"The Progress of Illumination": The Design and Unity of David Heiwig's Catchpenny Poems
by Lorraine M. York
The publication of David Heiwig's Catchpenny Poems is an appropriate occasion for casting an eye upon the fate of the interconnected book of lyrics in Canadian poetry. Over twenty years ago, in an exuberant and sensitive study of Jay Macpherson's The Boatman, which appeared in an early issue of Canadian Literature, James Reaney attacked the Canadian literary world for refusing to produce and to appreciate such collections. "Canadian poetry," he asserted, "has always been plagued by the book of unrelated lyrics."1 The source of this poetic plague, according to Reaney, was the British literary tradition, wherein many a latter-day Wordsworth "generally dishes out a selection of his latest 'real' walks."2 Far from blaming the Canadian poet exclusively, Reaney widened his criticism to include the entire literary atmosphere reiguing in Canada at that time:
Of course, Reaney was ignoring earlier collections of interconnected lyrics which, one supposes, did not meet his criteria: Charles G.D. Roberts' Songs of the Common Day (1893), Archibald Lampman's Lyrics of Earth (1895) and A.M. Klein's The Rocking Chair and Other Poems (1949). Since the time of Reaney's article, moreover, finely-crafted collections of interconnected poems have hardly been ignored by Canadian critics. Many, in fact, would agree that Reaney's own Twelve Letters to a Small Town (1962), Michael Ondaatje's The Collected Works of Billy the Kid (1970) and especially Margaret Atwood's The Journals of Susanna Moodie (1970) occupy positions of central importance in the development of Canadian poetry.
It is in this notable company that David Helwig's latest collection, Catchpenny Poems (1984) belongs. For Helwig, the gradual development of interconnected lyrics has accompanied an ever-deepening awareness of the darker elements of human existence, as though a more complex understanding of experience actually demanded a corresponding formal "web" of complexity. Witness Louis Armand's review of Helwig's first collection:
The passing nod to Helwig's charm notwithstanding, Armand's assessment of the collections as "a box of 'all sorts'5 is his final word. In addition to this charge of randomness, Helwig has been accused as well of being a milk-and-honey poet, or, as Desmond Pacey expresses it in his review of Helwig's next collection, The Sign of the Gunman, "a rather delicate, domestic kind of a poet, who seems most at home at home."6 One can plainly see, in later collections, that Helwig has taken great pains to prove that he is not simply a harum-scarum moralistic versifier. Atlantic Crossings (1974), with its four "contrapuntal" narratives of trips to the New World (contrapuntal in that they issue from the mouths of characters as diversified as St. Brendan, a slave-trader, a Norsewoman and Christopher Columbus), revealed a Helwig capable of seeing both light and dark, capable of perceiving unity in diversity.
Helwig's latest collection, Catchpenny Poems, is a further refinement of the technique of Atlantic Crossings; in it, Helwig truly forms (to borrow an apt phrase from Macpherson's The Boatman) "a cosmos of a miscellany."7 Instead of using the narrative mode as a means of establishing unity, Helwig now chooses a wealth of simple visual images the popular catchpenny prints of the last century. These prints, sold at the price of a penny a sheet, served as rudimentary newspapers for those who could not read, telling stories or simply entertaining through images. From objects as diverse as keys, a squirrel, a wig and a boot, Helwig manages to construct a series of poetic meditations which gain meaning by being read in the context of the others. A child's doll inspires a disquisition on mortality, for instance, while a knight's helmet suggests to Helwig's fertile imagination several levels of meaning: the cranium of a newborn baby, the mysterious chambers of memory, and the all-too-mortal container which cracks under the strain of "pure thought."8
Each of these visual images faces the corresponding poetic meditation (except in a few instances, which I shall discuss later). In this way, Helwig carries on the symbiotic relationship between word and image found in earlier Ontarian collections of interrelated poems. Journal III of The Journals of Susanna Moodie, as Atwood informs us in her Afterword to that collection, was inspired by "a little-known photograph of Susanna Moodie as a mad-looking and very elderly lady,"9 and Atwood herself furthers this visual-verbal cooperation by creating collages which juxtapose earlier prints and photographs with watercolour figures of Susanna and her family. Michael Ondaatje, too, uses the collage technique in The Collected Works of Billy the Kid and has even been known to reverse a photographic image, suggesting in this manner, like Atwood, the refashioning of documentary truth by a playful and daring artistic imagination.
