantly called Ghosting William Buckley). What strikes one about the poems of this book – I’ll spare my readers a long analysis – is their variety and their varied angles of attack. The book isn’t, in other words, a smooth narrative (epic style) from a considered authorial position so much as an examination of what different kinds of poem can say about a particular moment, and which moments can be dealt with in which ways by poetry. The early poems, for example, look a little like eighteenth century ballads. Later on there are poems about birds and fish that recall the later poems of Lines for Birds. But, most interestingly, we can see Buckley as an example of that earlier question: “You might reach the other side, yes, but how do you get safely back?” In my reading, entirely provisional, Buckley loses his language (at least for a while) and his self, permanently. His later career is as odd as Alexander Selkirk’s or Swift’s Gulliver returned from the land of the Houyhnhnms. His isn’t so much an expansion of the self as an annihilation.

And it has a kind of relevance for those poems of Hill’s that deal with his journeys East since an evacuated, non-self seems something more in keeping with Buddhist and Taoist traditions than Western ones. The East is present in Hill’s poems from the very beginning. The first book, Raft, is structured around the idea of the Dharma raft, derived from a parable imagined to be by the Buddha. I’m not confident about the religions east of the Indus River which form a vast ocean in which I have only ever paddled but, as far as I can tell, the raft can be interpreted as the moral and sensory experiences which get the pilgrim to the farther shore and which are designed to be jettisoned once that shore is reached. The alternative reading (which leads one down a never-ending alleyway of paradox) is that the raft is the Buddha’s teachings themselves, designed somehow to be abandoned after success. I think Hill’s poems are based around the former interpretation: the early poems in the section, ”Floating”, are about the conventional subjects of lyric poetry – the self and its attachments.

But Raft is a first book. The East appears most importantly in two of the other books, Four Lines East and Grass Hut Work, published in 2009 and 2016 respectively. The former is a kind of superior visitor’s book with brief vignettes of India, China and Japan whereas the latter is close to a pilgrim’s book, a book of immersions. “Under the Sign of Necessity” from Four Lines East is a good example of the issues which, I’ve been arguing, Hill is interested in. It recounts a visit in Kolkata to the Bengali poet, Nabaneeta Dev Sen:

In the comfortable room, our bellies full
we had been talking ideas, of language,
and you had read a poem
the one about your young men hardened
by killing in the name
not of their mother, but justice.
And I had read a poem in return
one about the bomber with the pretty smile . . .

This is a vision of the best of East-West ecumenical bonding, poetry as a place in which shared and different experiences can be aired as parties come together in the best spirit – what the poem describes as “the loving silence”. But looking out of the bathroom window Hill sees two rickshaw men

     in the smouldering street light below
a near-naked man washed at the pump
the gutter startlingly clean all around him
his body as fresh as the speech
he directed like water to a man nearby.

The listener had a small towel over his shoulder.
He seemed to have all the time in the world. . .
A song must have linked the rickshaw men.
But then I had to turn away - 
Neither knowing their poem
Nor the wars they might be in.

The point of this scene (there are a few differences between its appearance in Four Lines East and Eagerly We Burn) is that there are limits to empathic relations between cultures just as, I suppose, there are limits to empathic relations between any individuals within a culture. Another fine, though entirely conventional, poem recalls the experience of the traveller – slightly fuddled by the “street fumes, prejudice, difference” of India and trying, by writing his diary, to “put / more definition into these daily labours” – coming across a leaf from the bodhi tree pressed between the pages of the diary. It’s a kind of call to meditation to free the mind from the endless detail of life:

. . . . . 
Coming upon the leaf might have put a halt
to the attempts at shape, at true memory.
After all, if a man is serious about that tree
he might abandon the thickets of words . . .

There is a justified sense that the freed meditative mind of Buddhism might be inimical to the kinds of poetry that appeal to us, a genuine and dangerous (for a poet) clash of cultures. The poem resolves it by allowing the leaf to have, on its underside, a “half dozen petrified eggs, like seeds” which enables Hill to, at least momentarily and provisionally, dissipate the tensions: “You continue to transport words across paper. / Tissues of flight, and eggs, find their place”.

It all comes down to the crucial question of how profound the cultural differences, especially between East and West are. If all humans partake of the same experiences merely inflected by the cultures in which they are embedded then a westerner can respond to those elements that help expand his or her personality or which offer expansive possibilities for poetry. And the same for an easterner experiencing the West. But if the cultures are fundamentally irreconcilable then, deep down, the result can only be a kind of cherry-picking. It’s good to appreciate the calm compassion of Buddhism, for example, but is it predicated on a view of the universe which is quite intolerable to a westerner?

