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A Concise Biography of Tyranny

Poets and Ambassadors for Conscience
by Ellen Hinsey

Apr 16, 2019 | Poetry

PHOTO CREDIT: Bloodaxe Books

Ellen Hinsey is a Paris-based poet, translator, and political thinker in the tradition of Hannah Arendt. Her four books of poetry are Cities of Memory, a winner of the Yale Younger Poets Prize, The White Fire of Time, Update on the Descent, and The Illegal Age (2018), which explores themes of fascism and unraveling democracy. She is the translator of the great Lithuanian poet Tomas Venclova. Her acclaimed nonfiction book is Mastering the Past: The Rise of Illiberalism in Eastern Europe and Russia (2017).



Tyranny does not mind starting out small: it is indifferent to scale. Its dreams of grandeur are happily rehearsed in a child’s theatre.

There, Tyranny has a full set of tin soldiers with which to prepare a catastrophe. One wears a gas mask, another a metal helmet. Hidden in a drawer, away from the others, is the drummer whose head has been blown off.

Tyranny has an awkward adolescence: it’s all arms and legs and hot air. It talks of keeping the streets clean, while it fills them with a litter of noise.

Tyranny likes to have a hometown—and a small cinema where its faithful can watch films in the evenings.

Tyrannies learn slowly: it is only in young adulthood that they acquire the true benefits of decorum. They then possess the ability to carry out their work like any proper business.

In maturity, Tyranny becomes a bona fide adult—endowed with a fully grown body—behind which it conceals a warehouse of regression.

Tyranny’s regression is simple: an infant’s desire to impose its omnipotence on the world.

Tyrannies are not good at aging. Tyrannies stay young on a challenge. The thrill is lost when all the brave are dead.

Tyranny in old age is never graceful. Surrounded by rusted cars and old foundries, it is a junk heap of promises.

And as in Roman times, its successor was already, years ago, slain.

The mystery is why one finds, time and again, flowers on its grave.

This is the third installment in The Spectator’s year-long series featuring leading American poets who address issues of racism, human rights, and exile, among other social themes, in their work. The project is curated by Cyrus Cassells, whose most recent book is Still Life With Children: Selected Poems of Francesc Parcerisas (Stephen F. Austin University Press). “A Concise Biography of Tyranny” is published here by permission of Ellen Hinsey and Bloodaxe Books.

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