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)

At first glance, The Book of Baruch might seem a curate’s egg: ‘Fox faeces and lavender in a beribboned box return to sender.’ (180). Parts appear deeply personal:

Can recall, in Lewis’s restaurant, Brum—last time before that terminator of a
         bomb (we were there on a rare jaunt)—a man with a crop of red grapes
         sprouting from the integument behind one ear. I felt a chemical desire
         to tug and caress that rubberoid mass: it has been a lifetime’s obsession
         I cannot explain; again I feel the saliva begin to run.

Starting from a memory, this single verse-line leapfrogs the anecdotal to prod and probe the powers of disgust. To speak of a ‘crop’, rather than a bunch or cluster of red grapes brings oddly to mind the gullet or craw of a bird. Insofar as grapes are literally mouth-watering, they are rendered all the more revolting when applied figuratively to a disfigurement. The word ‘sprouting’, heightened by contrast with the Latinate ‘integument’, gives the man’s tumour a foul vitality. The ‘chemical desire’ shows something strongly involuntary at work. Disgust clashes with morbid fascination and pity in the contrasting volition of the two infinitives (‘to tug and caress’) where that conjunction ‘and’ is more alarming than would be ‘or’. The suffix in ‘rubberoid’ works acoustically to conjure the pertinent word ‘haemorrhoid’, whilst the use of the word ‘mass’, following as it does the ‘red grapes’, may ...
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