Poem of the Week | April 06, 2015

This first full week of the National Poetry Month, we proudly present a new poem by Ellen Hinsey. Hinsey’s forthcoming books include Mastering the Past: Reports from Contemporary Central and Eastern Europe and Magnetic North: Conversations with Tomas Venclova (Suhrkamp, 2015). She is the author of six books of poetry and literary translation including Update on the Descent, based on research carried out at the International Tribunal in the Hague and Cities of Memory, which was awarded the Yale University Series Prize. A former Berlin Prize Fellow at the American Academy in Berlin, she is the International Correspondent for The New England Review and teaches at Skidmore College’s Program in Paris. The Illegal Age was a 2015 National Poetry Series Finalist.
 
Author’s note:

In Nadezhda Mandlestam’s chronicle of life under Stalin, Hope Against Hope, she writes how officially invented terms result in “jargon, or the kind of verbal chaff used …by heads of state and other charlatans. Both words and poetry are desecrated in this way.” When the revelations regarding Guantanamo, Black Sites and other torture centers began to emerge, they were similarly presented using distortions of language—an attempt to hide the reality of torture behind euphemistic terminology. It turns out, however, that this use of language compounds the original act: it asks us to collude with it by not calling it by its true name. Though our last century saw its share of unspeakable acts, I think we are now on the verge of a different and very dangerous threshold. It is as if we have begun to fundamentally doubt our capacity to win the battle for decency; that, having stalked us so long, we fear we will never escape the manifestations of our wrathful nature. Poetry, unexpectedly, belongs to that strange family of utterance, like song, which carries in its inner structure a resistance, an ability to restore meaning to language. Despite its tone of lament, “Terminology Lesson”—excerpted from The Illegal Age, a book-length series of poems that address our dark acts—is an attempt at affirmation.

 

Terminology Lesson

 

1.
EXTRAORDINARY RENDITION

 

When I was led out, the distance between home and exile
lengthened like a frayed rope under the eternal scourge of
stars—

 

2.
SECRET DETENTION

 

In this place, where I possess only blind sleeplessness and the
dust of hours in my mouth—

 

3.
STRESS POSITIONS

 

And my body—in its eternal limitations—is twisted beyond the
tight boundaries of the flesh—

 

4.
STRESS POSITIONS II

 

For where can this flesh go—beyond those far boundaries—?

 

5.
SPECIAL TECHNIQUES

 

And if this finite body be broken—


 

6.
MILD, NON-INJURIOUS PHYSICAL CONTACT

 

I will still possess only these legs and feet—only my palm’s dry
imprint; the grey shale of my eye’s iris—

 

7.
SLEEP MANAGEMENT

 

Lord, do you still watch over me as I sleep?

 

8.
SPECIAL QUESTIONING

 

Like each creature, beneath my tongue I possess a Word, given
to me at birth—a Word that means to be and to praise—

 

9.
FEAR UP

 

And when before thee Lord, we were afraid, and before your
justice—

 

10.
SEXUAL HUMILIATION

 

And in the Garden, when we were suddenly made aware of our
nakedness, we hid from God—

 

11.
BLACK SITES

 

Where then is this place that I find myself, filled as it is with the
stony absence of knowledge?

 

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