Wednesday, August 4, 2010

Review: The Year One, by David Helwig

I find something so soothing about the works of David Helwig. As one of Canada’s most prolific and versatile authors, he seems equally comfortable with the demands of prose, poetry and essays; and everything he writes is so quietly sensible, so unassumingly brilliant. I first discovered Helwig’s work when I was asked to review his novel The Time of her Life for The Halifax Herald back in 2000. Since then, I’ve read his recent novel Saltsea and his 1976 novel The Glass Knight, both of which I loved. And now, I’ve finished his astounding poetry book The Year One, which I picked up last month while vacationing in my home province of PEI (where Helwig now lives).

The Year One is a single long poem divided into 12 sections, one for each month of the year, and the year in question is the first year of the new millennium – 2001. Helwig takes us on a lengthy, contemplative walk through this time period, ruminating on everything from the quotidian detail of his domestic space to the world of politics, the tragic events of that year, and his own memories of the past. The poem moves with a quiet, almost effortless grace, capturing so many wonderful moments of illumination. The Year One tackles a variety of poetic approaches, from the narrative to the lyrical, from the aphoristic to the fragmented. Helwig is capable of shifting gears between these styles without causing the reader to jar, and this is one of the strongest skills on display in this very skillful book.

What makes The Year One so strong is the confidence that Helwig shows in incorporating multiple ideas or approaches into a single section of poetry: he references personal friends (some of whom have passed away) in nearly the same breath as he describes the beauty of the natural world around him and what’s happening in the news on any given day. Each passage feels buffed of the rough ends that would cause the reader to jar. Part of the skill is in the way he breaks his lines and his stanzas. But mostly it’s the contemplation behind each section that gives it its heart, that allows it to inhabit multiple approaches at multiple times.

These are lines free of sentimentality or cheap emotion. They are eloquently crafted and arranged in seamless, timeless rhythms. The Year One is a phenomenal achievement for a poet at the very top of his game.

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