My impulse is to belong to this school of irreconcilability and I need to speak personally here for a moment to explain why since it profoundly influences how I read these poems, why I like them and why I think the best of Hill comes out of poems camped in the difficult areas of the meeting of the two cultures. As I said earlier, my knowledge of the religions from east of the Indus is very sketchy and I’ve never had the sense of excitement and expansion that so many others, betters, have. My text for whatever understanding I have of the major religions of Asia and Europe is Joseph Campbell’s Masks of God series, especially the second volume, Oriental Mythology. This book is now nearly sixty years old and I’ve had my copy for fifty of those years. Even at its date of publication it must have produced groans from experts in the field of comparative religion and ethnology because of its synthesising sweep and confident (now, we would probably say, imperial/intellectual) analyses. Today it is probably in even less repute, consigned to the box of remaindered conspectuses alongside Frazer’s The Golden Bough and Spengler’s The Decline of the West among many, many others. But for all this, there is, at the opening of Oriental Mythology, a magical overview called “The Signatures of the Four Great Domains”. In Campbell’s view the fundamental split (the Indus River of religions) is between the West whose god is an independent creator, producing a world and human beings separate from itself, and the East whose god creates the world and its inhabitants by dividing itself so that all creation is part of the god. Each of these two irreconcilable religious cultures is then divided into two. The West contains the Greek-influenced response to being one of the creatures of the gods, stressing opposition and an argumentative stance towards the higher powers, not as a childish dummy-spit but as part of a mature development of an adult ego, able to face the difficulties that engagement with life will produce. It’s exactly the kind of culture that looks towards the possibility of expanding the horizons of the self by travel (at the benevolent level) but contains also the seeds of imperial conquest. The second component of the religion of the West is made up of the levantine religions of submission: Judaism, Christianity and Islam.

The East also has its double face. It is a culture of meditation (the divine is contained in the self) and expresses the importance of the yogic/meditative discipline in the famous metaphor of the lake. Blown by the winds of self and unfocussed thought, the lake produces only fragmented images but when the mind is cleared and the lake still, it produces a perfect image of reality. As Campbell says,

We should then see that all the broken images, formerly only fleetingly perceived, were actually but fragments of these true and steady forms, now clearly and steadily beheld. And we should have at our command thereafter both the possibility of stilling the pond, to enjoy the fundamental form, and that of letting the winds blow and the waters ripple, for the enjoyment of the play (līlā) of the transformations . . . . . But whereas the usual point of view and goal of the Indian has always been typically that of the yogi striving for an experience of the water stilled, the Chinese and Japanese have tended, rather, to rock with the ripple of the waves. Compared with any of the basic theological or scientific systems of the West, the two views are clearly of a kind; however, compared with each other in their own terms they show a diametric contrast: the Indian bursting the shell of being, dwells in rapture in the void of eternity, which is at once within and beyond, whereas the Chinese or Japanese, satisfied that the Great Emptiness indeed is the Mover of all things, allows things to move and, neither fearing nor desiring, allowing his own life to move with them, participates in the rhythm of the Tao.

The whole section finishes with a displaying of the four iconic figures of these religious sub-groups:

The four representatives, respectively, of human reason and the responsible individual, supernatural revelation and the one true community under God, yogic arrest in the immanent great void, and spontaneous accord with the way of earth and heaven [are] Prometheus, Job, the seated Buddha, eyes closed, and the wandering Sage, eyes open . . .

I’ve always found this profoundly useful as a rough map for negotiating the two Buddhisms (Theravada and Mahayana), Taoism etc and for plotting where the sites of conflict are likely to be. It helps explain why western poets have been more comfortable with Oriental (ie Chinese and Japanese) religions and poetry since West and East here share a fascination with the natural world and each has tried to pioneer ways of expressing landscape in words (or to pioneer ways of expressing the impossibility of expressing the world in words). It’s a moment of common interests, like the meeting in Nabaneeta Dev Sen’s room, where the differences are helpful and serve to expand perspectives and possibilities. But the poetic temperaments are so different: the western poet has to make a massive assertion of ego to write and publish or speak a poem, and egotism is an important driver in the western tradition, valuable as long as it is finely enough balanced: underdeveloped it produces the immature sense of the self that leads to victimhood, overdeveloped – well, everyone knows where that leads. The great poems of the Japanese and Chinese traditions don’t treat the self in any way at all resembling this. There’s an unbridgeable gap, in other words, between Wordsworth’s Prelude and Basho’s travels in the far north.

Western poets have learned from oriental poets how to move poetry closer to life-as-lived by exploiting diary form. It’s a form that reconfigures the poetic ego slightly by adding immediacy of response, provisionality, sketchiness and even disposableness to lyric poetry. I don’t want to imply that Four Winds East and Grass Hut Work incline towards a sort of devotional diary because the latter, for example, contains a major and extended poem like “On Getting to Grips with the Heart Sutra”. One of the poems of Grass Hut Work, “Basho’s Sin”, refers to the famous poem and uses it as a marker for the irreconcilability of the traditions that I’ve been speaking of:

Basho’s Sin

was leaving that child
by the side
of the road.

Only a larger Taoism
will do
to explain it . . .

It is part of a series in the book devoted to a pilgrimage not to a standard religious site but to the Peace Park in Hiroshima. It’s another point of painful interaction between West and East requiring attempts at reconciliation, of “facing the music” as one of the poems says. It also expresses the fundamental paradox of the Promethean ward of the City of Religion. As inhabitants of these suburbs, we can spare ourselves the mind-numbing niceness of the Dalai Lama and the mind-numbing abstractions of seemingly endless Buddhist “discourses”. In exchange we give the world the genuine miracle of the Hubble telescope but we also give it the atom bomb.

To be fair to Campbell, as early as 1962 he reminds us that his map of the great European and Asian religions is really a description of a past state. Interactions between them – poets and intellectuals travelling in both directions and spending extended periods of time in these locations of cultural otherness – mean that the boundaries are changing. I still think that the differences are irreconcilable and that most of the good things that emerge – as in Hill’s poetry – are likely to come from an open-eyed and open-minded engagement with these differences. But some sort of syncretism is possible and two thousand years from now the interactions may be shown to have produced whole new structures of religious and philosophical thought quite unfamiliar to the world of Prometheus, Job and the two very different sages.