The unity of Helwig's collection, however, like those of Atwood and Ondaatje, exists on a deeper level than the purely visual or narrative. One might well apply to Catchpenny Poems the observation made by Munro Beattie in The Literary History of Canada about Jay Macpherson's The Boatman:
As one progresses through Catchpenny Poems, one gradually realizes that the collection is not a random miscellany, but a carefully ordered series of poems, with a unifying vision and progression all its own. Helwig is conducting his reader on a journey from ignorance to awareness, from a view of the world that is jaded or non-inclusive to one which acknowledges the existence of darkness, pain and death, yet is also full of joy. It is, to quote an earlier poem, "The Maze," a "progress to illumination."11
Helwig chooses to begin and conclude his collection with poems which both bear a title rich in its suggestion of spiritual journeying and progression from innocence to painful experience: "Adam and Eve." (Neither poem is accompanied by a print, a fact which emphasizes their function as "framing" poems.) One immediately thinks of Macpherson, who playfully juxtaposes serious lyrical moods with brilliant parody, creating parallel poems in the manner of Blake's Songs of Innocence and Songs of Experience. The figure of Eurynome, for instance, inspires both the sombre reflection, "In the snake's embrace mortal she lies, / Dies, but lives to renew her torment"12 as well as Macpherson's sparkling zaniness:
Helwig's intention is not literary parody, but a subtle undercutting of the thoughtless, emotionless barrenland which he sees in the lives of many a modern, suburban "Adam and Eve":
This Eden, demoted to a nudist colony, recalls Macpherson's "The Fisherman," wherein, as she informs us, "The world was first a private park."14 Surely, too, Helwig's Adam is an analogue of Macpherson's "fisher of the fallen mind," who suffers alike from a comparison with the "Old Adam:
Helwig's couple, too, might be said to be composed less of mind and imaginative or "naming" power than of a colossally bottomless "gut":
Even the masterful alliteration of the last line echoes that of Macpherson. Yet Helwig emphasizes more strongly the lobotomized nature of this suburbanite Adam and Eve:
Moreover, the mundane references to cabbages, pets and "nondescript acres" as well as the appearance of a diminished Satan (here demoted to the status of "A travelling serpent" offering "lectures / on the philosophy of Descartes," 11. 9-10) all indicate that Helwig is attacking a particular modern disease, whose symptom may be summed up thus: "I am, therefore why think?" The journey has begun which will issue in an entirely different, affirmative vision when we meet the final "Adam and Eve."
Passing into the body of the collection, the reader is subjected to a form of initiation rite in "Bucket" (the first poem to be accompanied by a catchpenny print). Relying heavily on biblical imagery, Helwig introduces us to the concepts of microcosm and macrocosm which will play a key role in the entire collection (appropriately so, in a collection wherein simple, everyday images are for Helwig the grains of sand which hold eternity):
Even at this early stage, Helwig emphasizes that he is not only the poet of "love" (as Pacey would have it) but the poet of "hate" and malignant evil as well. Both conditions of the human soul are juxtaposed in the striking image which follows: "Carrying a bucket through the grass / The child heard warning of a rattlesnake" (11. 5-6). This awareness is a direct outgrowth of the maturer vision found in the "Voyages with Brendan" section of Atlantic Crossings, wherein, we remember, the serpent makes a similarly daunting appearance, pitted against "God's dragon," "our saviour;" there it appears as the "serpent of dark / and fire."16 Nevertheless, the serpent of darkness and deprivation proves ultimately nourishing; the men later feed on its carcass. So, too, the child in Catchpenny Poems, warned of the rattlesnake, is granted a vision of redemptive water: "Standing on a hill, the child saw / baptism in the river below" (11. 7-8). Thus, the reader is introduced to the spiritual progression which is at the very heart of Heiwig's poems: the gradual acceptance of the serpent in the Garden of Eden.
