Wesleyan University Press
ISBN: 0-8195-6556-3 (cloth); 0-8195-6557-1 (paper)
Order Online
Samuel Taylor Coleridge defined poetry as "The Best Words In Their Best Order." Emily Dickinson famously wrote, "If I read a book and it makes my whole body so cold no fire can ever warm me, I know that is poetry. If I feel physically as if the top of my head were taken off, I know that is poetry. These are the only ways I know it. Is there any other way?"
         These definitions differ, but both are accurate. Coleridge defines the poem as an object; Dickinson speaks of it as an experience.
         What, then, is a poem and why attempt a definition? In a time when the term "poetry" is sometimes overused, it is useful for the reader to be moored by clarity of meaning. Perhaps a poem is the literary object, defined by Coleridge, that lives in the mind in the manner that Dickinson describes.
         The White Fire of Time, a new book of poems by Ellen Hinsey, provides just such a mooring. When reading this book, one knows that is poetry.
         Ms. Hinsey’s first book, Cities of Memory, was the winner of the Yale Series of Younger Poets competition in 1995. Cities was distinguished by its regard for history, culture and place, and by the depth and precision of its language.
         The White Fire of Time is also distinguished by powerful images and precise language. This collection, however, takes a different thematic direction than its predecessor. Where Cities of Memory focused on history and culture, The White Fire of Time deals with philosophy, theology, the pursuit of knowledge in all of its forms and how that pursuit defines us as human beings.
         Each selection explores and illuminates an idea. Poems and short prose pieces with such titles as "On the Varieties of Flight," "On the Unique Cosmology of Passion" and "On a Short History of Chance" expand on different ideas but refer back to one another through shared images and threads of thought.
         "On the Varieties of Flight," speaks of exploration, both of the world and of people. Says the poet, some beings "sprint, shoot and sail up" while others "soar only when bidden." In the end, Ms. Hinsey makes this observation:

Sight sweeps and tempers rise; tall grasses bend and
           Rumors mount; winds wind over, as insects

          Hover, and stars speed free under frail falling
                  Night, while fleet tongues tell their tales—

          And Knowledge—poor earth-bound ember—sails,
                                           But fails to ignite.

        Through the rhythm and music of the words, the alliteration and subtle rhymes, the poet does not merely describe the sensation of flight but also offers that sensation to the reader. In doing so, the poet brings these ideas and sensations into the realm of everyday life. And by describing Knowledge as an "ember," the image of fire is introduced, to be revisited throughout the book.
         In "On a Panel of Adam Naming the Animals," the poet imagines Adam, the first man, giving names to the animals, and thereby conferring existence onto them:

One must remember: All around was Wonder.
               And each entity caught that glint and glowed

Under the particularity of its nature. Him—
             Seated beneath the noble oak in glorious leaf

Full aloft—pronouncing each syllable in deft
               Voice and sure of its apt transubstantiation:…

Similarly, a prose piece entitled "On the Creation of the Golem" explores this idea by evoking a creature from Jewish folklore that is made of clay and that comes to life when a holy word is inscribed on its forehead.
         In the images of Adam naming the animals and of the Golem coming to life by a holy word, we experience the power of words to create. The word becomes a concrete thing through both the simple act of naming and the holy act of conferring life.
         In this book, Ms. Hinsey connects personal ideas to the surrounding world. Her poetic spark burns with as much intensity as her scholarly command of Judeo-Christian history and thought. As a result, these poems are not so much about her as from her.
         One can return to her poems, perhaps years after a first reading, in the same manner that one returns to a favorite Rembrandt painting or Beethoven sonata. The passage of time will allow the reader to see her poems as continually renewed things. For a great poem always has a spark of the new, no matter when it may have been written—a spark that befits the best words in their best order.