David Helwig here reminds us that poetry is a kind of divine tomfoolery, a playful messaging that oscillates between meaning everything and meaning nothing, that never means but momentarily and then the meaning shimmers away like a leaf blowing in the wind, catching here and there and moving on. He sent this to me calling it poetry. Actually what he said was more like he couldn’t figure out what it was so he called it poetry. On some level it enacts a messianic parody; it gives the year 2051 a mysterious significance; I like the stenographer drawn in a cart by a Newfoundland dog; I like the Four Lads and all the words beginning with Q; it lifts one’s heart.
David is an old friend and an amazingly prolific author of poems, translations, stories, novels and a memoir. 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. Biblioasis is on the cusp of a collection of David’s magnificent translations of Chekhov stories, the title story “About Love” originally on Numéro Cinq. See also his poems on NC here and here and here and here!
You’d see them by the shore on those greenest of green days, Himself in conversation with Quigley, adding newly minted sayings, in the distance one of the fishers wading barefoot, steady in one place as his bare feet step gently up and down in search of the lump in the mud, the hard shell of the quahog, bending to lift each small edible bivalve out of the sludge, drop it in the floating container he dragged behind him, like a ghost towing his hard fate. Further out an oysterman probed the bottom with a set of tongs. And beyond that yet the tiny image of a lobsterman pulling traps on the shimmer of water, silver under the light-infused clouds and on in a hint of forever to the line of horizon. In the air the fine metallic flex and curl of birdsong, the tiny musicians hidden in the green reeds or the tall grass or the thick accumulation of succulent new leaves.
Himself would be bent a little forward, walking ten steps one way, then ten steps the other, intent, speaking his words, and Quigley staring at him while he went on, the big Q, so he said, remembrancing every word of it, so later to scratch it all down and share it with the Four Lads, in the years when the entirety of them westered into the secret underground, and were known only by the initials, Q for Quigley, though many said it was for some Latin or foreign word, Q not for Quigley at all, though he was called that in the farmyards and on the highways, and among the high lines of travel, while the Lads were known by their initials M and M and L and I, MMLI adding up to 2051 in the ancient numeration, and it was prepared that in the year two thousand and fifty one, some Final Secret would be told, Himself achieving his place at last. Never such demand for Last Things, and Big Quigley had a whole bundle of prophecies of the Third Coming and the Fourth, always more, like a couple, adulterous or even not, who have just at last caught the pace of it and climb the holy mountain at all hours.
At low tide the radioactive seals, flopping out of the ocean like fat mermaids, gather on a rock shoal not far from shore, grunt and boom and snarl. No one could remember the name of the arctic goddess who once reigned in the icy waters, and governed their lives.
Nearby, observing, silent, is a tall hard man with a shaven skull. He never speaks. Then Mad Mary, in an opalescent shirt full of flesh, tiny shorts defining white thighs, strides out of a tent in the long green ferns where she has passed the time with whomever, contributions to the fund, all her big mad teeth in a grin as she goes aboard the school bus, with its beds and galley and chemical toilet and with a bending and shifting of her bare long legs and heft of muscular arms she lifts and places cardboard boxes, sweeps up, and the holy scrolls filed once more in their rack, she sets to packing up dehydrated veg and salt fish, with fresh water for the next voyage, a hip canted to one side as she lugs the buckets.
Big Quigley watches her. Whatever his claims to holiness, he is not to be trusted, of course, who would try to cheat the shell-fisher of his catch, or anyone else of any manner of thing, better conceal him as the letter, Q for quaestio, a seeking or searching, Q for quies, rest, Q for questus, complaint, Q for quisquiliae, rubbish. And his ways of remembering served to augment confusions in what was said of what was done, each of the Four Lads recording what each believed he knew, late at night debating the matters and sharing out their stories. His record, the spoken and claimed and imagined basis of it all, would finally be vanished forever, so that nothing was left but an image of an image, Mad Mary’s bright eyes and heavy sunlit hair caught in the mirror of a puddle, where she glimpsed herself with all her devils gone off, Himself seen over her shoulder in the water, come up on her from behind. Himself must use the tools at hand, what is in the world is in the world. She will read the Parmenides scroll to him in the shade late some afternoon.
Now, the packing and preparation done, she comes out of the bus with a wooden bowl in her hands, down to the water to fill, then goes to the firepit, where there is a faint trace of smoke winding up into the air, and Himself arrives to her and sits in the old upholstered seat taken out of the bus each time they set up camp, and she takes off his summer sandals and kneels, sun glittering on the waterdrops as she washes his feet, and as she bends toward him, he put his fingers through her thick hair with its metallic highlights.
They will march down a main street for the final parade, some of the willing natives gathered by the wayside, some watching on their eyeglass screens, and when she has washed his feet, Himself tells her a mystery while she combs out his hair and beard, making him handsome for the public presentation. Big Quigley studies it all. He is standing in the long green ferns, and down by the jetties, he sees two women climb from a rowboat and walk to a waiting air-bicycle, and he stares them so hard that they grow naked to his eyes, and in his way he possesses them both entirely.
The sunlight catches the thin smoke and the wisps thicken to clouds until the firepit is all whirling whiteness. Himself and Mad Mary vanish from sight, and the two of them gone, the Four Lads appear on the scene in their royal T-shirts each with his letter – TWO-ZERO-FIVE-ONE – as they sing out their stories in plainchant, then the unison dissolves into the chords of a march, and out of the vast smoke rolls the schoolbus, Mad Mary at the wheel, her bare arms exposing shifting tattoos, big hands gripping the wheel. Himself stands on the roof beating time, and all around it marches a phalanx of drum majorettes, in white satin skirts, tall boots, and red satin shirts.
Big Quigley, riding behind in a horse drawn carriage, has a notebook in his hands, and he is scribbling in it as fast as he can, but he can’t keep up, so he turns on his eyeglass phone and begins to dictate into it. Behind him, in a cart drawn by a tremendous black Newfoundland dog, sits a stenographer receiving his dictation and putting it down in shorthand. Behind the orange schoolbus, marching with their knees high, come male and female cheerleaders in silver bikinis, two of them holding a banner with the words EAT FRESH SEA FOOD. With the fingers of both hands Quigley forms the letter Q, and the cheerleaders wave to him and some of them make the same digital gesture. Each observer’s portable device records their progress into the city.
Then the bus vanishes with its smoke and noise, the long street is empty.
A van is parked in front of a snack bar, and a young man climbs out, who wears a Boy Scout hat, holding a stick ending in a nail in his right hand, a canvas bag in his left, and he strolls along the boulevard picking up the chocolate bar wrappers and chip bags and popcorn boxes.
— David Helwig