Moving further into the collection, Helwig moves further into the inner mysteries of the human mind in "Helmet." He is continually fascinated by the outer shells which mask man's spirit: "The brain wears many hats" (1. 1), comments Helwig, and among these are the "hardhat," "exoskeleton" and "beetle"-like shell of the soldier and knight (11. 2-4). Juxtaposed with this image of a crustaceous man, one who encases his loving spirit in a metallic shell of violence and brutality, is the image of
The all-important image of the child resurfaces here, along with the truth perceived by Wordsworth long ago, that man's shell hardens with age and worldly experience. Any incidence of love can only be attended by an equal measure of hatred; "the brain" is "a museum where the art of love / is contrapuntal, polyglot" (11. 9-10).
"Contrapuntal" is a word which aptly describes the way in which certain paired poems in Catchpenny Poems operate. Helwig places two poems dealing with birds, "Cock" and "Owl," side by side, in order to study two aspects of the creative mind. "Cock" is a defense of poetry which rests on vital albeit not always refined or polite experience:
The rough-and-tumble sounds of the first three words reproduce aurally the vibrant disorder which, in Helwig's view, is the vital root of all poetry. Better this wild disorder than the preened plumage of those "rare cocks" "in boxes" the "Poets in residence" (11. 8-10)! Again, Helwig deftly echoes earlier motifs in the collection; the hen in the box, like the water in the bucket, the brain in the body's helmet, is another image of man's trapped and trammelled spirit. Set against these tamed poets is the figure of the cock
Brazen and unashamedly alive, this "beaky proletarian philosopher" (1. 11) is a much more positive figure than that other philosopher we have met earlier among Helwig's cast of characters, the travelling serpent- philosopher who offers his Cartesian wares to Adam and Eve.
"Owl," on the other hand, explores the subconscious element of art. The mood which pervades the poem is one of inward-turning consciousness; the "s" sounds which abound in the first two lines ("Owl wings make only the soft sound heard / when eyes of secret lovers meet") emphasize the silent, private nature of this type of creative act, in glaring contrast to the strut and scream of the "Cock." Not only silence, but death and terror are present in the world of the "Owl" as well; "seconds subdivide and grow like cancer" (1. 4) and "minutes flutter futilely as moths / against the windows of the imprisoned brain" (11. 5-6) yet another echo of the image of trapped spirit. Nevertheless, the Owl, like the subconscious, allows body and spirit to unite in rare, creative moments, for it is "angel too of dreamless sleep where brain and body sigh diminuendo" (11. 7-8). Helwig unfortunately mars this otherwise suggestive poem by rendering too precise and articulate what must remain shadowy, at best half-apprehended: "The leaves of night hang close and still / on the thick branches of the collective unconscious" (11. 10-11). The last line happily recovers some of this lost suggestiveness: "Owl hoots among the shades" (1. 12). The word play on "shades" suggesting both "shadows" and departed spirits from one's past is particularly fortunate here. Thus, through the contrapuntal structure of the paired poem, deriving ultimately from Blake, Helwig reveals that the poet must be both "cock" and "owl" both proletarian philosopher and intuitive mystic.
We meet yet another false philosopher in "Misses Doll" a poem about an ageless china form which appears to resist the ravages of time and the pain of living. Invoking once more the images of macrocosm and microcosm, Helwig comments that "The goddess of the tiny world [i.e., the doll world] / endows her creatures with eternal life and philosophic calm" (11. 5-7). Obviously, these are mannequins of a decidedly Stoic cast of mind. In the second half of the poem, however, Helwig reveals stoicism as the ineffectual, evasive mask it is; the dolls join with the "bland homunculi of daydream" who are "gay as the rhetoric of their new clothes" in order to play the long comfortable game, / forever bride and groom" (11. 8, 10, 12-13). Telling words such as "bland," "rhetoric" (perhaps another witty play on ancient philosophy) and "comfortable" leave no doubt as to the superficiality of this stoicism; the term "forever," placed significantly at the beginning of the last line of the poem, underscores the stasis of such an attitude toward life as well.
