Arc Publications logo

50 years at the cutting edge of poetry publishing

“A meeting point for poets of all latitudes”
— Víctor Rodríguez Núñez

Review: The Illegal Age, by Ellen Hinsey


The Braille of a Restless Lake

Over the last decade and more, poet Ellen Hinsey has been engaged in an unflinching examination of war, tyranny, and their effects on the spirit through works such as The White Fire of Time (2002), Update on the Descent (based, in part, on her research work at the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia at the Hague; 2009), her translations of Lithuanian poet Tomas Venclova, and Mastering the Past (2017). Her latest work, the harrowing yet darkly beautiful book-length sequence of lyrics and 'anti-lyrics', aphorisms, and file reports, The Illegal Age continues the poet's investigation of what she calls the 'autocratic experience'.

This rigorously structured book is divided into three parts, which the poet has named 'Investigation Files' and entitled 'Smoke', 'Ice', and 'Obscurity'. Each of these parts is either clearly located, or not at all (adding to their dramatic suggestiveness), in a particular historical period and landscape: the Second World War and, specifically, Nazi Germany's policies of industrialized mass-murder and total war in Poland and Ukraine; post-war/cold-war visions of utopia and its conquering of the ultimate space // Of the human soul behind what was once known as the Iron Curtain, in Siberia, East Germany, and Russia; and the early 21st century with its alternative facts, black sites, and drone strikes, nebulous, amorphous, and everywhere. These sections are then legalistically organized into seven sub-sections — 'Report', 'Evidence', 'File', 'Internal Report', 'Evidence', 'File', 'Testimony', etc. — which seem to imply a gatherer of evidence (the poet? the reader?), while doubling as a framework for the construction of a larger meditation of a moral-philosophical nature. Carrying titles such as 'On the Rise of the Inconceivable', 'On the Intimate Daybook of Power', 'On the Principles of the New Logic', 'The Four Horsemen', 'The Final Era of Brightness', or 'Elegy for Thought', the poems lead us to ask ourselves: how can we bear witness to the previously unimaginable without empowering its creators or employing similarly inhuman language; in what ways does autocratic power manipulate logic and language to undermine individual experience, while continuing its relentless destruction of the individual in general; why is it fundamental that we be able to establish an undeniable series of events, that we be able to answer who, what, where, when, and why; to what degree are we voluntarily and involuntarily complicit in destructive powers' greater program; what, if any, responsibility do we have toward the dead; what good is art at all in the face of our seemingly insignificant individual and collective annihilation?

War never simply 'breaks out', and the same can be said of what was previously inconceivable. Nothing happens quickly: each day weighs on the next / Until the instant comes the book begins in 'The Illegal Age (Prologue)'. It takes time for a figure, who makes his slow way along / The foggy lane in innocence, to vanish [...] It takes time // To not suffer the pain of others. So when was the moment, the poet asks, that the inconceivable first sparked? In what hand, which mind? Was it in World War One, that war which claimed the lives of at least 40 million soldiers and civilians, in the mired trenches / Of winter — when gas laid waste to limbs hidden / In the reaped, tunneled mud? Indeed both sides used chemical weapons on each other early in the war, but it was the Germans who perfected their use in the development of chlorine, phosgene, and eventually 'mustard' gas, all of which in turn led to the creation of cyanide gas, or Zyklon B, utilized in the death-camps of the Holocaust. Was it there? Or was it later, on that first September morning in 1939 when the Germans invaded Poland, just barely more than twenty years after the war to end all wars, six years after Hitler's election and the immediate institution of decrees and regulations restricting Jews' public and private lives, and not even one year after Kristallnacht? For with the invasion began the mass-murder of civilians, which two years later grew into the creation of special mobile killing squads to target Jews with the invasion of the Soviet Union, and just six months after that culminated in the Wannsee Conference, the formal declaration of the 'final solution': the systematic deportation and murder of the Jews of Europe in the six extermination camps of Auschwitz-Birkenau, Belzec, Chelmno, Majdanek, Sobibor, and Treblinka. When was the precise instant of change that led to it all? And where? Was there a moment it could have been avoided, when a hand might hesitate... Even if one was under orders? For, though nothing happens quickly, still / There are indications, signposts, turns along the way — // For we must know exactly where it was lost, to erect / There a monument: to the advent of the Illegal Age.

