Cities of Memory

(Literary Masterpieces, Critical Compilation)

Ellen Hinsey is a Massachusetts native who lives in Paris, France. She received a bachelor of fine arts degree from Tufts University in conjunction with the School of the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston. Her poems have appeared in various prestigious newspapers and magazines such as The New York Times, The Paris Review, The New England Review, and The Missouri Review. In 1995, Cities of Memory won the Yale Series of Younger Poets, an annual contest open to any American writer under forty years of age who has not previously published a volume of poetry. James Dickey was the judge of the competition. In the foreword to the book, Dickey writes:

The need for roots, as Simone Weil reminds us, is fundamental to human kind; there is no one wearing our shape who has not felt it. But along with this condition, there are those who can take root in places where they do not expect to live out the rest of their lives and die.

Hinsey has traveled extensively in Europe. Her works are informed by her sensitivity to and interest in the cultural, political, historical, and geographical landscapes of Europe and by her eagerness to celebrate a connectedness which is fundamental to all those who believe in the commonality in human experience.

The poems collected in Cities of Memory can be divided into four groups: poems about events, poems about people, poems about places, and poems about objects and what Dickey calls “artifacts.” The poem “March 26, 1827” is an elegy. It registers a historical moment. On March 26, 1827, the singer Lablanche, seeking news of Ludwig van Beethoven, arrived to find the latter in a coma and could make out but few words: “do you hear the tolling? Change the scene.” According to Jean and Brigitte Massin, co-authors of Ludwig van Beethoven (1967), Beethoven’s remark was a reference to the bells in the theaters of Vienna that, during this period, announced the changing of the acts. “March 26, 1827” opens with the description of people’s fear that with Beethoven’s death, “the last of sound would be carted off—/ the price exacted in recompense.” It continues with the investigation of the dialectical relationship between sound and silence, between the past and the present, and between time and immortality. With the realization that “music is not the note/ but the interval—/ that it is not the note but/ the possibility that lies between,” the poem ends with the description of Beethoven’s funeral. Following the elegiac tradition in poetry, “March 26, 1827” praises the musician’s achievement and laments the loss of someone who cannot be replaced. In “Lebensraum,” the narrator compares the Romans’ war against the Veii and World War II. Veii was an ancient Etruscan city in central Italy. It was destroyed by the Romans in 396 b.c.e. According to historian Michael Grant in History of Rome (1978), the Romans’ invasion of the Veii was instigated by their need of new land. “Lebensraum” is a German term which literally means “living space.” The term was used by Hitler to describe his policy of acquiring enough land to create a nation of two hundred million German people. The poem, by contrasting the tranquillity of nature and the peacefulness of life and the cruelty and destructiveness of wars, calls readers’ attention to the natural and the unnatural, the part of the world which makes human existence a beautiful experience and the decisions arbitrarily made to satisfy people’s twisted ego. In Part I of the poem, Hinsey describes how the Roman soldiers, on their way to war, passed the “Temple of Janus.” Janus was one of the principal Roman gods. His shrine in the Forum in Rome had two doors. The doors were closed in times of peace and open in times of war. Janus is represented as having two faces. They look in opposite directions, symbolizing his ability to see both the future and the past. The reference to Janus paradigmatically demonstrates the pernicious effect when people fail to learn from their ancestors’ mistakes.

“Diptych,” “Fantasie on the Church at Auvers,” “Night in Clamart,” “Paula Modersohn-Becker at Worpswede,” and “Canticle in Grey” trace European artists and writers’ footsteps in history to portray their struggles and celebrate their lives. Several poems in the group extol female artists’ indefatigable spirit and their eagerness to blaze new trails in arts and poetry. “Night in Clamart” describes the Russian poet Marina Tsvetayeva’s brief exile in the Parisian suburb of Petit Clamart. The predominant color in the poem is gray and dark and the tone somber. The dirty rains threaten to dissolve the roads which are written like afterthoughts; the empty roads look for the poet’s shadow but to no avail. The poem describes Tsvetayeva’s struggle with both her poems and her loneliness, foreshadowing a life...

(The entire section is 2008 words.)