The White Fire of Time by Ellen Hinsey, Bloodaxe Books, £7.95
Potential Stranger by Killarney Clary, University of Chicago Press,
Here, two books of prose poetry by American women poets, dealing with the metaphysical
and contemplative inner life. Ellen Hinsey is a celebrated American poet.
This collection first published by Wesleyan University Press, is not
exclusively a prose poem collection; some poems are written in lineated verse
in a ‘hinged’ or counterpointed form that Hinsey has made her own:
Dead too, have their tasks‑their pilgrimage
this is the Dead-willful-making their passage.
Her programme is metaphysical poetry; meditative, drawing on a depth and
breadth of cultural and spiritual knowledge from The Upanishads to Aristotle
via the Jewish faith. Where many of Hinsey’s images (and much of her erudition)
shine with astonishing beauty:
the future waiting latent in fragile cells:
last, terse verses of curled leaves hanging in air
these are oftentimes lost in a form of abstraction that aims too high above
itself to express what cannot be expressed in words and, therefore, inevitable
was no air. Rather, there was an infinite vastness filled with
totality of history…
Had such a line with its crashing abstractions (‘infinite’, ‘vastness’,
‘totality’, ‘history’) been presented to me by one of my students, I would
have sent it back demanding answers to basic questions of meaning and music. In
reading Hinsey’s collection, I find myself asking these same questions again
and again; demanding redress from such phrases as ‘the yellow music of
mathematics’ and other vaguenesses:
in each moment the green river of lichen
undoes, the kingdom of surety.
Add to this a rather ambitious spiritual architecture for the whole text with
sections imperiously titled ‘The World’, ‘Intermezzo’, ‘The Celestial Ladder’,
and ‘from the Book on the Nature of Things’ and I’m just about ready for some
plain talking. Which is a terrible pity, because there is a great deal that I
do admire in this writing, not least in the poem ‘Intermezzo: from the book on
the nature of things’:
then is the Body?
passing handprint; a thin wave in the voice of time.
of discourse. A rage of wind in the trees
Sensation of Grace
be like a fish suspended in a net, caught up in the web of the world.
itinerant, travels independent of us, performing in all the provinces.
abandon simplicity and climb the tilted ladder of paradox.
Pursuit of Good
find out where the soul is hiding from evil.
then, if the soul exists-what a thicket it lives in!
In these stronger moments, I am fascinated and moved by these spare, beautiful
prose poems which question the nature, if not existence, of self,
consciousness, knowledge and the ‘thicket of wonder’:
Knowledge-poor earth-bound ember-sails,
fails to ignite.’
Much of the philosophy contained here may remind readers of the poems of John
Burnside, and the poet’s obsession with ideas such as ‘to name is man’s unique
tautology’. Several of Hinsey’s poems explore this theme, as much as they do
the nature of language and the technology of the alphabet. There is an almost
cabbalistic fascination with numbering (‘Thirteen Aphorisms on the Nature of
Evil’, ‘On the 13 rungs of Sorrow’ etc.) and a mirroring of one of the great
mystical writers of the Twentieth Century, Jorge Luis Borges, in poems which
deal with the alef, bet, and g’imel of writing, the Golem, and the
‘unlanguageable name of God’:
unwittingly, the tongue must seek to build
its wanting, the timbered structure of a word’s small shape:
of marks-Wooden sanctuary for desire-
structure of sounds to reach into the thunderous silence-
house of a Word where to shelter its hunger.
This is a serious, philosophical and rewarding book that I admire for its form,
line, tone, cadence and philosophy, even if I find myself balking at some of
its weaker, abstract moments.
Killarney Clary’s book is full of such abstract moments, making this a
difficult text to read, let alone negotiate its purported ‘spiritual
biography’. These are spare, fragmentary prose ruminations on the nature of
self, the ‘depths of the psyche’ and the interface of public and private life.
That the US format of the book makes it look like a pastel catalogue for a
range of beauty products doesn’t help to dress it up:
if the dark jewel of spirit can be disguised with silver lipstick or
That may sound harsh but, in a book that deals with the fallibility and
interpretive nature of perception, perception itself is all. In the book’s
defence, here are some interesting moments, where music and meaning forge a
junctures we renamed the roads for what happened there: Glasses Lost,
Why Are There No Ghosts. We never returned to those places […]
what drove us was a desire to occur without erasing what we’d made.
However, whilst this strong prose lyric probes the author’s ‘spiritual
biography’ successfully, the intention of the following lines (typical of much
of the book) seems completely lost:
puzzle multiplies and narrows. What honour or disgrace is this ink
the new boy drew in my palm? If I look any closer any longer, if I
more, call and call, joy swells to a dangerous volume. Nothing simple,
other than itself.
These deeply personal, diaristic and, essentially, hermetic moments, recur time
again, to make this book indistinguishable from many a bedside notebook. Better
are the moments when the writer includes some semblance of the unity behind
these fragments: ‘Then you remain behind gestures and posture…’ or the more
direct: ‘I own this life, or the record of how it was spilled’.
All of which criticism is not intended on my part to say that Clary cannot
write. She very clearly can, with a musician’s ear for the cadence of the
bent for potsherds, silver, money cowries at the tide line, and the
of something never seen before, for which we’d find use.
once in a box canyon of cholla and octillo at dusk, their spines aglow,
cool air sinking between us, I found a curl of black bone,
it before you looked. Other discoveries we celebrated-your
the last sunlight in the redwoods. I wanted you to win. I didn’t
to keep count.
I am completely under the writer’s spell here; immersed in memory, imagination
and a sensory world that gives metaphoric access to the more abstract regions
the writer wishes to explore. Such lyrically enticing moments are dotted
throughout this book ‘peregrini in your oarless coracles’; ‘I refuse to
remember your kiss, and so have remembered it’; ‘Slippery life, with all its
strings moving, just there, no, there’ but such moments are spare,
needle-like glints of purpose in a haystack of other ‘stuff’. With its
impressive back cover blurb from Jorie Graham, the intention is to show us
Clary’s ‘mastery of the prose poem’. Whilst there are lucent moments here
and an, at times, interesting mix of prose meaning with poetic musicality, this
jury remains firmly out on ‘mastery’.
Andy Brown 2003