The Illegal Age by Ellen Hinsey, the Autumn 2018 Poetry Book Society choice, is a unique read. A poetic exploration of human atrocity, this collection (or ‘sequence’) pits rationality against the unimaginable with uneasy results. This is not a book that wants to make you feel comfortable. And nor should it be.
The Illegal Age is divided into three sections, referred to as ‘Investigations’: ‘Smoke’ (dealing with the Holocaust), ‘Ice’ (dealing the brutality of Communist Russia), and ‘Obscurity’ (about, as the poet explains, “the advent of a new, and yet uncharted, “Illegal Age””). As the idea of ‘Investigations’ might suggest, the premise of this collection is that of a file of research notes about the horrors Europe has experienced from the Second World War onward. Each poem is presented as evidence. This is what sets The Illegal Age apart. These are not poems about tragedy. These are poems that observe or examine tragedy. They are clinical, as so far as poetry can be. They take a cool, removed approach which results in something chilling. This collection is deeply moving and deeply unsettling because of its pointed and deliberate lack of emotional connection. It is starkly austere. It does not glitter; it bleeds.
This frame of investigation or research is a really brilliant piece of theatre. Through this subtle framing the reader is transformed. I’m not quite sure into what, but it almost feels like a removal. Like these are pages prepared for some kind of higher power waiting to pass judgement on humanity. In this way, Hinsey’s structure and titling really works for her; everything in this collection, every new paragraph, ever capitalised letter (e.g. the characterisation of ‘Justice’ and ‘Power’), adds to what can only be called the experience of reading The Illegal Age. There is a sense of symmetry to each of the three sections, a repetition of order. Even this adds to the sense of horror: all of these tragedies are all fundamentally repetitions, rippling with the similar and ignored.
I would not recommend this collection to either a poetry virgin or a poetry purist. It doesn’t feel like a particularly accessible book – you really have to stick with it, and I honestly felt myself drifting away a few times. Of course that’s perfectly fine, not every poetry collection has to be a gateway and, given its themes and subject matter, The Illegal Age has to take itself seriously. I just can’t help but feel that it took itself a little bit too seriously, making it altogether a little bit too dense (I think that’s the word I’m looking for) in some places. Suffice to say, it is not easy going. It could do with at least a glint of hope.
As someone who quite likes to write poetry, this feels like an important book to have read. Hinsey plays with her form, especially mastering the prose-poem. In places you do begin to question whether or not what you’re reading even is poetry – it doesn’t sound like it – but you just know, in your heart, that it is, because you can feel it.
Overall, The Illegal Age is something rather remarkable. A blend of poetics and rationality that resonates deeply, it will leave you chilled in a most curious sort of way. It is a collection that refuses to be forgotten.
Favourite quote: “How many bodies does it take to build a century?” – ‘Internal Report: On the Intimate Daybook of Power’