by Susan Wheatley
This summer, I met with Ellen Hinsey in Paris to discuss her new book, Update on the Descent, just published with The University of Notre Dame Press and Bloodaxe Books (2009). Ellen Hinsey has taught writing and literature at Skidmore College’s Paris program and the French graduate school, the Ecole Polytechnique. Her other books include The White Fire of Time (Wesleyan University Press, 2002/Bloodaxe Books, 2003) and Cities of Memory, which was awarded the Yale Series of Younger Poets Prize, as well as several books in translation. In 2001 she was a Berlin Prize Fellow at the American Academy in Berlin; she has also been the recipient of a number of awards and honors, including a Lannan Foundation Award.
Q. Over the last twenty years you have witnessed a number of significant European events firsthand. What impact have these events had on your work?
A. Since 1987, I have lived and traveled extensively in Europe, based mostly in Paris. My first book of poetry came out of my experiences following the events of 1989 in Eastern Europe. I was in Berlin on the weekend of November 9, 1989 when the wall came down and in Prague during the Velvet Revolution a few weeks before Havel’s election. In the years following this, it was with great sorrow that we witnessed the Yugoslav wars, some of the most painful conflicts in recent European history. This too had a significant impact on my work. The breakup of the former Yugoslavia was a reminder that we had not in fact escaped the temptations of nationalism, war and genocide. We would not benefit from the “peace dividend” that the end of the Cold War had supposedly brought. Whether in ex-Yugoslavia or elsewhere—and as we have seen in America over the last ten years—it has been war-business as usual.
Q. History in your work is often described in its relationship to ethics. What are the origins of your examining the two together as you do?
A. History and ethics are themes that run throughout my work. That perhaps comes out of my own personal experiences. I am concerned with how we can respect “the other,” and how we can renew our belief in that most archaic idea, “thou shalt not kill.” This is an important issue for me, as a number of years ago there was a murder in my family. This personal event led me write two interconnected volumes. The first of these two books, The White Fire of Time, came out of a struggle for renewal. However, when I finished that book, I was still deeply unsettled about questions of violence, in particular how individuals can carry out acts of ultimate violence against each other, whether this is against people they have known intimately, those they consider to be neighbors, or people they don’t know, but whom they come to understand as “the enemy.” These questions were very much in my mind when I was working on this new book.
Q. You attended The International Criminal Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia in The Hague. Tell me about that.
A. I have often found that poetry has an odd way of drawing us into strange synchronicities. A year after I had begun work on Update on the Descent, the Milosevic trial opened in February 2002 at the International Criminal Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia. After attending the opening of the trial, over the next three years I traveled back and forth to the Netherlands to listen to witness sessions and hear how violence had been carried out across a whole society. These sessions in the Hague were some of the most difficult, but moving experiences I have ever had. It is almost impossible, or “obscene” as one witness put it, to describe such human acts. However, while I was there, it was clear that the stories being told were not limited in any way to the Balkan experience. They had happened—as in Rwanda—or would soon be happening in other parts of the world.
Q. In fact, you don’t mention any specific places or people in the new book. In what way is this omission a reflection of your concept for the work?
A. Update on the Descent is not limited to any specific conflict, but rather it is about the structure of violence and our common human nature—a nature capable of extreme acts, but one that also has the potential for compassion and forbearance in the presence of “the other.” During the seven years I was working on the book, the revelations of what occurred at Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq were made public as were, more recently, details about the CIA “black sites” and the torture carried out at those sites. The fact of torture is important to Update on the Descent, not because it is sensational, but because it touches on 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.
Q. The structure of Update on the Descent is striking. How did you arrive at it? What sources influenced you?
A. The book is composed in three sections—I won’t say too much about the overall structure, because I think it is more interesting for a reader to discover certain things for himself or herself. But as regards the individual poems, there are “lyrical” as well as “non-lyrical” forms in the volume. The book’s sequence includes introductory lyrical poems followed by prose poems, aphorisms and philosophical notebooks. It was written this way because I wanted to avoid aestheticizing the violence I had heard about or experienced. The music of the book resides at the opposite end of the spectrum from what we often associate with the affirming rhythms of poetry. But the book is also inhabited by the possibility of forgiveness and renewal. In general, the influences on the book are more philosophical than poetic, though poetry also plays a role. But I am a bit wary of poetry—or rather excessive aestheticizing—if poetry exempts itself from fundamental dialogues, where it is also needed.
Q. It seems that the question of evil – whether it exists, what it is – is central to your work, particularly Update on the Descent.
A. Of late, I have spent quite a bit of time thinking about the question of evil. I have come to feel that it is an entirely human affair, and is more of an ethical than a theological question. If we, as human beings, choose to carry out atrocities, then these acts are a reflection of our own nature. I find it hard to understand how we can expect a divine power to come and clean up our mess. Further, I’m not convinced that the terrifying events of the last century—or this new one—prove the death of the Spirit. Rather, to my mind, they only underscore the fact that the human animal has a murderous potential, beyond our previous imaginings. In fact, this issue may be one of the most urgent legacies that poets of my generation face. The challenge of how we can, despite everything, contemplate the possibility of affirmation—while at the same time knowing that genocide has happened and can happen at any time. That poetry is not only possible after Auschwitz, but imperative, an integral part of our survival.
Q. There are a number of references to Hannah Arendt in your last two books, which explore, respectively, the contemplative life, the vita contemplativa, and the vita activa, the life of society. What impact has her work had on your approach to poetry?
A. I think that the last eight years have shown us how fragile our democracy is, and how we must remain alert to the very real dangers of illegality, rhetoric and demagoguery. This is not about adhering to any particular political standpoint, but rather, in a meticulous way, about sorting through the immense amount of data that is always coming towards us. 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.
Susan Wheatley is a probate lawyer, poet and a founder of the Walnut Street Poetry Society at the Mercantile Library in Cincinnati.