I can do no better than repeat what I said when I introduced David’s translation of the Chekhov story “About Love,” published earlier on these pages. David Helwig is an old friend, a prolific novelist, story writer, translator, and poet, and a mighty gray eminence on the Canadian literary scene. In 2007 he won the Writers’ Trust of Canada Matt Cohen Prize for distinguished lifetime achievement. In 2009 he was appointed to the Order of Canada. His book publication list is as long as your arm. He founded the annual Best Canadian Stories which he edited for years. He is also a very graceful human being as evidenced by his comments on Numéro Cinq.
I had my choice of new Helwig poems to post here, but I picked this one because I really like it. The last stanza alone is worth the trip. It’s a rare poet who can make you feel the fever and mystery of life in as few words.
Unfortunately, the poem is written in Canadian, so I’ll have to translate a few of the words for my American and Mexican readers. Lower Canada College is a venerable Montreal private school, Lower Canada being the former name for what became the province of Quebec. There is an Upper Canada College in Toronto, another venerable private school (not a college in the American sense, a grade school and high school). Upper Canada is what we used to call Ontario. Upper Canada and Lower Canada as designations don’t make a lot of sense intuitively to Americans since they are actually east-west neighbours. But in the days when the St. Lawrence River was the major highway east and west, Ontario was upriver and Quebec was downriver.
Hugh MacLennan was a great Canadian novelist, whose book Two Solitudes invented the myth or metaphor that, for decades, defined the way we thought about relations between the French and English sides of the nation. His other fine novel, Barometer Rising, about the Halifax Explosion of 1917 I gave to my son Jacob when I took him to Halifax for his freshman year at the University of King’s College last September. MacLennan taught at Lower Canada College and later McGill University.
The rest you can figure out for yourselves.
The dignity of a considered rhythm: today
the school year begins. Across the dappled green lawn
of Lower Canada College children of privilege
kick a soccer ball, foregather in little groups;
by the fence a red-head and her friend exchange news.
The ghost of Hugh MacLennan in his teaching days
observes from the shade of a tall tree. He can hear
the plock of tennis balls from further up the street,
the sacred precincts of the Monkland Tennis Club.
A seasonable invention, all these memorable
hours, a cherishing of slowness, as eyes might observe
the infinite seconds of fine craftsmanship,
afforded to some in their best bargain with time,
the finely grained and cut and carved, its artifice
emulating the splendour of the eternal,
the existential calm of the elegiac.
Then turn the wrong corner. A house has disappeared.
As if entrapped in the suicide’s murderous mistake
or the muddle and depletion of dementia,
you come upon maddened wasps in all the cities,
sea giants, monsters, dragon, roc, sphinx, mermaid,
a phoenix tattoo paints resurrection on a pale skin.
Retrace your steps toward the pragmatics of freedom
in the grace of the familiar, that shape of our being,
the chosen hour of the chosen day, though the lost
slip from the slender thread of their living, yet first
and last the taut and shining wire vibrates
with tunefulness, proposes such fine music.
Makes me think of JJ & Stephen Dedalus for some reason. “History is a nightmare from which I’m trying to awake.” (or something like that.) Lovely poem.
Well, well. I’m a huge Helwig fan. I had no idea…