As though to emphasize that the journey of life set forth in Catchpenny Poems is by no means a "comfortable" one, Helwig places a poem dealing with harsh journeyings immediately after "Misses Doll." In "Man of War," history is adorned with no gaily-coloured ribbons. Wolfe becomes "our unlikely father, / the dying imperialist" (11. 1-2). Even "The rickety farting sailors / nested like fleas in the hair of an old dog" (11. 5-6) are equally worthy of inclusion in Helwig's chronicle. Next to this massive dose of historical realism, Helwig mockingly displays a few scraps of romance:
Suddenly, we are whisked back to the domain of the dolls. Proof that Helwig wished this sort of running comparison to be made between these two poems by his readers is contained in the startling next two lines: "What children want is to break / their prettiest toys" (11. 10-11). Helwig, too, wants to break the reader's "toys," or illusions, and his closing injunction to the reader may be seen as an invitation to continue the process already begun in Catchpenny Poems the uncomfortable journey to awareness of pain, death, beauty and joy: "Follow this heart to safety in an old song" (1. 16). Art, the "old song," can be both an artful reworking of experience, and yet a truthful rendering of experience in its entirety all the same.
On a clearly literary rather than historical plane, romance clashes with experience once more in "Plough and Can." The opening lines create a pastoral mood not unlike that of Adam Bede:
As one progresses through the poem, this sense of human life as artifice fades; the dairymaid who is "sensitive as a novelist" is "Thrown on the parish with her bastard child" (11. 7, 11), "The farmer's boots are clogged with loam" (1. 13), in short, "flesh calls to flesh and dies" (1. 6). One is reminded of a similar contrast in T.S. Eliot's depiction of "The association of man and woman / in daunsinge, signifying matrimonie," a dance which rapidly becomes a dance of death: "Feet rising and falling, / Eating and drinking. Dung and death."17 Helwig, like Eliot, is concerned with the other side of artifice and ceremony, this "dung and death."
In another group of poems, Helwig turns his attention to another pair of contraries in art: logic, measurement and imagination. In "Musick," Helwig uses as his point of departure a picture of a man in eighteenth-century dress playing a flute for a woman in an extremely ordered, artificial garden (a table and chair render the natural setting akin to a drawing room). The musical notation a system of measurement captures Helwig's imagination; the notes fly "over the page / like blackbirds in snow" a natural image (11. 2-3). Confounded by this intrusion of the artificial into what should be the realm of the natural and spontaneous, the poet asks, "What is the meaning of these stops / and starts?" (11. 4-5). Emotion, he suggests, should be the measuring stick of art: "The sublime is measured in a spoonful / of your tears, dark welling eyes" (11. 8-9). Again, as though in counterpoint, Helwig immediately puts forth the opposing view: "Perfect logic demands / the invention of the double sharp" (11. 10-11). The stark, unpoetic nature of these lines, the rigid, unyielding sounds of the words "demands" and "sharp," contrast vividly with the sensual music of the "dark welling eyes" of the preceding lines. Helwig finally resolves this musical and poetical debate in appropriately imaginative fashion; he adds a detail which does not even appear in the catchpenny print: "Behind the hedge is the man with butterfly wings / who can fly" (11. 12-13). In this last burst of imaginative energy, Helwig leaves no doubt as to which side of the debate between logic and invention he favours. Only the man who incorporates the wildly fantastic with the normal the man with butterfly wings can truly create.
A closer view of the mechanistic approach to artistic creation is afforded us in another poem about music, "An Organ." Here the human and non-human elements of creativity seem to fuse: "This is the machine of the great breath" (1. 1). Nevertheless, there is little doubt in this poem that the machine is the master a fact which Helwig neatly demonstrates by turning to emphatic rhythmic patterns and repetition:
Although the human element is present in this act, it is decidedly cast in a subservient role; fingers partake of a "blind tradition" (1. 10), a "slavery to sound" (1. 11). Nevertheless, the final interlocking of machine and man which one witnesses at the end of the poem appears less sinister than in "Musick," because it is a conflict which lies at the very centre of man's being: "Behind the swell of harmony, clockwork ticks / like atoms in a brain at prayer" (11. 14-15).
