Ellen Hinsey | The Illegal Age | Arc Publications: £10.99

Ellen Hinsey’s The Illegal Age is a study in rhetoric. It is a study in how language is warped by power and how language colludes with and supports power. As such it is, perhaps, a poetic rendering of some of the analyses of Foucault or the recently deceased linguist, Michael Halliday. That warping of language is built into the structuring of the book both in the overall set up of the book and also in the layout of the ‘poem’s on the page.

The book is divided into three parts, each labelled as follows: Part One Investigation File Smoke; Part Two Investigation File Ice; Part Three Investigation File Obscurity. Within each part there are seven sub-sections, each usually named differently, apart from the middle, fourth section which is always prefixed ‘Internal Report’. The subsections, themselves, have such names as ‘The Illegal Age’, this latter occurs twice, ‘The Laws’, ‘Carved into Bark’ or ‘The Denunciation’. This sectioning all suggests a rather schematic book and that is both true and is, possibly, part of Hinsey’s point, that we live in a world which is all too schematic and which schematises both humans and the power which is wielded over them. Such schematising suggests an organisation which can be so baroque and labyrinthine that it catches out all of us and not only the unwary.

The pages of the book also have a particularised layout. There is usually a centred, italicised number and title at the top; let’s take page 35, which as [6.] then Bellum Contra Populum at the top, and the first section of the six on the page has the centred, italicised title Inevitability. This labelling is then followed by the following, ‘In time the Inconceivable tires of the thicket of its own rhetoric, eventually revealing its true motives like a stiff wind exposes a cliff face.’ The next section is entitled ‘Bureaucratic Cannabalism’, ‘The Inconceivable knows it is only a matter of time before its own Tribe members will be submitted to the Purges of Perfection.’ Thus Hinsey mixes the formal, bureaucratic language with the lyrical. This is a mixture that allows the lyrical to subvert the formal. As such, there is a temptation to see this book as a kind of technical exercise, which, to some extent, it remains no matter how successful it is.

The playing of the lyrical against the formal does allow the book to ventriloquise a number of the voices of the participants in this power struggle. For example, there are those who become part of the state apparatus, as in this from the start of part three of the book, ‘If there were orders, we were never informed, rather – We’ll learn of their swift fulfilment only when // After the low raids of night – a light remains along / The distance’s far expanse: if there were orders –‘. Here, Hinsey’s adroit use of the conditional ‘If there were orders’ played against the future ‘We’ll learn’, emphasises the space for denial, created in ‘we were never informed’. This denial then merges with the lyricism in line three. This mixture of register and style actually allows the reader to have some empathy with those who deny, as rebarbative as that is. Such empathies force the reader into asking themselves difficult questions, too.

Hinsey sometimes anchors the structures and address of the language with places and times. A sub-section might carry, for example, Warsaw 1944, or Kolyma 1952. Section XIII, sub-titled ‘File 53291 The Denunciation’ carries the location, East Germany 1979. This locating, too, is deftly done; there are never too many of these, so that the text is both grounded in certain particulars, but never tied to too many of them. Had all sections had a place and time, it might have resulted in too much specificity, and undermined the way in which Hinsey extends the sense of the authoritarian to the whole of contemporary Europe.

I’m writing this review as the world awaits the results of the American mid-term elections. A ‘populist’ right-wing president has just been elected in Brazil. Hungary and Poland both have right wing governments and Marine Le Pen has inflicted defeats on Macron in France. The AfD is making strides in Germany. The Illegal Age has epigraphs from Hannah Arendt and Osip Mandelstam. Hinsey herself has translated and edited poems by Tomas Venclova, the Lituanian dissident and poet. This collection is a timely and powerful book.

by Ian Pople

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