Review of “Helices” by George Swede

“Helices” Reviewed by Anna Yin
Author: George Swede
Publish: Red Moon Press 2016  118 pages
ISBN: 978-1-936848-70-6

George Swede’s new book has a very special title, “Helices”, with a cover design which is a photo of spiral staircases. The book is special not only because it is a combination of haiku, tanka and haibun that are derived from traditional Japanese poetic forms sharing close connections to nature, but it surprises us with its depth and honesty in exploring the self, and our troubled world through the concept of helices.

The book is divided into four sections: “Single Helix”, “Double Helix”, “Triple Helix” and “Beyond the Triple Helix”. From single to double to triple and to beyond, Mr. Swede explores the complication of orders, cycles and construction from the self to loved ones, to the world and beyond. In each section, Mr. Swede begins to explain where helices can be found. It gives us his viewpoint, drawing his sources from molecular biology. For example, “Single Helix” opens with two one-line haiku: “sandcastle my carefully constructed self” and “the fantasy that is me central singularity”.

They clearly set a tone of reflection, doubting the construction and creation of one’s self. Mr. Swede continues “a grain of sand/in my umbilicus/the theory of everything”. On the one hand, “a grain of sand” might refer to William Blake’s “Seeing the world in a grain of sand”, but it also can imply the inevitable life cycle ending in death.

Through the aging process, he witnesses human life, vulnerable to death, as tides of disappearing names. Mr. Swede cannot help but wonder about the meaning of life. He hopes to grasp it, yet it seems to slip through his fingers.  He connects “The urge for immortality” and “the mind search for answers” through writing, yet he simply arrives at: “
all day writing poems…/the sound of paper settling/in the bin” and “my bio-/the sun’s glare thru/bare branches”.

His puzzlement and doubt are like “a snake asleep/tail to mouth”. Self-awareness and doubt naturally and profoundly rise in these haiku; I believe only advanced haiku poets like Mr. Swede can achieve this. The longing for freedom and courage is fully awakened (in some sense with a regret) by this poet, and he touches readers through poems such as: “what I want to say/censored by the time of/my tongue, fingers-/the dawn bird chorus strait from the heart” and “forces beyond control/made and now destroy me/bit-by-bit-/a second frost coming for the last three lantana blooms”, a possible allusion to Percy Bysshe Shelley’s “A poet is a nightingale who sits in darkness and sings to cheer its own solitude with sweet sounds.” These kinds of self-investigation are influenced evidently by our social environment, as in his haiku “my shadow’s head/on the other side of the chasm/a bank statement” and “I support/100 trillion microbes- unfair tax hike” show.

In “double helix” the poems shift to relationships, love and family with DNA and blood connecting the dots. Coincidentally, when I re-read the book, on the page 50, where the haiku “trees reveal/the coming storm/she undoes her hair” appears, I found a long black hair. I assume it was mine, and interestingly, the following haiku reads “together at last the sounds of our prewords”. Of course I know these things occur by chance, but the beauty of haiku might show here by claiming good haiku is supposed to share a moment and invite readers to fill in its open ending. This reader completed the experience accidentally in a physical way.

George Swede observes, “When understanding/starts then stops/birth cry”. Perhaps, although in these helix sections and following, Mr. Swede frequently deals with passing, doubts, world troubles, and other heavy and dark moments, he also hopes that we not only are aware of them, but also look beyond them, as he ends the collection in “Beyond the Triple Helix” with this poem:

“thoughts escape via fingers and tongue to what they imagine are freedom and fortune.

driftwood still wet-
the sea unseen beyond
the vast tidal flat

Oct, 02, 2016

Anna Yin – Mississauga’s Inaugural Poet Laureate