Worlds Within Worlds
- David Helwig (Author)
A Random Gospel. Oberon Press (purchase at Amazon.ca)
- W. H. New (Author)
Science Lessons. Oolichan Books (purchase at Amazon.ca)
- Patrick Lane (Author)
Too Spare, Too Fierce. Harbour Publishing (purchase at Amazon.ca)
Reviewed by Allan Brown
At a writers’ and publishers’ conference held at Queen’s University some years back, David Helwig remarked that a book of poems is always held together by "a world of connections known only to the poet." His comment—the tone of it, anyway—was partly ironic, even mildly sarcastic, but partly serious also. Such worlds, or hints of them, are present in each of these collections: Helwig’s is a balance of shifting rhetorics; Lane’s is a familiar personality lost in some unfamiliar forms; New’s is a person and a perception revealed by a form we thought was familiar but which we may find here for the first time.
The world of A Random Gospel is one of shifting, modulating voices. In a prose stanza from the initial sequence, "A Messenger," Helwig offers a statement of his general purpose: "it is perhaps an inevitable part of the poet’s situation that he is constantly on the watch for messengers, that he suspects that the fringes of the world unravel into silence and light." The effect is of a somewhat fatuous editorial aside, a throwaway, and this uncertain tone is a part of his general purpose. He understates his own deeper passions as well in his closely felt elegies for Tom Marshall, with the weary observation that "Love is the same old puzzle / and new mint sharp on the tongue."
Helwig the novelist—I think particularly of the soft focus effects of It Is Always Summer (Stoddart,1982)—is never far away from the text, with his eye for the suggestively simple detail, in the final sequence "Five Days" where "I climb / the steps of the bus in the wet / early morning." For all his naturalistic touches, however, Helwig the poet never loses his essential sophistication, whether he is describing the streets of Montreal in "Le Quartier" (published in The Malahat Review 114, about the same time as this book), or the "Mornings in the temple" from the title poem here, where:
Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â They sat
like regulars in a coffee shop
each one in the usual place.
David Helwig’s urban concerns contrast almost archetypically with the landscape-driven urgings of Pat Lane. Though they meet easily in terms of verbal skill: Too Spare, Too Fierce, Lane’s 22nd volume, consistently exhibits the formal control that is
a product of three decades of sustained versecraft. There are many familiar touches here: the confident yet unpretentious analysis of easily recognizable experiences, "What the body forgets is / what memory is" ("These Ones"); the clear, naturalistic description of the "Cougar" who "before she falls from her high limb / holds for one moment the ponderosa pine"; and even occasionally a touch of parody, as with the Purdyesque "the body full of whiskey .. . pissing on the dead roses" ("Musical Phrase"). Lane is also and more seriously aware of his literary predecessors and honours the novelist Howard O’Hagan, whose
Tay John is so close in spirit to much of his own work, with the softly brooding elegy "The Story In His Bones."
There is a great deal of energy in Too Spare, Too Fierce. There is also a peculiar tension, a kind of anger (the "ferocity" of the title?) that seems to be in some way self-directed, or directed at least toward a new (more "spare"?) self image. His second Selected Poems(Oxford, 1987) showed a movement away from the early rages and broadly based satire of such collections as Albino Pheasants and Unborn Things to a more contemplative verse. This inclination to abstraction continued and possibly culminated with the book-length sequence Winter (Coteau, 1990). Now approaching 60, Lane seems to be engaged in a new, or at least in another, personalization. He has begun to publish a loose series of prose "Memory Writings," as he terms them, beginning with the suggestively titled "Lives of the Poets," including "Falling Out of Night" and "A World Without Water," and most recently, and aptly to my suggestions here, "The Neurotic Poet." These intriguing snippets of a hinted-at whole, with their odd yet compelling blend of naturalism and phantas- magoria, show the poet still fierce, still (somewhat) spare, still juggling his personae.
Or more deftly and with greater daring, W. H. New juggling his. The 80 unrhymed sonnets of Science Lessons vigorously explore his youth, his countryside, his mind and emotions. Gary Geddes, in an earlier review of the book, compared New’s sonnets with those of the late Roy Daniells in Deeper into the Forest (1948) and The Chequered Shade (1963).There’s something to be said for this suggestion. Both are academics, intimately aware of the form’s great tradition; but they have explored and expanded it differently. Roy’s was the more conservative approach to Canadian sonneteering; his poems, no matter what their subject, always sounded like Milton with a Manitoban accent. New’s poems are (almost) unselfconscious, as "inside his head, he’s singing sonnets" ("RADAR") and echo themselves "in a hall of mirrors" ("FERMAT’S PRINCIPLE").
They echo other selves as well. The twentieth-century sonnet tradition in English is partly American, involving most aptly here the sardonic subversions of e. e. cummings. New’s poem "X-Ray," for instance, begins with a flippant in-the-manner-of gesture ":is winter’s season." Then, after some solemn play ("the world / is white, with black bones"), points a cummingsesque finger at "the white rabbit / dart[ing] across a field." But it is his own poem at the last, natural as well as supernatural, with "low light / turning early dark, and bitterchill."
Nature, of course, and the sense of awe at nature which is itself natural. This interchange—and here the tradition is Wordsworthian—is presented over and over in poems which variously use and that, indeed, need their persistent sonnetness to maintain some sort of centre of perception. What they see is what they are: a response, set of responses, to a richly detailed congeries of subtle and delicate clues from nature and cues from themselves. The lesson (science / scientta) they finally point to is their own community of responses, extending from "the field called farm’ ("TIME"), through "the cold choice of raincoast streets" ("THERMODYNAMICS"), and out (or perhaps in) to "the rural, crystal, wild" ("UNCERTAINTY").
- Larger Than Seeing by Diane Stiles
Books reviewed: The Hidden Room: Collected Poems by P. K. Page
- Culturally Bound Illness by Anna Cooper
Books reviewed: Gout: The Patrician Malady by Roy Porter and G.S. Rousseau, Illness and Culture in the Postmodern Age by David B. Morris, and Wishbone Dance by Glen Downie
- Against the Grain by Brook Houglum
Books reviewed: On Abducting the 'Cello by Wayne Clifford and Karenin Sings the Blues by Sharon McCartney
- Wonder and the Sacred by Paul Milton
Books reviewed: All Our Wonder Unavenged by Don Domanski and Poetry and the Sacred by Don Domanski
- Voicing Constraint by Ian Rae
Books reviewed: My Darling Nellie Grey by George Bowering
MLA: Brown, Allan. Worlds Within Worlds. canlit.ca. Canadian Literature, 8 Dec. 2011. Web. 19 June 2013.
This review originally appeared in Canadian Literature #158 (Autumn 1998), New Directions. (pg. 148 - 149)
***Please note that the articles and reviews from the Canadian Literature website (www.canlit.ca) may not be the final versions as they are printed in the journal, as additional editing sometimes takes place between the two versions. If you are quoting from the website, please indicate the date accessed when citing the web version of reviews and articles.