ISBN: 0-8195-6556-3 (cloth); 0-8195-6557-1 (paper)
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?"
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
The White Fire
a new book of poems by Ellen Hinsey, provides just
such a mooring. When reading this book, one knows that is poetry.
first book, Cities of Memory
, was the winner of the Yale
Series of Younger Poets competition in 1995. Cities
by its regard for history, culture and place, and by the depth and
precision of its language.
The White Fire
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.
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
mount; winds wind over, as insects
and stars speed free under frail falling
while fleet tongues tell their tales
Knowledgepoor earth-bound embersails,
fails to ignite.
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.
each entity caught that glint and glowed
Under the particularity of its nature. Him
beneath the noble oak in glorious leaf
Full aloftpronouncing each syllable in deft
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 writtena spark
that befits the best words in their best order.