Helwig, David (Gordon)

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HELWIG, David (Gordon)

Nationality: Canadian. Born: Toronto, Ontario, 5 April 1938. Education: Stamford Collegiate Institute, graduated 1956; University of Toronto, B.A. 1960; University of Liverpool, M.A. 1962. Family: Married Nancy Keeling in 1959; two daughters. Career: Member of the Department of English, Queen's University, Kingston, Ontario, 1962–80. Literary manager, television-drama department, 1974–76, and story editor, Sidestreet crime series, 1974–75, Canadian Broadcasting Corporation. Co-editor, Quarry magazine. Awards: CBC literary prize, 1983. Address: General Delivery, Belfast, PEI, COA 1AO, Canada.



Figures in a Landscape. Ottawa, Oberon Press, 1967.

The Sign of the Gunman. Ottawa, Oberon Press, 1969.

The Best Name of Silence. Ottawa, Oberon Press, 1972.

Atlantic Crossings. Ottawa, Oberon Press, 1974.

A Book of the Hours. Ottawa, Oberon Press, 1979.

The Rain Falls Like Rain. Ottawa, Oberon Press, 1982.

Catchpenny Poems. Ottawa, Oberon Press, 1983.

The Hundred Old Names. Ottawa, Oberon Press, 1988.

The Beloved. Ottawa, Oberon Press, 1992.

A Random Gospel. Ottawa, Oberon Press, 1996.

This Human Day. Ottawa, Oberon Press, 2000.


A Time in Winter (produced Kingston, Ontario, 1967). Included in Figures in a Landscape, 1967.


The Day before Tomorrow. Ottawa, Oberon Press, 1971; as Message from a Spy, Don Mills, Ontario, Paperjacks, 1975.

The Glass Knight. Ottawa, Oberon Press, 1976.

Jennifer. Ottawa, Oberon Press, 1979; New York, Beaufort, 1983.

The King's Evil. Ottawa, Oberon Press, 1981; New York, Beaufort, 1984.

It Is Always Summer. Toronto, Stoddart, and New York, Beaufort, 1982.

A Sound Like Laughter. Toronto, Stoddart, and New York, Beaufort, 1983.

The Only Son. Toronto, Stoddart, and New York, Beaufort, 1984; London, Penguin, 1988.

The Bishop. Markham, Ontario, New York, and London, Viking, 1986.

A Postcard from Rome. Markham, Ontario, Viking, 1988.

Old Wars. Markham, Ontario, Viking, 1989.

Of Desire. Markham, Ontario, Viking, 1990.

Blueberry Cliffs. Ottawa, Oberon Press, 1993.

Just Say the Words. Ottawa, Oberon Press, 1994.

Close to the Fire. Fredericton, Goose Lane Editions, 1999.

The Time of Her Life. Fredericton, Goose Lane Editions, 2000.

Short Stories

The Streets of Summer. Ottawa, Oberon Press, 1969.


A Book about Billie (documentary). Ottawa, Oberon Press, 1972; as Inside and Out, Don Mills, Ontario, Paperjacks, 1975.

Editor, with Tom Marshall, Fourteen Stories High: Best Canadian Stories of 71. Ottawa, Oberon Press, 1971.

Editor, with Joan Harcourt, 72, 73, 74 and 75: New Canadian Stories. Ottawa, Oberon Press, 4 vols., 1972–75.

Editor, Words from Inside. Kingston, Ontario, Prison Arts, 1972.

Editor, The Human Elements: Critical Essays (and Second Series). Ottawa, Oberon Press, 2 vols., 1978–81.

Editor, Love and Money: The Politics of Culture. Ottawa, Oberon Press, 1980.

Editor, with Sandra Martin, 83, 84, 85, and 86: Best Canadian Stories. Ottawa, Oberon Press, 4 vols., 1983–86; with Maggie Helwig, 87, 88, 89, and 91, 4 vols., 1987–91.

Editor, with Sandra Martin, Coming Attractions 1983, 1984, 1985, and 1986. Ottawa, Oberon Press, 4 vols., 1983–86; with Maggie Helwig, 1987 and 1988, 2 vols., 1987–88.

Translator, Chekhov, Last Stories. Ottawa, Oberon Press, 1991.


Manuscript Collection: McMaster University, Hamilton, Ontario.

Critical Studies: "Spells against Chaos" by Tom Marshall, in Quarry (Kingston, Ontario), Spring 1968; "David Helwig's New Timber," in Queen's Quarterly (Kingston, Ontario), Summer 1974; "'"The Progress of Illumination': The Design and Unity of David Helwig's Catchpenny Poems" by Lorraine M. York, in Canadian Poetry (London, Ontario), 18, Spring/Summer 1986.

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Over the years David Helwig's poetry has changed significantly, his later muse being less violent and political than in some of his earlier works. In The Sign of the Gunman, for instance, there is a curious stridency and rhetorical pose that seems artificial and labored: "They are burning our cities /they are shooting at us with bullets." This goes hand in hand with an occasionally distasteful reveling in sutures and seared flesh: "Somewhere is a photograph /of a man in two pieces /burned until he is only /two pieces of a cooked man." When the violence is necessary to greatness, as it is in his "Apollo and Daphne," it is right and felt as a conclusion to the poem. But Helwig does not escape the fashionable Canadian taste for Frye-like mythology, in which Harlequin and the acrobat, like the Zeus of his "Metamorphosis," appear to stand for more than they are, gesturing for significance.

The four poems that comprise Atlantic Crossings, however, are not racked by symbol. The image of the louse in the Columbus section, moving "off the edge of my swollen brain /into a new world," has an appropriately Donnean quality. It is indicative of what preserves this collection from mere indulgence in the horrific world of madness through which it travels.

The strength of Helwig's earliest poetry is present again in his later work, a strength that owes much to a fine-edged description. Helwig's admiration for Andrew Wyeth is evident in his "After Brueghel," where winter is a season "of sudden long white distances /that empty the mind." There is something of the Pacific Northwest school (William Stafford, for instance) in Helwig's "Still Life" or "Sunday Breakfast":

   Orange, one egg, tea in a cup
   of blue and white, composing silences
   against the hurt nerves fluttering.

Although some of the poems in A Book of the Hours come perilously close to McKuen, Helwig's affection for the familial and domestic is rarely sentimental. His "A Shaker Chair" is a classic of toughness:

   I see in the Shaker rocking chair
   stillness turning, stillness moving,
   contemplation and silent standing,
   even the denial of the body.

Occasionally one senses Helwig's debt to the impressionist transformation of simple painterly objects into a larger life, a debt that gives us echoes of Stevens: "We swim before we walk. The tropic sea /within the caul is home." Certainly the inflections are Stevens's, and they are congenial to an attractive toughness in the verse that saves Helwig's taste for darkness, secrecy, and night and for their magic from being merely fantasy. Fantasy at its best, however, is present in his "Summer Landscapes," where "the house running away to the stars /on the feet of mice" has the quality of a Louis de Niverville painting.

Like many Canadian artists Helwig seemed to find his voice abroad. Liverpool nurtured him, and in his best poems one hears the voices of "the old women /climbing Brownlow Hill /in the killing fog."

In the best of Helwig's works there is a fine sense of detachment. This may be why his poems on Diefenbaker, the Orange Lodge, and American political issues are so weak; his spontaneous emotion is too close to their creation. The picture one retains of him is of a distant walker, a figure in his own landscape, above the world he deplores and celebrates, the world he describes in "Christmas, 1965," in which "silence /had overwhelmed the noise of men," leaving only the poet's voice.

—D.D.C. Chambers