This review is taken from Stand 222, 17(2) May - June 2019.

Geoffrey Hill, The Book of Baruch by the Gnostic Justin, edited by Kenneth Haynes (OUP, 2019)

In Geoffrey Hill’s final, lengthy meditation on mortality, poetry, national identity and Brexit, images of pregnancy and birth occur with surprising frequency. From the imagination as an ‘old womb’ re-invested with ‘reluctant shame’ (8) to the talk of ultrasounds (42), ‘monstrous birth[s], (78) ‘labouring with curses’ (31) waters breaking (118) and the notion of ‘Ante – and post-partum’ power (119), The Book of Baruch by the Gnostic Justin frequently draws upon the language of gestation to create a work that feels pregnant both with history and the unknown territory of what is yet to come.

Given the timing and concerns of this collection, the use of pregnancy and birth metaphors feels both ironic and deeply moving. Always intended as a posthumous collection, and written under the looming shadow of the Brexit referendum and all it might entail, The Book of Baruch looks forwards to a future that Hill knew he wouldn’t bear witness to. Reading it after his death, in the midst of the political chaos that he anticipates, the effect is unsettling. Indeed, the prophetic voice of the poet – at once playful, reflective, mournful, and condemnatory – lingers long after the final poem.

More informal and intimate than Hill’s most recent later works (a fact the poet was aware of; as he notes halfway through the book, ‘This, it is becoming clear, is more a daybook than The Daybooks were’ (186), The ...
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