Closely related to this group of poems are two other poems which appear near the end of Catchpenny Poems, both concerned with the conflict between logic and irrationality in man. These poems, "Fool's Head" and "Mad Tom" derive from the earlier poems of Helwig's which might be called "Fool poems," wherein he argues in favour of a view of man which includes man as fool. (We have already encountered a similar argument about human irrationality in "Owl.") These early poems include the "Mad Songs" of Figures in a Landscape (the two-song structure probably deriving from Browning's "Madhouse Cells") and the Harlequin poems ("The School for Harlequins," "Harlequin's Parentage" and "The Death of Harlequin") from The Sign of the Gunman. The sympathy accorded the jester figure in these poems resembles that accorded by Yeats to the inspired zaniness of his Crazy Jane, and yet by the time Helwig writes Catchpenny Poems he is prepared to find dualism and conflict even in this theme. On one hand, in "Fool's Head," abnormality may be only another deceiving mask of man. "Few make a profession of it," Helwig begins, "Only on carnival holidays / we offer stupidities to our intimates" (11. 1-3). Such socially sanctioned deviation only underscores the fact that abnormality is really not tolerated at all in our society; the holiday romp becomes only "a masque of freedom, civility / of the monkey show" (11. 12-13). Still, Helwig ends his poem in such a way as to suggest that the human capacity for deviance, for inner freedom, has not been entirely exhausted; that "still, / dear painted face, it is the eyes, the eyes" (11. 15-16).
In the very next poem, "Mad Tom," Helwig picks up this theme the masking of man's darker, crazy side. This poem, in particular, derives from the second of the "Mad Songs," which is an appeal by the Mad Tom of King Lear to "take me in like kith and kin," "Take Tom into your blankets."18 This plaint, echoing Lear's wish to clothe Edgar or "Mad Tom" ("Off, off you lendings! come, unbutton here."),19 invites man to acknowledge the darker side of his personality. Helwig picks up this motif in "Mad Tom," this time from a third-person perspective wherein he reveals the effects of man's desire to lock away this other side of human experience. Referring to the nineteenth-century wish to rewrite King Lear with a conventionally happy ending, Helwig jeers, "Complacency is the only happy ending. / Alive! Cordelia pops up smiling" (11. 9-10). Reducing Cordelia to the status of a serviceable piece of breakfast toast, Helwig suggests, would rob the play of its central vision that of good and evil forces striving and merging in man's outer and inner worlds. Thus tragedy, in such a morally laundered world, would belong, according to Helwig, only "on stage / or in the headlines" (11. 3-4):
One has the uneasy feeling of witnessing King Lear relayed by Reuter. In short, Helwig asserts that in a morally sterilized world, one which does not acknowledge the dirt and evil of existence, man loses all sense of moral concepts or abstractions: "Wisdom is an alternative form of words. / Love is the best way to tie up the plot" (11. 11-12). The problem with this colossal mindlessness (a moral condition already glimpsed in "Adam and Eve") is its ignoring of the ultimate darkness: "Death is a metaphor for nothing" (1. 13). Thus Helwig, in this powerful lyric, gives voice to a central concern of Canadian writers the conflict between darkness and light outlined so comprehensively by D.G. Jones in Butterfly on Rock and given its most explicit expression in Sheila Watson's The Double Hook:
As we have witnessed in his use of the paired poem technique and his contrapuntal style, David Helwig, too, is a master of the double hook. Accordingly, he does not leave us in the darkness along with "Mad Tom" without casting upon us a shred of "glory" in the next poem, "Sunflower." Here, refashioning a symbol which derives from Blake, Helwig reveals the stoicism which unlike that of the "Misses Doll" is the central message of Catchpenny Poems. The sunflower, "Wide as a face, perfect / as a child's compass circle" (11. 1-2), fuses both spirit and physicality: "The spirit burns in petals / . . . filling seeds with gold oil" (11. 3, 5). Most importantly, the sunflower becomes, in Helwig's thought, a veritable double hook, catching both the darkness and the glory: "Face the light, tall vegetable soldier, / until the light is gone" (11. 6-7).
