Poetry and Love's Work

Like Fr. Robert Imbelli, I was prompted by Paul Griffiths's review to read Gillian Rose's Love's Work. I found the book challenging in several ways. The writing, though generally lucid and often lyrical, can also be dense, knotted, abstruse. (Rose was a scholar of Continental philosophy, so perhaps this should come as no surprise.)

The main challenge of Love's Work, though, is the demanding nature of its philosophy of love. Rose writes of her many failed love affairs and the implications of these failures in an unflinching, unsentimental manner. "There is no democracy in any love relation," Rose warns, "only mercy." She explores what she calls "the joy and the agony of loving," and, in her account, the joy can never be separated from the agony.

Still, despite and sometimes because of these difficulties, Love's Work is an incredibly rich and illuminating text. At times, Love's Work approaches poetry in its compressed suggestiveness: "It is power to be able to attend, powerful or powerless; it is love to laugh bitterly, purgatively, purgatorially, and then to be quiet." This sentence could have come right out of T. S. Eliot's Four Quartets.

Speaking of poetry, the New York Review of Books reissue of Love's Work includes as a kind of postscript a poem by Geoffrey Hill, and it's this poem, "In Memoriam: Gillian Rose," that I want to look at briefly. Like Rose, Hill is a notoriously difficult writer. As critic William Logan has written, Hill's thorny, allusive verse makes "him a poet more despised than admired, and more admired than loved." Yet "In Memoriam," an elegy written after Rose's death, is a poem that the common reader can enjoy, in particular the common reader who has made his or her way through Rose's searing memoir.

The poem is written in a chatty, informal tone (or at least chatty compared to Hill's more usual stentorian tone), and this helps establish a feeling of intimacy between the reader, the poet, and the philosopher. The poem opens with a question. More accurately, it opens with the declaration that a question will be asked:

I have a question to ask for the form's sake:

how that small boy in the seaside

photographs became the unstable man,

hobbyist of his own rage, engrafting it

on a stock of compliance, of hurt women.

Despite Hill's reputation for inscrutability, his poetry contains many lovely turns-of-phrase: his image of himself as a "hobbyist of his own rage," for instance, is a wonderful description of how we often nurture our anger and resentments. He can also be quite funny. In the poem's third section, he admits that he did not bring flowers to the ailing but still fiercely tough-minded Rose. And good thing, too: "Despite the correct moves, you would have wiped me / in the championship finals of dislike."

Yet what remains with us from this first stanza is not a striking image or a witty aside, but a sense of the difficulty, and sadness, of the elegiac mode itself. The question that Hill wants to ask--how the innocent child becomes the experienced adult--is particularly painful since it is an elderly poet asking it of a philosopher who, Hill reminds us, "asked not to be / cheated of old age" but was anyway. And, of course, the real sadness is that this question must be asked within this particular form, the "elegy." It's telling that the poem's first sentence ends with a period rather than with a question mark: it isn't really a question since Rose can't answer it.

But Hill still holds out hope that, even though Rose has died, her political and philosophical projects might continue. Rose's writing centered on the continual, broken quest for justice and love. As she writes in Love's Work, "to live, to love, is to be failed, to forgive, to have failed, to be forgiven, for ever and ever." In love and in politics, failure will always recur, but this fact simply (although it's never really simple) demands more forgiveness. Hill argues that this legacy--of building upon and through failure--will live on:

So it continues,

the work, lurching on broken springs

or having to be dug out or jump-started

or welded together out of two wrecks

or donated to a good cause, like to the homeless

in the city that is not just, has never

known justice, except sporadically.

Hill connects this ongoing, ever-incomplete seeking after justice to the ongoing, ever-incomplete process of poetic creation:

Poetry's its own agon that allows us

to recognize devastation as the rift

between power and powerlessness. But when I

say poetry I mean something impossible

to be described, except by adding lines

to lines that are sufficient as themselves.

One of Rose's most influential concepts is the aporia, the inevitable gap that separates the universal from the particular, the ideal from the practical. (This is a gross simplification, but it will have to do.) For Rose, this gap generates both metaphysics and ethics. Hill believes that poetry, like metaphysics, is an in-between discipline, dwelling in the aporia, powerfully acknowledging and exploring the rifts that structure our existence: the gap between the powerful and the powerless, the City of God and the City of Man.

Hill ends his poem with an affirmation:

This ending is not the end,

more like the cleared spaces around St Paul's

and the gutted City after the fire-raid.

I find love's work a bleak ontology

to have to contemplate; it may be all we have.

Rose similarly ends her memoir by proclaiming, "I will stay in the fray, in the revel of ideas and risk; learning, failing, wooing, grieving, trusting, working, reposing in this sin of language and lips." Just as Hill wants to distinguish between "this ending and the end," Rose uses verbals (learning, failing, wooing, etc.) to signify the ongoing nature of her project. For both Hill and Rose, the most important things of this world can never be perfected, but must always be in a state of perfecting. In this privileging of agon, of continual risk and productive conflict, the poet and the philosopher of love agree.

Anthony Domestico is an assistant professor of literature at Purchase College, SUNY, and the author of Poetry and Theology in the Modernist Period (Johns Hopkins University Press, 2017). He writes Commonweal's "Bookmarks" column.

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