And this is just the first poem of the first section. The Illegal Age establishes the scope and intensity of its subject quickly and with impressive force. The second section opens thus:

You could sense it approaching, over the close border:
It did not have a specific homeland, it did not hold

A single passport. But it had been long in the making.

Hinsey's book is unremittingly bleak, yes, but it is also beautiful, and this powerful combination commands our attention. She excels in creating strange moments of almost comforting silence, of air, in between and within lines, in having certain words and themes echo and call back to one another throughout the entire book like musical motifs, and in juxtaposing striking moments of lyricism and image against the strict formal structure and solemn subject matter. Consider a title such as 'The Handbook of Smoke'; a line such as Maybe the end will come unexpectedly, a sudden reprieve: but more likely the body will be felled by the axe of the heart, buried in the nowhere land of exile ('File 72194: The North'); or the image the braille of a restless lake ('File 53291: The Denunciation'). A reference guide and collection of signals on disappearance. A life extinguished, undone by memory, heartbreak, the iniquities of banishment and enforced labor, effectively and unequivocally erased. A form of writing for the blind seen in the physical world, a premonition perhaps, intellectually indecipherable if sensually understood.

So what keeps us from giving up on the whole when confronted with such relentlessly grim material? Indeed, what keeps us from giving up on poetry all together? That is, the reading of it and, to begin with, the writing of it? What good is it in the face of the horror? And again, what good is art at all?

The late John Berger noted that both the weeping faces of Picasso's Guernica period and the skulls he drew during German occupation possessed a kind of insolence: the refusal of servitude contained in the very act of having drawn them made them triumphant. And so to unflinchingly confront such material, to live within and with it, to, in the true sense of the word, incorporate it into oneself and 'order the evidence' into writing requires not only a great amount of fortitude and faith in the act, but in the very significance of the individual human being and, ultimately, human experience — that is, life — itself. In short, it is to believe that the human being matters. Thus any project along such lines becomes an act of defiance, for the artist as well as audience; it subverts received opinion, groupthink, and defensive complacency. As Hinsey writes, each memory salvaged from tyranny's flood is an unsteady, but miracle-buoyed raft ('Carved Into Bark'). Which is precisely why, then, she includes and engages in direct and indirect conversation with, among others, Ingeborg Bachmann, Paul Celan, Osip Mandelstam, and Wislawa Szymborska, all poets who both directly and indirectly experienced various forms of twentieth-century totalitarianism: proof of individual but also collective experience they form a greater community for those of us who are still alive. Together their voices say: We saw. We wrote. And in having done so once, do so still. Here. Now. Again, Hinsey: Remember: in the ink-light of testimony, a record may / still be kept ('The Illegal Age (Reprise)').

Primo Levi reminds us, It happened, therefore it can happen again. In our current climate, political and actual, Ellen Hinsey's The Illegal Age is a unique reminder of what we have no choice but to confront. And order. And keep. Over and over again. All the various forms of distraction and ideologically imposed diversion that attempt to strike us dumb are no excuse. Don't think your compliance is not being observed, it says. Remember, it tells us, The inconceivable first emerges along the periphery. [...] At the outset, it is supported by few — even opposed by many. Remember, it says, Nothing happens quickly.

ALEXANDER BOOTH is a poet and literary translator currently living in Berlin. A recipient of a PEN/Heim Translation Fund grant for his translations of German poet Lutz Seiler ('in field latin', Seagull Books, 2016), his poetry and translations have appeared in numerous international print and online journals. More information at