Given this vision of redemption through inclusive knowledge, we, as readers, are fully prepared to turn, like the sunflower, full circle in the last poem of Helwig's collection, "Adam and Eve." This circular imagery is apparent from the very beginning: "God offers a return to paradise / if you will only die" (11. 1-2). Again the seed of the sunflower reappears, but it now becomes the potentially vital human seed; Helwig claims that this return through death is
The journey forward, then, as countless mystics have discovered, is, in fact, a journey backward, to the sources of being. In contrast, Helwig, in a vein similar to that of The Marriage of Heaven and Hell, attacks once more the false innocence which has assumed a myriad forms in Catchpenny Poems:
Fast on the heels of these proverbs of Hell, Helwig unmasks in rapid succession the conventional forms of wisdom; learning becomes "The wonderful pig of knowledge" (1. 10), whose talents include counting to ten and playing bridge. "Birds, angels and historians" (1. 12), a motley assortment of sources of inspiration natural, divine and secular, superfi cially "float past / in their white gowns, happy as dolls" (11. 12-13). Thus the false calm of the "Misses Doll" makes it final, ignominious appearance in Helwig's little world. With all of the superficial accoutrements trimmed away, Helwig reserves the last line in Catchpenny Poems for an elemental vision of man which echoes Lear's description of the "poor, bare, forked animal" and reasserts its truth for the twentieth century: "The man and the woman are still always naked." (1. 14)
Such is the wisdom whicn will allow man "a return to paradise" not to a bower of bliss but to a twentieth-century heath. Viewed from its final destination, Catchpenny Poems thus undermines the suggestion inherent in its title, that these short lyrics resemble the prints which provided entertainment and escape for our grandfathers and grandmothers. Each poem is a stage on a difficult journey, wherein Heiwig strips away our illusions, masks and presumptions to reveal the naked, dirty and ultimately lovable animal, man.
Louis Armand, "Figures in a Landscape," The Fiddlehead (January/February 1969), 100.[back]
Desmond Pacey, "A Canadian Quintet," The Fiddlehead (January/February 1970), 85.[back]
Jay Macpherson, "The Third Eye," The Boatman (Toronto: Oxford University Press, 1957), p. 7, 1. 6.[back]
David Heiwig, "Helmet," Catchpenny Poems (Ottawa: Oberon Press, 1984), 1. 12. All further line references to this collection will appear in parentheses in the text. (There is no pagination.)[back]
Margaret Atwood, "Afterword," The Journals of Susanna Moodie (Toronto: Oxford University Press, 1970), p. 63.[back]
Munro Beattie, Literary History of Canada, Vol. II (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1965, 1976), p. 301.[back]
David Heiwig, "The Maze," The Sign of the Gunman (Ottawa: Oberon Press, 1969), p. 124, 15-16.[back]
Macpherson, "Eurynome," p. 14, 11. 1-2.[back]
"Eurynome," p. 22, 11. 1-4.[back]
"The Fisherman," p. 70, 1. 1.[back]
David Helwig, "Voyages with Brendan," Atlantic Crossings (Ottawa: Oheron Press, 1974), n. p.[back]
T.S. Eliot, "East Coker," Collected Poems 1909-1962 (London: Faber and Faber, 1963, rpt. 1974), p. 197, 11. 29-30, 45-46.[back]
David Helwig, "Mad Songs: ii," Figures in a Landscape (Ottawa: Oberon Press, 1968), p. 61, 11. 7, 13.[back]
William Shakespeare King Lear edited by Kenneth Muir (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1959), rpt. 1959), III, iv, 11. 100-101.[back]
Sheila Watson, The Double Hook (Toronto: McClelland and Stewart, 1959, rpt. 1969), p. 61.[back]