Stride Magazine -


The Prose Spirit

The White Fire of Time
by Ellen Hinsey, Bloodaxe Books, £7.95
Potential Stranger
by Killarney Clary, University of Chicago Press, £10.00

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:

              The Dead too, have their tasks‑their pilgrimage ­
                                         And 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:

              And the future waiting latent in fragile cells:
                                         The 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 fails:

              There was no air. Rather, there was an infinite vastness filled with
              the 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:

              Enmeshed in each moment ­ the green river of lichen
                                         Advances, 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’:

              What then is the Body?
              A passing handprint; a thin wave in the voice of time.

              Bargaining with Time
              Futility of discourse. A rage of wind in the trees


              The Sensation of Grace
              To be like a fish suspended in a net, caught up in the web of the world.


              Perplexing Fact
              Imagination, itinerant, travels independent of us, performing in all the provinces.

              Maturity of Sorts
              To abandon simplicity and climb the tilted ladder of paradox.


              The Pursuit of Good
              To find out where the soul is hiding from evil.


              Concluding Hypothesis
              And 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’:

              And Knowledge-poor earth-bound ember-sails,
                                         But 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’:

              Therefore, unwittingly, the tongue must seek to build
                                         In its wanting, the timbered structure of a word’s small shape:

              Thatch of marks-Wooden sanctuary for desire-
                                         Thin structure of sounds to reach into the thunderous silence-

                                         Meager 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:

              As if the dark jewel of spirit can be disguised with silver lipstick or
              pointed head.

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 new synthesis:

              At junctures we renamed the roads for what happened there: Glasses Lost,
              Insult, Why Are There No Ghosts. We never returned to those places […]
              since 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:

              The puzzle multiplies and narrows. What honour or disgrace is this ink
              tattoo the new boy drew in my palm? If I look any closer any longer, if I
              eat more, call and call, joy swells to a dangerous volume. Nothing simple,
              or 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 lyric:

              We bent for potsherds, silver, money cowries at the tide line, and the
              hope of something never seen before, for which we’d find use.
              Trapped 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,
              pocketed it before you looked. Other discoveries we celebrated-your
              trout, the last sunlight in the redwoods. I wanted you to win. I didn’t
              mean 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