The White Fire of Time is poetry that takes great risks in a time when any affirmation is suspect and irony the dominant mode. The poems, or poem, as the work seems to be of one piece despite titled divisions, dares to assert without qualification, and does so with such precision and persuasiveness that even the cynic is drawn in. Ellen Hinsey’s previous book, Cities of Memory (1996), won the Yale Series of Younger Poets Award; the poems there focused on history and culture, while these poems center on theology. Both books are notable for the exactness with which fluid ideas and concepts are presented.
The parts of this collection, “The World,” “The Temple,” and “The Divine Ladder,” contain sections identified as meditations, readings, commentaries, intermezzos, fragments. The subject is the Bible, seen as the foundation and the reflection of human myth and truth. Basic human traits are explored in the Bible stories that feature them: blind obedience in the story of Abraham and Isaac, the struggle of the divided self in the tale of Jacob and the Angel. The poems contain breathtaking insights hidden in description and narrative. The reader is always catching his breath, wondering, Can this be true? If so, everything becomes much simpler.
A variety of forms are combined in this book but the poet seems most comfortable with loose-limbed couplets that are ideal for metaphysical inquiry. The standard poetic devices—rhyme, alliteration, assonance, etc.—are used subtly to provide a sense of music to this searching poetry. Prose poems are interspersed with the other pieces, balancing the lyric flight of the meditative poems. The White Fire of Time is an exciting addition to the stream of contemporary metaphysical poetry.