Sing, muse!

One Building in the Earth

By Bert Almon

A review of One Building In The Earth by Maggie Helwig

Published on April 1, 2003

One Building In The Earth
Maggie Helwig

ECW Press
$16.95
paper
133pp
1-55022-552-9

Maggie Helwig’s new collection gives a good overview of a career which has developed without much commentary. The work has consistently reflected her political activism and her hatred of war. Her poems about East Timor are particularly anguished. Her readers are almost certain to share her feelings, so rhetoric is not required and she generally avoids it. In the early work her style so often relies on familiar nouns (wind, rain, faces, hands) and adjectives (primary colours and terms like “great”) that the reader longs for some sense that she finds resistance in the medium: the pity is more important than the craft. The best of her early poems is “For J.J. Harper,” her elegy for the prominent Native leader shot in error by a policeman. The poem is interspersed with paranoid graffiti and accounts of the inquiry into Harper’s death but expresses compassion for the policeman who killed him and the investigator who committed suicide the day he was to testify at the inquiry. Helwig is not writing a diatribe.

Many poets today like to explore the life of an historical figure. The usual title is The ___ Poems,” where the blank can be filled in with Norman Bethune (now a fading figure), Marie Curie, Sibelius – endless possible subjects. Helwig’s two important historical series are “Hunger and the Watchman: For Simone Weil,” and the “Marthe Poems.” Weil is so interesting in her own words that it seems superfluous to write about her. Much better are the more recent poems about a much less familiar figure, Marthe Bonnard, wife of the painted Pierre Bonnard, who painted many portraits of her in domestic scenes, most often in the bathtub. Helwig explores Marthe’s neuroses: she seems to have been housebound. She uses painterly terminology to convey the domestic atmosphere chez Bonnard:

I will crawl on my fingertips through
white lead
the ripe cheese oozing across the plate,
that female smell
past the high platter of vivid plum
to the place where you bend, mixing food
for the dog at the edge
of vision,
a silver spoon.

The language in the “Marthe Poems” makes demands on the reader which are not common in Helwig’s earlier work. The fact that the poem is so recent is encouraging: the poet is evolving. mRb

Bert Almon lives in Edmonton, Alberta. Retired from teaching, he follows the careers of his former students.

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