Archive for July 8th, 2012

Ellen Hinsey and “that most archaic idea, ‘thou shalt not kill.'”

Sunday, July 8th, 2012
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Are we facing the start of an "unlawful age"?

I’d heard the name Ellen Hinsey before.  We have a mutual friend in the eminent Lithuanian poet Tomas Venclova (although I am mostly a long-distance friend, and she is a longstanding colleague).  She has had the pleasure and labor of translating his poems into English for Bloodaxe’s The Junction: Selected Poems of Tomas Venclova.  I had the privilege of publishing an essay by Tomas in An Invisible Rope: Portraits of Czesław Miłosz.

The Paris-based poet is not usually mentioned in the New Yorker, however, so I noted her mention in this week’s “Page-Turner” blog post in the magazine about the closing of Village Voice (I wrote about it here). The relevent passage:  “On the night of the farewell party, it must be said, not everyone was teary. The novelists Jake Lamar and Nancy Huston, the poets Ellen Hinsey and Denis Hirson, and dozens of others were trading sentimental stories.”

Poetry International has a fascinating Q&A interview with her in 2009.  It starts slowly, but picks up considerable steam. It picks up precisely at the point where she said that a central concern in her The White Fire of Time and Update on the Descent was,  years following a murder in her family,  “how we can renew our belief in that most archaic idea, ‘thou shalt not kill.'”

She also poses “a question that I think we are extremely afraid to confront”:  “The last few years have brought us perilously close to an unspoken fear that we are losing the battle against violence, and that the climate of relative decency we have known is no longer holding firm. Or even that, if we do not do our best to battle against it, we may be facing the start of an unlawful age.”

"Above all, love language" (Photo: Dylan Vaughan)

Let me cite the final portion of the interview:

…Some years ago I mentioned that I was interested in the possibility of a “poetics of radical reflection.” For me this means, as Hannah Arendt wrote in the Life of the Mind, the idea that perhaps thought itself can help us to maneuver and survive the dangers around us—the dangers of our own making. With the end of the 20th century we found out that, incredibly enough, we did not arrive at the end of History. History and terror—as well as the possibility of meaning—are still with us. We didn’t escape their noose: they are, and will always be, things with which we must wrestle.

Q.  In the last poem in your book, “Update on the Last Judgment,” there is no “Judgment,” but only an “abyss.” What, then, is “judgment” and who is passing that judgment?

A.  This was a complex poem for me. When you begin to write a poem, you don’t always know exactly what you think about your subject. Regarding the topic in general, I tend to agree with what the Lithuanian poet Tomas Venclova wrote in his poem “Verses for a Child’s Birth”: “it’s best to keep silent/ because we don’t know yet if God hovers/ above the empty featureless waters.” However, it seems fair to say that until we arrive at that unknowable moment, we are entirely responsible for our actions here on earth and it is to our peril that we look for recourse or justification for those actions in any kind of afterlife. For the foreseeable future, we only have judgment with a small “j”, which is to say the mortal, imperfect and fallible judgment that we possess as human beings and with which we have to attempt to make sense of our world. Despite how terribly fragile it is, it is all that we possess. But it is still immense.

I had already bookmarked that particular poem, “Update on the Last Judgment” – the Poetry Foundation has it here.  Read the whole thing.  I’m not going to try to excerpt it.

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